All 9 contributions to the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading
Tuesday 22nd June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

If you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, before I talk about the Bill I wish to congratulate our parliamentary colleague the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on becoming the leader of his political party. I look forward to working with him in the period ahead. I also hope, as I am sure all colleagues do, that he has a very enjoyable week, not just with the introduction to becoming leader-elect of his party, but with the very big family event, a wedding, with which we all wish him well.

The United Kingdom is a family of nations and a Union of people. We share cultural, social and economic ties that bring us together, and make us more prosperous and secure. This Government believe in upholding the constitutional integrity of this great nation. Our Union is strongest when its institutions work well, work together and deliver real change on the issues that matter. In Northern Ireland, that means we need properly functioning institutions, both in Stormont and in Westminster.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I will make a bit of progress, then I will give way to colleagues.

In this centenary year for Northern Ireland, today marks exactly 100 years since the opening of the first Northern Ireland Parliament, at Belfast city hall, by King George V and Queen Mary. This momentous occasion saw locally elected politicians for the first time, following the first Northern Ireland general election, so it is fitting that this Bill has its Second Reading today, of all days. The Bill will strengthen the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland and serve to build the people of Northern Ireland’s faith in their locally elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. As this House knows, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were restored on 11 January 2020 when all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties came together under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I wish to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry) for their dedication and persistence, with others, in pursuing this deal, which was a great achievement after three years of impasse.

Prior to the restoration of the institutions, there had been no functioning Executive since January 2017. The absence of a devolved Government for such an extended period had a detrimental effect on the people of Northern Ireland. We saw the first strike in the 103-year history of the Royal College of Nursing over pay and staffing levels. There was ongoing action by teaching unions, and schools were not co-operating with the inspections in a dispute over teacher pay and workload. Essential infrastructure projects, including the York Street interchange and investment in waste water infrastructure, which was at capacity in many places across Northern Ireland, could not be progressed.

I think we can all agree that a pandemic with no Executive would have been unthinkable. I was pleased therefore to see the First Minister and Deputy First Minister nominated last Thursday, following this Government’s intensive engagement with the party leaders. However, the events of last week also highlight how important it is for everyone to deliver on their commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. It is disappointing to see that a way forward has not yet been found to implement all of the parts in full, which is why the Government have, for example, promised to deliver the balanced culture package that was agreed in NDNA through Parliament if it has not been taken forward by the Northern Ireland Executive by the end of September. I wish to reiterate and be very clear that our strong preference and desire is for this to be delivered in the appropriate place by the devolved institutions.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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I am sure that people back home will be amazed at the honeyed words of the Secretary of State. He talks about the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and the importance of the devolved Administration and devolved institutions, and yet he has interfered, and has just announced that he is prepared to interfere once again, in the institutions in Northern Ireland in a way in which no Secretary of State would dare to do in Scotland or Wales. Does he not accept that, for the Unionist community, this continual interference in the institutions at Stormont at the behest of Sinn Féin is not an annoyance but something that enrages people?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I have to say that I do not recognise the principle on which the right hon. Gentleman outlines his point. The reality is that the UK Government are the Government of the United Kingdom. The UK Government are a co-guarantor of and signatory to the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which the parties themselves negotiated and agreed. For example, the parties agreed between themselves the cultural package, which has had a lot of attention in the past week. We have a duty to ensure that, for all the people of Northern Ireland, these things are delivered in a way that is set out and agreed by the parties. I would much rather see that delivered by the institution itself. That is why we have given time and space for the institution to be able to move things forward. It is also right that, on a range of issues, including women’s healthcare, women in Northern Ireland have access to the same good-quality healthcare as women across the United Kingdom. I make no apologies for making sure that we the United Kingdom Government are representing people across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mark Harper Portrait Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He has referred to the position across the United Kingdom. Obviously, like him I am a strong Unionist, but there is one thing that I am concerned about. I heard this morning that the outgoing leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Mr Edwin Poots, has said in a number of media interviews that he has received assurances from the Secretary of State about changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. I know that that is now a story. Is the Secretary of State able to say anything to the House about whether that is true or not? Obviously, it will be of great interest to people not just across Northern Ireland but in constituencies such as mine, which have understandable problems with shipping goods across our United Kingdom.

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. There are two points. First, at the end of last week some of Edwin Poots’s colleagues commented about an announcement. Actually, the announcement was not really an announcement; it just confirmed that we had requested from the European Union an extension to the grace period, particularly for chilled meats from 1 July. I said on the Floor of this House last week, and I am very happy to reconfirm it today, that, as the Prime Minister himself has outlined, we do have issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. Like others across this House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has, quite rightly, outlined an example of those challenges for consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland. We are not going to allow that to continue. We want to get this corrected so that consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland can continue to function as a full and integral part of the United Kingdom.

As I said at this Dispatch Box just last Wednesday, and as the Prime Minister has said both publicly and at the Dispatch Box, we will do what we need to do to make sure that we deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, and we will take nothing off the table in that regard. Obviously, we will wait to hear from the EU, and we want to work this through with it with regard to the request we made last week.

The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill will deliver elements of the New Decade, New Approach deal relating to the governance of the Executive and within the competence of this House. That includes reforms to sustainability of institutions, updating the ministerial code of conduct and reforming the petition of concern mechanism. The UK Government and this Parliament have a duty to ensure good and functional governance in Northern Ireland. Today, through this Bill, we discharge that duty by bringing forward measures that will help continue to enhance the public’s confidence in the Northern Ireland institutions through increased transparency and improved governance arrangements. Those measures will ensure that the institutions will be more sustainable, more resilient and for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.

Let me turn briefly to the contents of the Bill. In short, we are legislating, first, to provide up to four six-week periods for the appointing of new Northern Ireland Ministers, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, after an election; secondly, to provide up to four six-week periods for the appointing of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister after they cease to hold office—for instance, in the case of one of them resigning; thirdly, to provide, if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister cease to hold office, that other Northern Ireland Ministers remain in office for a maximum period of 48 weeks after the First Minister and Deputy First Minister ceased to hold office, or for 24 weeks following any subsequent election, whichever is the shortest, unless the Secretary of State triggers the sufficient representation provisions.

The Bill will implement reforms to the petition of concern mechanism in the Assembly, including a new 14-day consideration period before a valid petition can be confirmed; it will require petitioners to come from more than one Northern Ireland political party; prevent the mechanism from being used for matters that concern the conduct of a Member and for Second Reading votes on a Bill; and it will update the code of conduct for Northern Ireland Ministers in accordance with a request from the Northern Ireland Executive and in line with the New Decade, New Approach transparency and accountability recommendations.

Mark Harper Portrait Mr Harper
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The Secretary of State has rightly set out the scope of the Bill. May I press him on another matter that was referred to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement? He knows that the prosecutions of soldiers as part of the legacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland is of great concern. I shall not press him on the content of the legislation, because I know that work is under way, but may I press him a little on the timing? Many Members are eager for that work to proceed at pace so that we can resolve these issues, and many are keen for that to happen before the House rises for the summer. Is the Secretary of State able to give the House any indication today of the Government’s latest thinking on when they may be able to bring that legislation—if, indeed, it is separate legislation—before the House?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My right hon. Friend asks a fair question—that is part of New Decade, New Approach, so it is a fair point. I outlined, I think in February or March this year, my ambition to bring something before the House before the summer recess; I still have that ambition, but I should also say clearly that we are determined to do what we have always said we would do, which is to engage with our partners—not only the Irish Government but the parties in Northern Ireland and victims’ groups, because whatever we bring forward has to have victims absolutely at its heart. We have to deal with information recovery and truth and reconciliation, because whatever we bring forward has to work properly for the people of Northern Ireland, so it is right that we take the time to do that properly and methodically, which I am looking forward to doing. We will do that and we are still absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on our manifesto pledge to the veterans community. I will touch on that a little more in a few moments.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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Will the Secretary of State explain very carefully for some people in this House who do not seem to understand that, if an amnesty is given to anybody—for example, if an amnesty is given to soldiers who maybe committed murder on the streets of Derry, Belfast or anywhere else—an amnesty would have to be given to everyone, including IRA members, Ulster Volunteer Force members and Ulster Defence Association members?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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As I said before, we want to ensure that we put forward a package that works for all of Northern Ireland and genuinely allows it a chance to move forward. One thing that we have heard consistently from civic society is a desire to move forward. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that whatever we do has to be balanced across the whole community. As I say, I will come back to that in separate legislation in due course—we are not dealing with legacy legislation today.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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Just so that no one is misled by the previous intervention, will the Secretary of State confirm that no one has sought an amnesty for soldiers? All that has been asked for is that soldiers who have already had cases investigated—some up to three times—should not be trailed through the courts again for political reasons by those who are attempting to rewrite the history of the troubles.

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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As I say, we are not dealing with legacy today, so I will resist the urge to go too much into that, but I will say that the right hon. Gentleman is correct in the sense that we have been clear that we are committed to ending the cycle of re-investigations. We also have to accept that, as we have all seen recently, the current situation is not serving anybody. It cannot be right that, as we saw in the Ballymurphy case, it has taken 50 years for people to get information. Equally, it is inappropriate and wrong to see people go through a cycle of investigations. We have committed to end that and we will do that.

Let me turn to the specifics of the Bill before the House. Clause 1 amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to extend the period of time available to appoint a First Minister and Deputy First Minister after the resignation of either or after the first meeting of the Assembly following an Assembly election. Currently, the period for ministerial appointments is only 14 days from the first meeting of the Assembly after an election, and seven days after the First Minister or Deputy First Minister ceases to hold office. The Bill will extend the period for filling ministerial offices to a six-week period that is automatically renewed—unless the Assembly resolves otherwise on a cross-community basis—for a maximum of three times, up to a total of 24 weeks.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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It will not have lost anyone’s attention that we are discussing the extension of the sustainability mechanisms at a time when there is huge instability in the Assembly, when we have had First Minister resignations and changes and multiple seven-day cliff edges potentially emerging. Can the Secretary of State take this opportunity to stress that all parties in Northern Ireland should act responsibly in relation to the institutions, not make any threats to collapse them, and should work to deliver on the core issues of health, education and jobs, on which people urgently need action over the coming months?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Our focus, for all of us, as I have outlined over the last week or two, should be on making sure that we have stable institutions that can deliver on issues such as health, education and infrastructure, among other things, for the people of Northern Ireland. That is what I believe the people of Northern Ireland want to see, and it is why I was so pleased that, to be fair, the parties in Northern Ireland were able to resolve this issue within three days and have stability, with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister having been nominated.

By extending those periods, the Bill will allow more time for discussions between the parties and for the Secretary of State to facilitate a resolution before they come under an election duty. It also allows for Northern Ireland Ministers to remain in post after an election until the end of the period for appointing new Ministers. That change will again allow for greater continuity in decision making.

Under clause 2, Ministers will no longer cease to hold office after the election of a new Assembly. It provides for up to a maximum of 24 weeks after an election or a maximum of 48 weeks since a functioning Executive was in place—whichever is the shorter—in which Ministers may continue to hold office, subject to those offices otherwise being filled or if a Minister is not returned as a Member of the Assembly. The measure will ensure that institutions become more sustainable and more resilient. Currently, the Secretary of State is required to propose a date for an Assembly election where the Assembly resolves to dissolve itself, or where the period for appointing Northern Ireland Ministers or a First Minister and Deputy First Minister expires without those offices being filled.

Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to certify or call an Assembly election at any point after the first six weeks in the period for filling ministerial offices if the Secretary of State considers that there is not sufficient representation among Ministers to secure cross-community confidence in the Assembly.

Clause 4 substitutes a revised ministerial code of conduct that sets out expectations for the behaviour of Ministers, including provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland civil service, public appointments and the use of official resources and information management. Those updates are in the reserved or excepted space and are unable to be progressed through the Assembly. The UK Government are bringing those changes forward at the request of the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the agreement of the Executive.

Clause 5 reforms the petition of concern mechanism to reduce its use and to return it to its intended purpose as set out under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—a safeguard to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully in the operation of the Northern Ireland institutions and are protected when the Assembly legislates, and to prevent one party from blocking measures or business. The mechanism, which was given effect in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, allows MLAs to lodge a petition against a matter that the Assembly is voting in, providing that they can gather at least 30 signatures.

A successful petition means that the relevant matter is to be passed on a cross-community basis rather than on a simple majority basis. The Bill will require the petitions to be signed and confirmed 14 days later by at least 30 MLAs from two or more political parties, which will prevent one party from being able to block measures or business that would otherwise have cross-community consensus. These specific changes and commitments from the Northern Ireland parties aim to reduce the use of the mechanism to the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort only, having exhausted every other available mechanism.

The Government are bringing forward those changes through Westminster legislation as they are excepted matters. Separate legislation seeking to make provision for legacy commitments made in the New Decade, New Approach deal—to go back to the comment made absolutely correctly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—will be introduced separately. This Bill will implement aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, which the parties agreed to in January 2020. The provisions in the Bill seek to reform the sustainability of the institutions, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition of concern mechanism.

We will always be steadfast in maintaining the importance of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. We are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government to progress the delivery of all the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

By introducing this Bill now, we are delivering on those promises, but it is ultimately up to the parties to come together. Both the Irish Government and the UK Government will continue to stand together and stand ready to support them, as we did in bringing about the package of measures under New Decade, New Approach. Until then, the Bill is a reminder that the UK Government will always uphold our responsibilities for political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland. I commend it to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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It is a great pleasure to respond to such a well-informed debate and I pay tribute to all the Members who have taken time to speak this afternoon. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) said, Members from across the House have spoken with real passion and experience.

I am very grateful for the support we have heard from all parties for the Second Reading of the Bill. I recognise that there are a number of issues that people will want to explore in Committee. I look forward to those debates and hope they can be as well informed as this debate has been.

I add my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on his election as leader of the DUP. I very much look forward to working with him in the months to come.

As we have heard, the Bill being debated today will implement aspects of the New Decade, New Approach deal, which the parties agreed to in January 2020. We will reform the sustainability of the institutions, updating the ministerial code of conduct and reforming the petition of concern mechanism. These measures were all agreed by the main political parties in Northern Ireland upon restoring the Executive. It was a pleasure to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), the former Secretary of State, who did so much to reach that agreement.

We heard from a number of Members in today’s debate who played a crucial role in securing that deal. I pass on my congratulations to all of them for getting there. We have heard many passionate speeches from all sides, and from all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland, about the importance of devolution. It was the achievement of the deal to restore devolution.

We have made good progress on the delivery of the commitments that the UK Government made under the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which helped to bring that about. We will continue to support the delivery of those commitments. I draw the House’s attention to a few examples beyond the scope of the Bill, such as our support for the resolution of the nurses’ pay dispute by securing an advanced drawdown of funding; the release of £556 million of the £2 billion-worth of funding agreed in the deal; the revision of the immigration rules governing how people in Northern Ireland bring their family members to the UK, which took effect from August 2020; the appointment of a Veterans Commissioner in September 2020; the launch of the programme for the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, supported by £1 million from the shared history fund; the establishment of an independent fiscal council; and regulations to bring Union flag flying days in line with guidance for the rest of the UK.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd referred to the Secretary of State’s meetings. He has been meeting regularly with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in the Executive. There have also been two formal meetings including the Irish Government over that time. Those will continue.

I thank everybody for the contributions we have heard. I will not be able to respond to all of them because I have been asked to keep my remarks to a reasonably short period of time, but I did want to respond to the point that the hon. Member for Pontypridd made about so-called caretaker Ministers, a point that was also reflected on by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).

As part of NDNA, Ministers will remain in office in a caretaker capacity to allow for greater continuity in decision making, but those Ministers will be required to act, as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) made very clear, within well-defined limits, including as set out in the ministerial code and in accordance with the requirement for an Executive Committee to consider any decisions that are significant, controversial and cross-cutting. The hon. Gentleman made the point well; in the case that the Executive Committee is not there, Ministers cannot go beyond their brief. As was also demonstrated by that exchange, there are important decisions that could be taken, which is a much better position than we saw during the period that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) described as a black hole in governance—during the absence of the devolved institutions. I am sure we can explore the point further in Committee, but there are clearly defined limits on the role of those Ministers.

On the issue of language, we heard many passionate points. This is not, as we all accept, part of the Bill before us today. The hon. Lady asked a fair question: why not, and why not now? I think there is a simple answer to that question, which we have heard a lot about in the debate today, and I think everyone actually agrees that this would be best dealt with in the devolved space. I have met both the Ulster Scots Agency and Conradh na Gaeilge in the last few weeks; apologies if my pronunciation is not right there. I have met some of the key bodies on both sides arguing for progress on the cultural issues, and what they are saying very clearly is that they want to see this delivered by the devolved institutions. We want to give the devolved institutions every chance to do that, and we do not therefore want to legislate on this issue at this time.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood
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I appreciate what the Minister says, and of course this would be better done in the Assembly, but I do not know where he has been, because I have heard very clearly today that the DUP will not support it going through the Assembly on a quick timeframe, so why not now—why wait?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I have made the point that we want to give every opportunity for that to happen. The Secretary of State has also made this clear, and he did so in a written ministerial statement. I accept the frustration and the anger that the hon. Gentleman expresses on behalf of many of his constituents, but there was a clear written ministerial statement that set out the approach we are taking, and if there is not progress by September, then we have agreed that this House would step in.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean asked a crucial question on this point, and I think it is a very important one about where we do this. The answer should be that we never want to be doing it and we never want to have to do it. The Government believe in empowering and supporting the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland and across the UK. That is why we are bringing forward this Bill to strengthen the stability of the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. We do not take lightly any decision to intervene in legislation for Northern Ireland, and would only ever do so on devolved issues as a last resort. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is incumbent on us to support the Executive and the Assembly to legislate for themselves. However, I am sure he would also agree that, as co-guarantors of the NDNA agreement, it is incumbent on us to deliver the package it promises, if necessary, to ensure that can be delivered. The point of the intervention was to get the devolved institutions restored and to get Ministers nominated so that we could have an Executive in place.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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I have a list the length of my arm of other issues contained in the New Decade, New Approach document that are not being delivered on. Why does the Minister feel that these cultural issues are a greater priority than dealing with the reforms in the health service and dealing with the waiting list of 350,000 in the health service? Why is he not stepping in to deal with that as a priority, rather than these cultural issues?

--- Later in debate ---
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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Actually, I very much welcome the fact that the Health Minister has set out the approach to dealing with those issues. As I have said, we have already provided some of the up-front funding to unblock some of the health issues that Northern Ireland was facing in the absence of the Executive, but of course there is more to do on that front.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Will the Minister give way?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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The hon. Gentleman, from whom I will take an intervention—he is always a very courteous intervener—has made the point very powerfully about the priorities of his constituents on these issues. These are all devolved issues that we want an Assembly and an Executive in place to deliver on.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The Minister is most generous in giving way, and I thank him for that. Does he accept that 100% of the people of Northern Ireland want the health issue sorted out, 100% of the people of Northern Ireland want education sorted out, 100% of the people want police recruited and in place, 100% of the people want the roads issue sorted out as well, and only 5% of those in Northern Ireland actually speak the Irish language? Put it in order of priority. The priorities are health, education and policing, not the Irish language.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I recognise the point the hon. Gentleman is making, but I think the issue is that these were the areas agreed in NDNA. They were hard-fought, and they were negotiated, as we have heard, very strenuously between the parties. No one got precisely what they wanted, but at the end of the day these were the compromises that were agreed and we need to move forward with them. It is crucial that the Executive are in place to deliver on those issues.

This Bill will help to deliver greater stability and transparency to governance in Northern Ireland.

Mark Harper Portrait Mr Harper
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will have to press on, I am afraid. I am under instructions, which my right hon. Friend will understand, from the Whips to get on.

We are looking forward to talking further about the NDNA agreement with the Irish Government during the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference later this week. I do want to commend this Bill to the House, and I do want to thank those from all sides of this House for the profound case we have heard for having strong devolved institutions in place. That is what all of us want to get on with, and this Bill will help to take that forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions Of Concern) Bill (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill:

Committal

(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 8 July 2021.

(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading

(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.

(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.

Other proceedings

(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Scott Mann.)

Question agreed to.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill (First sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Tuesday 29th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 29 June 2021 - (29 Jun 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
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Thank you very much. Minister, would you like to ask the first question?

Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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Q Thank you. It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr Stringer. This is a question for Daniel Holder. In the briefing note that your organisation prepared for the Second Reading of this Bill, you welcomed the fact that,

“the current bill will provide a level of legislative reform intended to return the Petition of Concern to its intended GFA purpose.”

Could you tell the Committee about the limitations with the current mechanism and how provisions within this Bill will return the petition of concern to its intended purpose, in your view?

Daniel Holder: If we look back at the intended purpose of the petition of concern, it was very much linked to a level of scrutiny of what would be objective rights and quality standards. Every time a petition of concern is tabled, unless there is a cross-community vote to the contrary, it was to be referred to a special committee, the Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements. This serves a similar function to the Joint Committee on Human Rights at Westminster in actually scrutinising provisions of a contested piece of legislation that has been referred to a petition of concern against standards that include the ECHR, but also the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. There is obviously a significant gap there, as the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights has not been put into place.

One of the problems, however, is that a committee has never been established as a result of a petition of concern. Instead, what has essentially happened is that the original intention of the petition of concern has been turned on its head somewhat. At times, it has actually been used not just for party-political purposes but to block equality of rights initiatives rather than as an equality of rights-based tool. Therefore, we do welcome the reform that is within both the New Decade, New Approach agreement and the Bill.

However, my recommendations to the Committee have identified one weakness, which is that essentially what is in the Bill will replicate what is in the current primary legislation regarding the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements. Unfortunately, to date that has not proved sufficient to ensure that standing orders are drafted in a way that ensures that the ad hoc committee is convened every time a petition of concern is tabled, as the Belfast agreement originally intended. That is one area I wanted to draw to the attention of the Committee, so that it can deal with that codification in the primary legislation to ensure that the commitment in the NDNA agreement to return to the original purpose of the Good Friday agreement is met.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. With regard to that second area, NDNA also committed to setting up a committee within the Assembly to look at the Bill of Rights and take that work forward. Are you following the work of that committee, and do you have any views as to how that is progressing?

Daniel Holder: Yes, we have given evidence twice to that committee—once in the capacity of the CAJ and secondly as co-conveners of the Equality Coalition, which is a network of equality and rights non-Governmental organisations that we co-run with UNISON. It has been extremely important that that committee is established, and it is progressing its work. We keep coming back to our evidence that really the Bill of Rights was supposed to be a safeguard to prevent the type of abuse of power, rights deficits and discriminatory decision making that characterised not only the old Stormont Parliament but patterns and practices that re-emerged and were instrumental in the collapse of the institutions in 2017.

So it is in some senses to us not surprising that safeguards that were envisaged within the agreement that have not been put into place have led to a situation whereby Stormont becomes unworkable and dysfunctional. I think it is only if these safeguards over the exercise of both Executive and legislative powers are properly put into place that the institutions should begin to function as they were originally intended to.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You recommended that MPs examine changes to address the St Andrews veto. Can you explain what that is and how often it has been used?

Daniel Holder: It is the case that since NDNA not a single petition of concern has been tabled. Its use has become, it appears now at least, politically untenable. There is a significant risk that the problems that were associated with the petition of concern will simply be displaced and picked up by the use of other veto-type mechanisms.

So there are two vetoes: one is the St Andrews veto, which is whereby any significant or controversial decision that a Minister has taken must be referred to the full Executive unless it is already within an agreed programme for government, but, of course, despite the draft being in NDNA, we do not have an agreed programme, so at the moment it means practically any decision.

We have managed to obtain under freedom of information the amount of times this veto was used in the first 11 months of the current mandate. It was used six times. On each occasion it was invoked by DUP Ministers. On the first three occasions it was used to block provision for early medical abortion services and engagement with women’s reproductive rights. On two other occasions, which were quite public, it was used, again by DUP Ministers to block proposals from the Health Minister for public health measures to contain the pandemic. On a final occasion it was used to block an SDLP proposal seeking an Executive position on the extension of the Brexit timeframe. Those six occasions are the same number of occasions that that particular veto was exercised during the entirety of the 2007 to 2011 mandate, so there is a significant risk of displacement now.

The second veto that we have noticed has been readily used is a provision in the ministerial code whereby the First and Deputy First Ministers both must agree on agenda items for the Executive, which in practice gives either a veto. Although we do not have a full list of the occasions it has been used—that has been withheld from the freedom of information requests that we submitted—we certainly know that it has been used. For example—as referenced in a UK Government report to the Council of Europe—it was used to block a timeframe for adopting the Irish and Ulster Scots strategies, despite them being legal requirements. It was used to block the draft budget from being on the agenda for, I think, around a month and a half of the Executive. Most recently, this month, the communities Minister has stated that particular veto was used 17 times to prevent legislation to close loopholes in welfare legislation being tabled for the Executive.

The Justice Minister has also referenced occasions where perhaps one of the two vetoes, we do not know strictly which one, was used to block for a period of time the Justice Bill being introduced into the Assembly that dealt with issues around gender-based violence. Indeed, the Health Minister has publicly stated that the gender veto was used to prevent, until this week, I think, legislation being taken forward on opt-out for organ donations. So, there is a real issue whereby we could deal with the petition of concern but be left with the same problem simply being displaced on to other veto mechanisms that are well outside what was originally intended by the Belfast Agreement, which was that such mechanisms would be safeguards scrutinised against rights and equalities standards, which would bring a degree of objectivity as to their use into decision making.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Given the equivalence that you see between the petition of concern mechanism and these other mechanisms in the Executive, why do you think that those reforms were not included as part of the NDNA deals? Obviously, that was something that all parties had a say in and the Irish and British Governments worked together on. Why do you think that equivalence was not delivered as part of that deal itself?

Daniel Holder: Of course, we were not in the room during the negotiations. It is possible that those who most used those vetoes perhaps resisted reforms to them. We don’t know that. But I think another factor in this is that these types of vetoes have not had the public profile that the petition of concern has had. When a petition of concern is tabled, at least it is done in full public sight on the Floor of the Assembly, whereas with the St Andrews veto and indeed the Executive agenda veto it is done within what is usually the secret world of Cabinet confidentiality of the Executive, although I think the frustrations as to the use of these particular vetoes have spilled over in the last year, which is why a lot more information about them is in the public domain.

Also, while Ministers have the St Andrews veto, the concepts of significant and controversial are deeply subjective, of course these are ministerial decisions that are still subject to judicial review. They have to be compatible with convention rights. If the Bill of Rights was in place, they would need to be compatible with the provisions of the Bill of Rights. For example, the veto over public health measures to contain the pandemic and the context in which it was exercised, we consider would probably have been unlawful if the Bill of Rights had been in place with the right to the highest sustainable standard of health integrated within it.

There have been other occasions whereby in judicial proceedings the use of these vetoes have been drawn out, but quite often they occur in secret, so a lot less is known about them.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. Professor Tonge, in your analysis of the 2017 and 2019 elections, you identified the restoration of the Assembly and its institutions as one of the key issues facing Northern Ireland at both elections. How important do you perceive it to be for the state of politics in Northern Ireland that the Executive and the Assembly have been restored and that the Assembly is again able to legislate for Northern Ireland?

Professor Tonge: I think it is hugely important, because in successive surveys that we have done—I have directed the last four Economic and Social Research Council Northern Ireland election surveys—every time we have asked the question, “What is your preferred mode of governance?”, direct rule has never come above 15% as a preferred option. Devolved power sharing is overwhelmingly a preferred option that comes back from each of those surveys—never larger, it should be said, than in 2019, which might be seen as remarkable given the hiatus in devolution from January 2017 until just after the election in December 2019. So the public have never lost faith with devolved power sharing. They have continued to support it.

Moreover, there were substantial majorities, both in the main communities and among those who say they are neither Unionist nor nationalist, in favour of the principles of devolved power sharing, including that key decisions should be taken by concurrent majorities among Unionist and nationalist representatives. So I think you would also conclude from the 2019 election that part of the reason that DUP and Sinn Féin lost support was that they were being blamed for the absence of devolution.

When we asked, “What is the most important issue at this election?”, restoration of the Assembly was listed fourth. There were others that were higher—Brexit and the crisis in the health service pre-covid, which of course was a derivative of the absence of devolution—but restoration of the Assembly came fourth in terms of the importance of issues, and was above that among those who said they were neither Unionist nor nationalist. So clearly it is of seismic importance to keep the devolved power sharing show on the road, and that is why I endorse the vast bulk, but not everything, of what is in this Bill.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q In terms of what you have seen since then with the restoration of power sharing—obviously, the pandemic has meant that we have been living through extraordinary times; I think it is unimaginable what it would have been like to try and deal with it without the Executive in place—have you done any further research on the perceptions of the public of the period of government that we have seen?

Professor Tonge: No, because I run the general election surveys in Northern Ireland, but the Northern Ireland life and times survey has subsequently shown continuing support for devolved power sharing. That is an annual survey run by Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, and it again showed substantial support for devolved power sharing. That survey work is limited in the sense that it does not ask what we should do about reforms of power sharing. We have just heard about petitions of concern. I would endorse a lot of what Daniel said in respect of that.

The explanatory notes to the Bill talk about the petition of concern mechanism having departed from its intended purpose,

“which was to ensure that all sections of the community are protected”.

I agree, but I think petitions of concern are the least important aspect of the vetoes that often frustrate the public in Northern Ireland. I am not saying that they are museum pieces, but I think petitions of concern were a product of their time. They were a big feature of the Assembly from 2011 to 2016, with 115 petitions of concern tabled, albeit across only 14 Bills. The petitions of concern in which the DUP was involved were solo runs in the vast bulk of cases—82 out of 86 petitions of concern that the DUP signed.

However, given the reduction in size of the Assembly from 108 to 90 Members in 2016-17, and given the fact that I do not think it is conceivable that any party will get to 30 Assembly seats in the near future, the legislation before us is to some extent closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. To be honest, much as I welcome what is in the Bill in terms of the 14-day consideration before a petition of concern is tabled and the fact that there has to be two or more parties, petitions of concern are less of an issue than the forms of veto that frustrate the public, as Daniel emphasised in his evidence.

One other point I would like to make about petitions of concern is that if they are not about just a single section of the community but are about protecting all the community, is there not a case for a petition of concern to have to be signed by two parties that are not from the same section of community? Why does it not have to be signed by two parties from different sections of the community—nationalists and others, or Unionists and others, or Unionists and nationalists? That would really turn petitions of concern from communal protection into what they were intended for, which was to protect all sections of the community. That does not appear in the Bill.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Bill does not do anything to stop that. It requires 30 Members from more than one party, so in theory could you not have various different parties getting together to put those forward, given the way the Bill is drafted?

Professor Tonge: That is true, but there is nothing to prohibit, for example, the DUP and UUP, or on the other side Sinn Féin and the SDLP, combining to table a petition of concern, which keeps that sense of communal politics. You might think that is perfectly legitimate—that, frankly, you have to have communal protection—but the Good Friday agreement and the explanatory notes to the Bill state that petitions of concern are

“to ensure that all sections of the community are protected”.

You would still be permitting communal protection, and perhaps specifically communal protection, by allowing two parties from the same side—I use those terms advisedly, obviously—to table a petition of concern.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Sure, but I would take it as all sections of the community including those communities, but not exclusive to those communities, therefore allowing any two parties to come together, or indeed Members from some parties and none. That addresses that point. I see where you are coming from. I think you have already answered my supplementary questions in the extra information you provided on petitions of concern, so I am happy to hand over to the Opposition.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you, Minister. Before I move on to the official Opposition, I remind members of the Committee of the point I made before we started—that tea and coffee cannot be consumed during Committee hearings.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I will go to the Minister to ask the first questions.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, Mr Stringer, and it is good to see you again, Lilah. You were working as a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during the period when the Executive was not functioning, from 2019 to 2020. Can you give us your views on the real-life impact that that situation had on Northern Ireland’s citizens, and the importance of putting in place some mechanisms to make sure that it does not happen again?

Lilah Howson-Smith: Sure. I think that the most obvious impact was on public services delivery. You obviously had a situation where the civil service could authorise certain decisions, up to quite a low threshold, and authorise certain amounts of spending, but you basically had a situation where no new policy or structures could be pursued.

The way in which that impacted public services was basically most explicitly on the health service, with incredibly long waiting lists, but the impact also extended into education. We visited a number of schools, both at primary and secondary level, where there was just a sense of overall stasis. I think there was also a kind of frustration more widely about infrastructure issues, even extending to Belfast City Council, who we spoke to; they talked about issues around sewage that just had not been dealt with, because of the absence of Ministers.

So, I think it affected all aspects of life. It was very much the first thing that came up in all our meetings with civil society, business and border organisations throughout our time in Northern Ireland, before power sharing was restored.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q On Second Reading, Julian Smith stated that the Bill provides for a number of important and practical measures. What do you think are the practical benefits of this legislation?

Lilah Howson-Smith: Particularly with regard to the measures around elections and the sustainability measures, as they were characterised in the original agreement, I think they give the Executive and Ministers space and time to resolve various issues around power sharing, in advance of any need to bring forward an election.

As it is, at the current moment in time there is very little capacity for Ministers to work through even quite basic issues, in terms of policy programmes, in advance of an obligation falling on the Secretary of State to bring forward an election. So, I think the intention was specifically to give greater space and time for them to resolve those policy issues and personnel issues, to build some relationships in advance of an immediate decision by the Secretary of State to hold an election.

I also think that the measures around the petition of concern were specifically about building greater trust between the parties, in terms of the mechanics of policy making, as some of the other witnesses have spoken about. There was obviously a sense in which the petition of concern had been used as a veto or blocking measure by particular parties. While the new measures are maybe not as extensive as some of the parties wanted during the negotiations, the intention clearly is that the petition of concern once again becomes a measure of last resort, restored to its original purpose as it was conceived in the Good Friday agreement, rather than being a kind of blocking mechanism on moral or social issues, or even party political issues, such as welfare.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You just referred to the negotiations; obviously, they were pretty intense and, as you say, some of the parties pushed for things that they did not necessarily get. Was the issue of the border executive vetoes and other issues discussed in those negotiations? Did you have a clear view as to whether it would be acceptable to the parties to change that?

Lilah Howson-Smith: Of the measures introduced as part of the Bill, the petition of concern measures were the most discussed in the talks. I do not think they were necessarily controversial, but there was a disagreement or divergence of views between the parties on how far they wanted to go on that. It was not necessarily about any single party having a strong view on how they conceived the petition of concern being used in future, but there was a broader acknowledgment that the petition of concern had been used too much in the past, there was a need to reduce its use and therefore a need to signal that as part of the agreement.

Where the agreement landed and where the Bill is representative of that agreement is roughly where there was the most agreement between the parties, in that it could not be used on Second Reading votes and on standards motions, and that there is now a 14-day cooling-off period. That was all about basically making parties and individual MLAs consider whether it was an appropriate use of the petition of concern and whether it was the best way to do policy making, in terms of building credibility and trust between the parties.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Government have been criticised by the Opposition for treating Northern Ireland as an afterthought. Would you agree with that claim? Does it reflect your experience in Government?

Lilah Howson-Smith: Not at all. Definitely Julian and I worked alongside all the officials in the Northern Ireland Office—worked extremely hard to restore the institutions. I frequently reflect that, in the absence of an Executive, the covid pandemic and the public health crisis that has happened since is unthinkable. It is really difficult to think how the civil service in Northern Ireland would have been able to handle that with the limited powers it had at that time. That is not a reflection on their abilities, but the absence of ministerial decision making would have made it unthinkable. The fact that those institutions were restored in advance of the covid pandemic represents the fact that the Government took that extremely seriously, and that went right up to the Prime Minister.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Finally, as I want to give Members the opportunity to ask questions, you previously worked in the Chief Whip’s Office before coming to the Northern Ireland Office. What do you think are the benefits to introducing this legislation on non-emergency timings? Can you recall when we last had non-emergency legislation for Northern Ireland?

Lilah Howson-Smith: It is exactly the point that you make in your question. We have had to rush bits of Northern Ireland-related legislation through, in part because of the absence of power sharing. You have the Executive formation legislation, which was always done on an incredibly tight timescale. I think rightly, some of the Northern Ireland parties objected to that, on the basis that perhaps there was not adequate scrutiny. More recent bits of legislation around victims’ payments and abortion, which we were involved in implementing, were also incredible difficult to implement because there was not broad consensus or buy-in from the other parties through a longer-term legislative process.

There is definitely an advantage to taking this bit of legislation through in slightly slower time, so that we can have discussions like this where we are able to discuss where things are missing or not clear, or can be clarified through implementation.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Lilah, from your experience of the negotiations, was it envisaged that there would be ambiguity on what constituted sufficient cross-community representation in a caretaker Executive?

Lilah Howson-Smith: I understand that perhaps there is not total clarity about what that means. I think the point was that it was supposed to be agreed by the Executive once the legislation was taken forward by Westminster. The fact that the legislation is being taken forward by Westminster reflects the fact that amendments have to be made to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and that this part falls within a reserved area, rather than the fact that there will not be an active process, I assume, with the Executive to discuss what this means in reality. I think there was tacit or implicit agreement between all the parties that there would clearly need to be clarity around that, and that there would be checks and balances on the fact that Ministers obviously would not be able to take decisions in a caretaker capacity that went beyond the normal remit of perhaps the types of decision that might be taken during a purdah period.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill (Second sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Tuesday 29th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 29 June 2021 - (29 Jun 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Colleagues, it is over to you to start the questioning.

Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q33 Sir Jonathan, it is very good to see you again. You were permanent secretary from 2014 to 2020, as we have heard, and that means you were at the heart of the Northern Ireland Office both before and during the period of the collapse of the Executive. In your view, how was the Northern Ireland civil service most hindered by the lack of ministerial accountability when the Executive was not functioning?

Sir Jonathan Stephens: Fundamentally, there were no Ministers available to give direction and take critical decisions. The Northern Ireland civil service was left in a wholly unprecedented situation, which I know from talking to many of them they found intensely challenging and was not at all what they sought. Civil servants are trained to work for and support the Government of the day and Ministers and provide their advice to Ministers, who take decisions that civil servants then implement. Our colleagues in the Northern Ireland civil service were left trying to maintain the machinery of Government and trying to provide public services in the absence of ministerial decisions, and they found that increasingly uncomfortable as time went on.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q How far do you feel this Bill goes to safeguard Executive stability and provide the civil service with the accountability mechanisms they require? Given some of the discussions we have had to date, both in the case of encouraging the Executive to stay together and to stay in place, but also in the case where you might have a First and Deputy First Minister step down and caretaker Ministers, as they have been described, remaining in place, how far do you feel the Bill creates the clarity needed for them to be able to carry out their role?

Sir Jonathan Stephens: I think it does a number of important things. First, it fills in what you might think of as a number of loopholes in the original design of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which simply did not contemplate the sort of situation in which we found ourselves in 2016.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it provides time and space for the Executive or for party leaders to resolve fundamental differences, if and when they arise. As you will know, the previous scheme provided only for periods of either seven or 14 days for the formation of the Executive and the appointment of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. We went through those early deadlines very quickly indeed in 2016. We were left in the unprecedented situation of having no means of restoring the Executive without fresh legislation at Westminster.

It is important to say that these changes provide a number of mechanisms that will help in the resolution of fundamental differences, if they arise again. They provide greater assurance for continuity of decision making, but, of course, nothing is perfect. I have always thought that if there is absolute determination to bring about the collapse of the institutions, or such a deep and fundamental breakdown in trust between the parties that they cannot be restored, then no amount of clever constitutional provisions will get over such a fundamental breakdown.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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Q It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is good to see you, Jonathan. I spent many long hours over that three-year period in your company, and thankfully we got there in the end.

Do you think it is fair to say that the New Decade, New Approach agreement was largely imposed by the two Governments at a very opportune moment in the political process? The three largest parties had had a difficult election. We had a nurses’ strike and then the two Governments struck, and got Stormont back up and running again. That goes to the heart of your point that if we do not have political parties willing to work the system and work together, no clever constitutional construct can stop them collapsing it. Do you think there is more that we could have done as part of those discussions? I am particularly thinking about the way in which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are appointed.

Sir Jonathan Stephens: I would not use the word “imposed” because, at the end of the day, it was the decision of all the main parties in Northern Ireland to re-form the Executive. Yes, it was on the basis of the proposals put forward in New Decade, New Approach, but each party was free to take its own decision on that. From my point of view, when the document was published there was no certainty as to how parties would react and whether it would provide a basis for forming the Executive. We very much hoped so, but there was no certainty.

It reflected extensive discussions, of which a number of people on the Committee will have close memories, over many years, but most recently over the period of months from the calling together of the most recent session of talks, following the tragic murder of Lyra McKee. Again, there was very strong input from the parties. Although the proposals were the proposals from the Governments, they reflected very considerably the input of the parties. They were our best judgment as to where agreement lay.

On the First and Deputy First Ministers, I am conscious that parties have a number of different views on that. There are a number of parties that think that the original arrangement under the Good Friday agreement for the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers on the basis of cross-community consent should not have been changed after the St Andrews agreement. Other parties who were critical of the St Andrews agreement formed and participated in devolved government on the basis of that.

The Good Friday agreement was now more than 20 years ago. It was designed with one situation and set of scenarios in mind. As ever, the world moves on and change comes. It is coming in Northern Ireland, and there will come a time when it will be right to look at some of the fundamental arrangements within that agreement and consider whether they still best serve the people of Northern Ireland and adequately reflect the current situation in Northern Ireland. However, that would be quite a major task to undertake, with possible renegotiation of key aspects of the agreement. It is not a task that, personally, I think is quite right for now.

--- Later in debate ---
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much, Sir David, for your chairmanship. Sir Jonathan, you were permanent secretary at a time when, because of the political situation and the absence of an Executive, serious thought had to be given to the possibility of direct rule. Do you agree that we are in a much better situation to be legislating for a deal, rather than agreeing and implementing policy directly for Northern Ireland, and could you expand for the Committee on some of the risks and challenges that we would have faced had we not been able to get the NDNA deal in place?

Sir Jonathan Stephens: Without the deal in place, although of course at the time we had no awareness that covid was just around the corner, it is absolutely inconceivable that Northern Ireland civil servants without ministerial direction could have responded to the covid crisis. I think it would have driven direct rule inevitably. Much of my career in the Northern Ireland Office has been about trying to find the basis on which devolution can be restored and leaders from within Northern Ireland can take decisions for Northern Ireland. I believe that that is a far better system of government for Northern Ireland, allowing Northern Ireland’s unique interests and concerns to be reflected by its own politicians and leaders.

Of course, over many years in the Northern Ireland Office I experienced direct rule, and direct rule Ministers from Westminster made the best of trying to take decisions for Northern Ireland, but I know they felt deeply uncomfortable at times taking decisions for a part of the UK from which they were not elected and where they did not reflect the local community. I do not think that I ever saw a Minister who did not believe that local politicians should be taking decisions for local matters in Northern Ireland.

The concern always was that, once direct rule were reinstituted, if it ever were, it would be enormously difficult and time-consuming to restore agreed institutions again. That would mean that there were real questions about the nature of Northern Ireland, how its society was reflected in its Government, and I think that would also be very bad for Northern Ireland. Although we did not know it at the time, it was incredibly fortunate timing that the agreement was reached just in time before covid hit, and meant that Northern Ireland was trying to respond to that crisis but with its own leaders and politicians, conscious of its own challenges and unique characteristics.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Sir Jonathan, were there any final remarks you wanted to make before we finish your evidence session and wish everyone well?

Sir Jonathan Stephens: No, thank you.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

If there are no further questions, I will bring in the Minister again.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It is good to see you, Emma. As a former Minister within the Executive, and having worked as a special adviser, could you speak to the need for a ministerial code of conduct, and how you believe that could help to strengthen public confidence in elected representatives? I recognise that, with the changes that the Bill enshrines to the ministerial code of conduct, the Northern Ireland Office is acting as agents on behalf of what was already agreed within the Executive. Can you speak a bit to the process that has been gone through in looking at the ministerial code within the First Minister’s and Deputy First Minister’s office?

Emma Little-Pengelly: Over the years, there has been some frustration about what some may perceive to be breaches of the ministerial code, and a lack of action against those. I think that the proposed changes are welcome, in that they really try to tighten up some of those provisions in relation to how they apply, but ultimately this comes down to two different issues, and I think this applies to all of the provisions in the Bill. These changes are designed to try to encourage better behaviour. For example, when you look at the move from seven days after a resignation to call an election to the rolling process of six weeks and six weeks, that is obviously something that was pushed for to try to encourage people to get around a table, with a series of deadlines to try to encourage a more structured process, I think to focus minds, and also to allow other people to come in and make their representations very clear to the parties that they want the Northern Ireland Assembly to continue, and about the issues that are important to them, as opposed to—as I have said—a tactical resignation.

However, ultimately, as some of the other witnesses have said, this will work only if there is a willingness for people to agree. We all have our issues that we feel very strongly about, and we will not always find consensus on those issues. Some of the people around the table will have been part of coalition Governments before. Coalition Government is frustrating: you will not always find agreement on the way forward, and therefore those issues cannot be progressed. Ultimately, it is about the willingness of people to compromise—to get together to try to find a solution that appeals to everybody across the community. If we try to get into a space where there are only solutions that appeal to the majority, to the exclusion of a significant minority or to the exclusion of a community in Northern Ireland, we would be in a very difficult space in terms of stability, not only of the institutions but of Northern Ireland. I think those who worked on the Belfast agreement and those who worked on the St Andrews agreement recognised that and saw the value in having those types of safeguards to ensure maximum inclusion, because once we go down the route of—for example—removing the safeguards of petition of concern and consensus decision making and moving towards majority decision making, there is the risk of exclusion, and I do not think that is good for people, certainly not on the key decisions. I think it is all about balance.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have heard evidence from various witnesses and various speeches on Second Reading about the fact that many of these issues and, indeed, some of the issues beyond the scope of this Bill were hard negotiated on all sides. I wonder if you agree with what we have heard in some of the evidence earlier: what they have described as other vetoes, but I think you might describe as some of the balance within the process of working together in the Executive, would not have been signed up to by all the parties in NDNA if it had sought to go further on that front.

Emma Little-Pengelly: Absolutely. When you look back over the 20 years of the operation of these mechanisms, they were there to build trust and confidence in all of the parties across all of the communities to be part of the institutions in Northern Ireland. That is why I highlight the difference between what has happened in more recent elections, where we now have a number of quite significant minorities, and what had happened for the majority of that period of time, which is that there was a Unionist majority. I think that those who drafted these documents and those, including myself, who have worked on this over the years recognised that this was not a majority Government situation in which Unionists, when they were in the majority, simply got everything they wanted and others got nothing.

That is why there needs to be, I suppose, better reflection about why these provisions are there, and the dangers of simply dismissing them. Rather than people jumping up and down and saying, “We are really angry because you are vetoing what we want”, they should sit back and reflect and say, “Look, there is clearly not consensus for this proposal. How do we find a consensus way forward? How do we look at getting a balance within what is happening and try to find a way forward that includes the maximum number of people?” You will never get absolutely everybody on board, and we recognise that, but we have been through really difficult situations before, such as the devolution of policing and justice and trying to work through a programme for government. We have to remember that the parties in Northern Ireland are not just very different constitutionally speaking, but they are very different in that they come from across the political spectrum, from left to right and all things in between. Any coalition Government with parties that are quite diametrically different in political ideologies will always be challenging. That is the challenge that we have; we have got through it in previous years. But we only get through it by getting round a table and finding the consensus way forward, not by majoritarily forcing other people, through the removal of the veto’s protections and safeguards.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q A very warm welcome to Emma. I will ask a two-part question. The first part is this: would Emma recognise that the effect of a petition of concern, or the veto as such, is that in effect it works for those parties or that part of the community that are perhaps most comfortable with the status quo, and it probably frustrates those parties that have a desire to see change in society?

Perhaps as an example of that, could Emma just reflect on the fact that, to my knowledge, since the Assembly was created in 1999 there has been no instance whatever of it legislating successfully at all in the human rights or equalities sphere? That has never happened and it has always fallen to Westminster to address those issues.

Emma Little-Pengelly: In terms of the provisions, I am not sure that if you look back at how the petition of concern operated from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement onwards—so, from 1998—what you will see would back up your analysis that the petition of concern is used mainly by one particular side of the community.

I say that for this reason. If you look at the bare figures, it does look as if it has been used much more, of course, by the Unionist-designated bloc than by the nationalist-designated bloc. However, that really only changed quite recently, in terms of the Democratic Unionist party obtaining 30 seats, which was the threshold in terms of signing the petition of concern. Prior to that, by default no party had over 30 seats. Therefore, despite the fact that it was not explicit within the petition of concern, the way that the petition of concern practically operated was that you required more than one party to agree with it, and that was including within designations.

I think that what you see, for example within the nationalist designation, is that you do not have and you never had the ability of one party to sign a petition of concern. Therefore, I would suggest that to try to get 30 signatures within that designation on policy issues is much more challenging, because of course you will have significant policy differences between those two parties. However, when the DUP obtained 30 seats or votes in the election, that of course made it much easier to use the petition of concern, and I think that is when some of the issues and concerns arose.

Also, when you look, Dr Farry, at the types of issues for which the petition of concern has been used, you will see that a significant number of those petitions of concern were used, for example, in relation to welfare reform legislation. Again, I think it is important to look at the nature of this issue. For example, it was not the case that the Unionist bloc were not sympathetic to the arguments around welfare reform and that we are not sympathetic to, for example, the proposed welfare mitigations; in fact, I think the opposite is true and that people were very sympathetic. But the concern around that issue lay fundamentally with financial aspects of it.

As we know, with welfare reform happening in Westminster, that had a direct impact in relation to what was happening in Northern Ireland. We were not going to get the hundreds of millions of pounds that would have been required to do the mitigations put forward by a series of amendments by other parties. So, the consideration there in terms of the use of the petition of concern was around this argument: “Look, if this passed in the Assembly, or if these legislative changes are proposed without consensus”—and there was no consensus on those amendments—“there would be a cost to the Northern Ireland Executive of hundreds of millions of pounds of additional money, which would have to be found from the block grant”.

Now, if you look back at that time, you had a DUP Finance Minister, so of course they would have been very attuned to what the concerns were then. But that is a decision that is often used to say that this is a misuse of the petition of concern. In fact, if it had not been used, those hundreds of millions of pounds would have had to be found from across other Departments. Of course, it did include human rights and equality issues because it would have meant, for example, top-slicing or taking funding away from the health service at that time, before it had been reformed, when it required even more money, never mind a top-slicing. It would undoubtedly have required other programmes to stop completely, but without any analysis by the Assembly of what the impact of those changes would have been.

In my view, a decision was taken that it was the responsible thing to do to use the petition of concern in that way to prevent the Assembly from voting on something that was going to cost hundreds of millions of pounds across Departments and have a massive impact on the everyday lives of individuals. Of course, as you know, having been a Minister in the Government, these things are all about balance, but they are also about responsibility and trying to assess the best way to do those things by talking them through and by consensus, not by forcing amendments through where there is clearly no consensus behind them, for example.

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None Portrait The Chair
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If there are no other questions from colleagues, I call the Minister.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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Q Thank you, Sir David. It is a pleasure to see you again, Mark, as a much-valued former colleague in the Commons whom I enjoyed engaging with over many years. It is good to see you back.

You have talked about the importance of the Good Friday agreement institutions. I absolutely recognise that. Do you accept that, since the NDNA deal was reached, we have seen the restoration of devolution? We have seen meetings of the British Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. We have seen those institutions functioning. It required an agreement, as you say, with the input of both the British and the Irish Governments and all five parties to reach it.

I appreciate there are aspects of the Bill that you and your party might feel ought to be different, and aspects of the St Andrews agreement architecture that you may not like. Do you accept, however, that in order to get the devolved institutions restored and the institutions of the Good Friday agreement itself properly functioning, we needed to get the buy-in of all five parties and therefore reach a deal that was acceptable to all of them?

Mark Durkan: Yes, I do. I said that I recognised that NDNA was an agreement by all the parties and it was the price that had to be paid for getting the institutions restored. I am glad that it is the case, too, as you say, Minister, that it is not just the Assembly and the Executive who have been operating; obviously, this week we had the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and other things, and I am very glad of that.

I am at a loss to understand why there was a decade when the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference did not meet. I think that the two Governments gave a very bad example as the supposed co-guarantors of the agreement. The one bit of the agreement that falls particularly to them was not being honoured. The Governments were not always in the strongest place by appearing to criticise either or both Sinn Féin and the DUP for the failure to restore the Assembly for three years, in circumstances where the two Governments had failed in their responsibilities.

Yes, I recognise the limitations in the NDNA. The problem is that some of those limitations are being translated into statute here. The promise is that this legislation is there to give stability and sustainability, but rather than blocking instability, there is a danger that it locks in a sort of zombie Executive and creates difficulties between parties, as well as creating difficulties in which the Secretary of State can be implicated. I think that the more we get into those sorts of difficulties, the harder things are.

This Bill does not rescue us from the sorts of absurdities that might emerge with possible election results at the next Assembly election. With a bit of speculation as to the different strengths of different parties, you could have very serious difficulties trying to appoint the First Minster and Deputy First Minister, as provided for in the St Andrews agreement, due to the random nature of the electoral results in terms of the number of Assembly seats. Those seats determine who has the prescribed right to nominate the First Minister and who has the prescribed right to nominate the Deputy First Minister. It becomes a real problem, and that will be a problem that discolours a lot of the election debate. It is going to bring people into all sorts of difficulties due to technical voting, tribalistic voting and all sorts of other things. We should be free of that. We should be trying to correct the St Andrews damage there, and I make no apology for that.

I think that proposed new paragraphs (e), (f) and (l), set out in clause 4(1), provide useful additions to the ministerial code in relation to good community relations and equality of opportunity, and also in relation to public appointments, civil service appointments and the code of conduct for special advisers. Those are useful additions, although I do not know whether there is a particular reason why some of the original terms of the code of conduct are now being omitted. For instance, one requires Ministers at all times to

“ensure all reasonable requests for information from the Assembly, users of services and individual citizens are complied with; and that Departments and their staff conduct their dealings with the public in an open and responsible way”.

That seems to have been omitted for the first time, and I do not know why.

Similarly, there are references elsewhere in the original version to users of services, but there is now no reference to users of services in the ministerial code of conduct. Even some of the opening language in the original version has been changed. It had required Ministers

“to observe the highest standards of propriety and regularity involving impartiality, integrity and objectivity in relationship to the stewardship of public funds”.

The opening language in the new version is arguably weaker. I am not aware of which parties either argued for or agreed that weakening of language.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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Q I must say that most of the evidence we have heard to date—this is certainly true of the submissions I have received from the parties individually—sees this as a strengthening of the ministerial code. It is the case that some aspects of the Spad code and the ministerial code would sit with the Assembly to manage. What we are seeking to do here is correct those bits of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in relation to the ministerial code, in line with the agreement that was reached by the Executive and signed off by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.

Overall, this should be a strengthening of the ministerial code, alongside some of the other mechanisms to enhance the stability of the Executive. This is about trying to support them. I would agree with your evidence and that of the former permanent secretary, but what we all want to see is good will from all parties to keep the Executive fully functioning and to avoid a situation in which these mechanisms are required. It is very important that we see that.

With regard to the possibility of what you called a zombie Executive—the Opposition talked about caretaker Ministers—do you accept, given the experience that we had during the long period of the absence of the Executive, with civil servants really being put in an impossible position, that it is useful during any potential period of interregnum to have a Minister in place who is able to take decisions within their departmental remit, to allow for some accountability within that, on the basis of the programme for government on which they were originally put in place? That would allow for continuity of departmental decisions and give some cover to their civil servants in a future period in which we might be without a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Mark Durkan: I take that point, Minister, but you said “some cover”. Given that the decisions are not meant to be on matters that are significant or controversial, some cover might be quite limited. Some of the difficulties and frustrations that the civil servants had in the previous period of abeyance could equally apply, but they would have Ministers who are not at full power or status and who may not have the benefit of actually operating inside an actual Executive, in those terms. It will be a pretty limp-along situation. It will be a sort of twilight zone, both politically and administratively.

I know you will say that, with the roll-over periods and things like that, there are options for the Assembly, and that if the position becomes completely unsustainable, in terms of cross-community support, there is the power for the Secretary of State to intervene to call an election. However, I think we need to recognise that we are providing for a series of episodic crises and anomalies that can happen under this legislation. In Northern Ireland, people have a habit of being able to conjure up all sorts of problems and interpretive misapplications of provisions to create particular problems. We have seen that previously in relation to provisions of the agreement or in subsequent legislation. As I say, I do not expect that there could ever be perfection in a Bill like this, because there is a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, and people keep coming up against some of the same problems, no matter how many patches or solutions we come up with.

However, I think we need to recognise that this imperfection means that it probably will not be very long after the next Assembly election until you will be looking at possibly more remedial legislation to deal with the probably untenable situation that might exist around the St Andrews provisions for the appointment of First Ministers. I think it would be better to correct that now. I think it is in all parties’ interests that that is corrected, in terms of equalising the title of the offices of First and Deputy First Ministers, and also restoring the joint election by the Assembly, and maybe relying not only on parallel consent but on other measures of cross-community support. I think that would safeguard the atmosphere around the election debate and would safeguard the choices of the public from being pulled into all sorts of tactical voting considerations owing to a pretty tribalistic agenda around the totemic significance, supposedly, of the title of First Minister, which should not be a singular title.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Mark, even though I dare say that the Minister wants to continue the questioning, we cannot; you have, in fact, used up the 15 minutes we gained, and we are due to finish hearing your evidence at 4 o’clock. We thank you very much indeed for the time you spent with us this afternoon. I know I speak for everyone when I say that I wish you well.

Mark Durkan: Thank you, Sir David.

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Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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Q Alex, I hope you do not mind, but the hon. Member for Belfast South asked you about the petition of concern and some of the equality and human rights aspects. Leaving aside the petition of concern, if legislation was passing through the Assembly, and somebody raised an issue to do with the declaration that it is compatible with human rights and equality legislation, how would you deal with that, procedurally? If someone raises the concern that the declaration on the face of the Bill is erroneous, do you have a process that you can use, or can the Office of the Legislative Counsel look at it?

Alex Maskey: First of all, as you know, the Speaker has the role of verifying or confirming whether a Bill is competent in the first instance, before it is introduced. Once it is introduced, I would refer that to the Human Rights Commission. The Assembly also has the right, which was exercised recently, to vote to make sure we do refer something; it is a bit of an additional belt-and-braces provision. The Assembly can vote to refer a Bill or a measure to the Human Rights Commission at the outset, so it would always be referred in the first instance to the legal team, who would look at it from a perspective of rights, as well as considering all other matters of competence. Of course, additionally, we then refer it to the Human Rights Commission. The provisions are there, and they are acted on in each and every case.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It is good to see you and your team again, Mr Speaker. As Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, you will be better placed than most to appreciate the importance of having the Assembly up and running and legislating again after three years of absence. In your opinion, overall, does the Bill safeguard the institutions in Northern Ireland, and support them in working collectively for the benefit of the people whom they are there to represent?

Alex Maskey: I certainly hope that anything that we do would lead to that outcome. As I said at our meeting, Minister, with the political will, we can resolve most of the matters, if not all of them. Unfortunately, occasionally we have not been able to resolve matters, including, as I said, when it came to an Opposition Bill passed a number of years ago; it was put forward by John McCallister. There was no cross-community agreement to enact a Standing Order to apply that. That might seem odd or unusual, and it probably is, but the fact of the matter is that we did not get an agreement.

At our meeting and in correspondence, we addressed the fact that the first item of business of an Assembly is electing the Speakers. With the six-week ruling, and the six-week period of delay envisaged in the Bill, theoretically, the Assembly could meet after six weeks, and if it could not be formed at that time or could not fill the offices, then it could close down for the next six weeks, but if we do not get a Speaker in place—if we do not have that agreement—we cannot even move to that point. With political agreement and common sense, you would imagine we could resolve these matters. We have only drawn attention to these matters on a cautionary basis because of our experiences; in the past, we have not even been able to pass a number of important matters on the basis of cross-community support.

Since taking up my post, I have routinely been on record reminding Members that we have a very important job to do, as guardians of the legislature, in holding the Executive to account. However, it is also by way of being our business to secure and try to maintain public confidence in the institutions. If we can do anything to maintain the sustainability of the institutions on the basis of the integrity of NDNA and previous agreements reached, I think we will be doing a good job. Anything that helps us to perform our duties in a way that maintains and builds public confidence, we need to embrace.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I wholly agree. Are you not concerned, though, that if we were to try to deal with matters relating to the Standing Orders of the Assembly in Westminster legislation, that would risk overriding some of the provisions made in the Good Friday agreement for Standing Orders to be agreed on a cross-community basis? I appreciate that there have been times when it has not been possible to agree Standing Orders, but is it not better for any changes required to be agreed within the committees of the Assembly, so that it shows that maturity and control over its own processes?



Alex Maskey: That is the conundrum that we have to face. I am absolutely certain that the very best way of conducting our business is by doing it ourselves and by the Assembly performing its duties on a mature basis. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, that has not been able to happen on the basis that we would have liked, but that is politics. As you know, there are many issues that are quite divisive and polarising in our politics at times. I still would say that I have been very pleased, notwithstanding the very challenging difficulties that we have had to face in the past year and more, that the Assembly, for the most part, has performed its duties well and professionally and the level of debate and so on has been mature enough. There have been one or two breaches of good order and all the rest of that, but I think that, for the most part, the Assembly has come through the difficulties and trials pretty well. We have still a lot of work to do. Yes, I agree with that entirely, and I certainly want to work through the rest of this mandate on the basis that the Assembly parties are fully understanding of the need to build confidence among the general public by doing our work professionally and maturely.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q On the issue of the Deputy Speakers, the NDNA deal states clearly:

“The Speaker and the three Deputy Speakers shall not sign a Petition.”

How do you interpret that? You expressed concern about being able to recruit Deputy Speakers. Can you give the Committee any further evidence as to that? Has that been a challenge? To what extent has the willingness of parties to put forward their Members as a Deputy Speaker been a challenge to date?

Alex Maskey: As I have said, no party at this moment in time can trigger a POC itself, because it does not have the 30 Members. Therefore, parties may be reluctant and there would be some little amount of chit-chat around the corridors—not that I have heard it recently. But when I was in the business of being involved in chit-chat around the corridors as a party activist—I do not operate on that basis now, of course—there would have been people thinking, “God, would you want to lose a Member”—people would describe it in those terms—“by putting them in as a Speaker if they are not able to sign a POC?” You also have some Members who would feel very passionate about particular issues and who might want to support a POC if one were to be deployed at some point in the future.

We are merely drawing attention to the fact that the Deputy Speakers in our Assembly function differently from how the Speakers in Westminster, for example, do, as I understand it. Our Deputy Speakers function as a Deputy Speaker when they are chairing a session; for the rest of the time, they actually operate as party political activists. It is only the Speaker in this case—in the Assembly—who would be prohibited, throughout the entire mandate, from signing any petition of concern; and that is as it should be, of course. I am just drawing that to your attention and that of the Committee today. It is just because we do not want to cause chill factors; we want to make sure we can draw on as wide a range of Members across the Assembly as possible, to make sure we have inclusive arrangements made, from the Speaker through to the Principal Deputy Speaker and the two Deputy Speakers.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. May I turn to Gareth McGrath and the contents of clause 5? The Bill will require petitions of concern to be signed and confirmed by at least 30 MLAs from two or more political parties. Do you agree that this will better ensure that the mechanism is used on a cross-party basis, reflecting concerns across the community?

Dr McGrath: I think that that self-evidently would be the case. It is also the case that uniquely in this mandate, and partially because of the reduction in the number of Members, no political party has the number of signatures required to table a petition of concern, so by definition, at the moment, a party requires the support of either independent Members or Members from another party to do that. It is the practice now—there have been no petitions of concern in the current mandate. I am not saying that the two are related, but I am saying that it is more difficult to see a scenario in future—obviously, without trying to forecast electoral outcomes—in which a party would have the required number of Members.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have heard some evidence today from witnesses that the 14-day consideration period is welcomed in terms of the opportunities it could provide for people to rethink a petition of concern or find other ways of resolving concern. To come back to the issue of how we ensure that it is not in any way misused, do you think that is something that could be resolved through changes to Standing Orders in the Assembly?

Dr McGrath: To revert to the issue that was originally raised by the Speaker, clearly the intention of the consideration period, as I understand it, is to allow a cooling-off period and room for manoeuvre among the political parties. It may well start off with that intention. However, there would be scenarios in which it could evidently be used to stymie progress on issues for which the petition of concern was not intended.

It is one thing to have the provision in the Act, but trying to implement it in Standing Orders is a different matter. Standing Orders have to be passed on a cross-community basis so there is no guarantee that just because this Bill requires Standing Orders to make provision for that, it will happen. That is a statement of fact on the basis of legislation, as Mr Speaker said previously, that the Assembly has passed requiring Standing Orders to make provision for, and that has not happened. In that situation, the Speaker will be required to rule on whatever is referred to as interim procedures. That will inevitably put the Speaker in a difficult position.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I am certainly happy for our officials to follow up with you on this and continue this conversation. It is important that we get the detail of this right. I am very grateful to all three of you for your input.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill (Third sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Tuesday 6th July 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 6 July 2021 - (6 Jul 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members to observe social distancing and sit only in the places that are clearly marked. I also remind Members that, in line with the House of Commons Commission decision, face coverings should be worn in Committee unless people are speaking or medically exempt. Electronic devices should be switched to silent mode. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings. The Hansard Reporters would be grateful if Members emailed electronic copies of their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

We will now begin our line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection and grouping list for today’s sittings is available in the room. This list shows how the selected amendments have been grouped for debate and the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment will be taken when we come to the clause or schedule that the amendment would affect.

Clause 1

Period for making Ministerial appointments

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. If I may, I will speak to the first three clauses of the Bill, which do not have any amendments on the amendment paper.

Clause 1 amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to extend the period of time available to appoint a First Minister and Deputy First Minister after the resignation of either, or after the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly following an Assembly election. Currently, the period for ministerial appointments is only 14 days from the first meeting of the Assembly after an election and seven days from the First Minister or Deputy First Minister ceasing to hold office. The Bill will extend the period for filling ministerial offices to six weeks, which is automatically renewed—unless the Assembly resolves otherwise on a cross-community basis—a maximum of three times, up to a total of 24 weeks. By extending these periods, the Bill will allow more time for discussions between the parties and for the Secretary of State to facilitate a resolution before they come under an election duty. It also allows Northern Ireland Ministers to remain in post, after an election, until the end of the period for appointing new Ministers. This change will allow greater continuity in decision making.

Under clause 2, Ministers will no longer cease to hold office after the election of a new Assembly. It provides for up to a maximum of 24 weeks after an election or for a maximum of 48 weeks since there has been a functioning Executive in place—whichever is the shorter—in which Ministers may continue to hold office, subject to those offices otherwise being filled, or if a Minister is not returned as a Member of the Assembly. This measure will ensure that institutions becomes more sustainable and resilient.

On Second Reading, concerns were raised about so-called caretaker Ministers. We are not discussing that matter at length today, but I do want to make the following points. While the Executive were not functioning, civil servants were left trying to maintain the machinery of government and to provide public services in the absence of ministerial decisions. Without the direction or control of Ministers, civil servants are significantly limited in respect of the powers that they may exercise. I want to reflect on the examples that we heard in evidence last week from Lilah Howson-Smith on public services. The health service was left to deal with “long waiting lists”; Belfast City Council was unable to resolve sewage issues; and in schools there was what Lilah described as

“a sense of overall stasis.”––[Official Report, Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Public Bill Committee, 29 June 2021; c. 21, Q24.]

Keeping Ministers in a caretaker position means that civil servants can continue to take direction and everyday issues can be resolved. Ministers will not be in post to take new decisions or implement new policy. The purpose of this measure is to ensure that Northern Ireland does not shut down in the way it did during the absence of devolved government. As Sir Jonathan Stephens said:

“The fundamental protection is the absence of an Executive if there is not a First Minister or a Deputy First Minister, meaning that significant, controversial, cross-cutting decisions cannot be taken”.––[Official Report, Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Public Bill Committee, 29 June 2021; c. 31, Q40.]

Under the 1998 Act, Ministers cannot take decisions that ought to have been taken by the Executive. We therefore believe that there is no need to provide further statutory clarifications, given that legal safeguards are already in place. We also know that the courts are ready to step in, should Ministers act unlawfully.

Let me turn to clause 3. Currently, the Secretary of State is required to propose a date for an Assembly election in the following scenarios: when the Assembly resolves to dissolve itself or when the period for appointing Northern Ireland Ministers or the First Minister and Deputy First Minister expires without those offices being filled. Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to certify or call an Assembly election at any point after the first six weeks in the period for filling ministerial offices, if the Secretary of State considers that there is not sufficient representation among Ministers to secure cross-community confidence in the Assembly. I commend clauses 1, 2 and 3 to the Committee.

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Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
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We are just doing clause 1 to 3 at the moment. We are not on to the amendments yet.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley for her broad support for the principles of the Bill and for her questions. She asked important questions about the safeguards on what we have come to know as caretaker Ministers. It was agreed in New Decade, New Approach that Ministers will remain in office in a caretaker capacity to allow for greater continuity of decision making. The deal also stated that Ministers would be required to act within well-defined limits, including those set out in the ministerial code and the pledge of office, in accordance with the requirement for an Executive Committee to consider any decisions that are significant, controversial or cross-cutting. As appropriate, restrictions are put in place during the pre-election period.

Limits have not been defined in the legislation because we anticipate they will operate as a matter of convention, rather than a legal issue. This approach to drafting allows a degree of discretion for unforeseen circumstances. I reiterate the expectation that Ministers will act responsibly.

The NDNA deal also stated that Ministers would be required to act within well-defined limits, as set out in the ministerial code, to operate within the framework for government, as the hon. Lady says, agreed by the previously functioning Executive endorsed by the Assembly. Ministers will act in accordance with the statutory requirement, included within the ministerial code, that any decisions that are significant, controversial or cross-cutting are required to be considered by the Executive. As appropriate, restrictions are in place during the pre-election period, as I have said.

The point is that this is not a good situation to be in—we do not want caretaker Ministers to be required. We would prefer to have a fully-functioning Executive and the institutions of devolution up and running at all times. We are trying to put in place—this was agreed by all parties—is a preferable situation to leaving civil servants with no ministerial cover at all, which is important. We heard in the evidence session of the problems faced during that time.

The hon. Lady asks about the decisions Ministers will be able to take—an important question. They will be able to take decisions within their responsibilities and areas previously agreed by the Executive as a priority for their Department. That puts us in a significantly better place than the absence of devolution. She asks about the north-south institutions, and I confirm that those can operate in this scenario and Ministers will be free to take part within the broader constraints.

The hon. Lady asks about cross-community support and is right that this is important. We need to ensure that any Executive meets the requirements of power sharing. She will understand, as she set out in her explanation, why we have not written into legislation the full detail of how that could work, as there are all sorts of scenarios with different outcomes from elections and political crises that could emerge. Her example of only one party being represented in the Executive would clearly not be sustainable. We would want to ensure that the Executive represents more than one community. It is important that a Secretary of State has a degree of discretion, depending on the political circumstances, as to when to exercise that power.

On the question of “will” or “may”, if a Secretary of State were in the position where they thought they were on the verge of a breakthrough in talks, they might need that discretion, but I cannot think of any other scenario in which they would not move towards calling an election if there were not that cross-community representation. I hope I have answered the hon. Lady’s key points.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister confirm that if a programme for government is not in place, as is the case in the current mandate, Ministers will not be able to take any decisions?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not sure that is quite right because Ministers would be able to take decisions within their departmental remit, which are running-order decisions for their departmental business. Clearly, they would not be able to take decisions that are about making significant changes to policy. The offer of working together is also part of the pledge of office. It is an important part of power sharing and that is one of the things that they are constrained by in their activities. Where a programme for government is agreed, they will also be stuck within its limits and will be working forward with that.

As Sir Jonathan Stephens said, the fundamental protection in the case of caretaker Ministers is the absence of an Executive. If there is no First Minister and Deputy First Minister, significant, controversial or cross-cutting decisions cannot be taken by the Executive. In a resignation scenario, Assembly Committees will also continue to function for the Assembly’s duration and can continue to discharge their important duties of scrutinising Ministers and Departments and holding them accountable. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Ministers cannot take any decisions that ought to have been taken by the Executive. We therefore believe there is no need to provide further statutory clarifications given that legal safeguards are already in place. We also know, and as we saw during the period of absence of an Executive, that the courts are prepared to step in if they feel that decisions are being taken beyond the remit of whoever is taking them. We have seen examples of that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Ministerial Code of Conduct

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before I call Claire Hanna, just to be helpful, once you have proposed the amendment, I will call members of the Committee, the Minister will then reply and then you can have a chance to respond. Please indicate to me and to the Committee whether you wish to withdraw or push the amendment to a vote.

--- Later in debate ---
Amendment 14 refers to transparency and, specifically, the removal of a line on freedom of information and transparency—a tool that has been much needed by campaigners, journalists and other elected representatives. Regrettably, the Executive—specifically the First Minister’s office—do not have a particularly good record on transparency. There is a perception that issues may go into that office and not emerge. FOI has been used to good effect, but it may be thwarted if there is not adherence to that guidance and if legislation on it is not available.
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her presentation of the amendments. We are legislating to update the ministerial code of conduct in accordance with a request made by the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister, following agreement of the revised code by the Executive Committee. The changes have not come from the UK Government; they come directly from the Executive themselves.

It is important to note that the ministerial code of conduct will continue to require that Ministers uphold the seven principles of public life, known as the Nolan principles. Some of the changes to the code that we are making will make that a little more explicit. The principles include selflessness, integrity, objectivity and—crucial to the amendment—accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The changes strengthen the code of conduct, as we heard from witnesses last week. We are legislating to strengthen the code to reflect the request that we received from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, agreed by the Executive. That forms part of the wider package outlined in NDNA, which the Executive were committed to, but it will strengthen the codes governing ministerial accountability and conduct.

I gently propose that it is not for us here as Members of Parliament in Westminster to suggest amendments to a ministerial code of conduct that affects Members of a separate legislature. I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment. I assure her that the principles of openness and accountability are reflected in the original code and are strengthened in the changes we are making to the ministerial code here.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister. We appreciate that this flows from NDNA, but I am unclear whether there was a specific request for those particular provisions to be withdrawn. They existed before the New Decade, New Approach deal. Other aspects have been enhanced, and this one has been diluted. It is not clear to me why that would be the case—why it would have been weakened.

I will keep my powder dry, in order to perhaps push subsequent amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I shall speak to amendments 4 and 3, and in support of amendments 17, 18 and 19 that appear in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South.

Amendment 4 seeks to address an issue that was discussed in the earlier debate—an issue that we see with the current absence of a programme for government. As hon. Members know, the programme for government is drawn up in accordance with section 20(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and paragraph 20 of strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It provides Ministers and the public with a clear mandate and agenda and a basis for decision making. As we have discussed, any issue that a party in the Executive deems significant or controversial that is outside the programme for government can be referred for approval by the full Executive. Since New Decade, New Approach, that mechanism has been used on at least six occasions.

Despite the draft programme for government having been published in New Decade, New Approach, no programme has been adopted in the current mandate. The amendment would make Ministers accountable under the code of conduct for agreeing a programme for government, providing an additional layer of accountability. It would also be important for sustainability. In the absence of the powers of a caretaker Executive being codified in the Bill, the Committee is being asked to rely, in essence, on a programme for government to limit those caretaker ministerial powers. The amendment is therefore an additional safety mechanism, requiring Ministers to agree a programme for government. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why he chooses not to accept it, if indeed he does not.

I will allow my colleague to speak on amendments 17, 18 and 19 more comprehensively, but the broad thrust of them is absolutely right and we wholeheartedly support them. Agreements made must be honoured, and too often elements of agreements made in the past—from the Belfast agreement through to the St Andrews agreement and, indeed, too much of New Decade, New Approach—have not been honoured. That has damaged trust in the operation of the Assembly and the perception of its ability to effect change. The amendments in the names of the hon. Members for Foyle and for Belfast South simply codify agreements that have already been reached. For that reason, we are very happy to support them.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To respond to amendment 4, the Committee will know that clause 4 substitutes a revised ministerial code of conduct, setting out expectations on the behaviour of Ministers, including provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland civil service, public appointments and the use of official resources and information management. We are legislating to update the ministerial code of conduct in accordance with the requests made by the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister following agreement to revise the code by the Executive Committee. The changes, as I said, have not come from the UK Government but from the Executive themselves, to reflect what the parties agreed in the NDNA deal.

We do not think that the amendments are, in any event, necessary, as the pledge of office already requires Ministers to participate with colleagues in the preparation of the programme for government, and to operate within the framework agreed within ExCo and endorsed by the Assembly. We therefore feel that amendment 4 is not necessary, and I ask the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley to withdraw it.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for placing it on the record that the provisions in the pledge of office will constrain Ministers. I am therefore happy to withdraw the amendment.

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My fear is that amendment 6 would lead to more confrontation. Without having a discussion around the politics of a particular proposal, and without trying to seek a resolution at an early stage to avoid difficulties, the amendment is about forcing confrontation—“I’ve put it on, I want it on, and whether the Executive agree on a cross-community basis or not, and whether we can build political consensus or not, I will rush my proposal through.” I do not think that that is helpful to the political dynamic in Northern Ireland, and I would like to see much less of this confrontation, and much more consensus building.
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in this discussion of the amendments. The hon. Member for Belfast East brings important experience from his time working with the Executive. I also recognise that the hon. Member for North Down represents an important strand of opinion in that respect and, indeed, has great experience.

Turning to amendment 17, although the parties made a commitment in New Decade, New Approach that the Executive should bring forward a programme for government, Westminster cannot compel them to deliver a particular programme for government, and nor should we. The programme is for the Executive and Assembly to determine and agree, as is set out in paragraph 20 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement:

“The Executive Committee will seek to agree each year, and review as necessary, a programme incorporating an agreed budget linked to policies and programmes, subject to approval by the Assembly, after scrutiny in Assembly Committees, on a cross-community basis.”

That is implemented in law by section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We therefore ask that amendment 17 be withdrawn.

Turning to amendment 18, the purpose of the Bill is to implement reforms to the institutions of Northern Ireland agreed in the New Decade, New Approach deal, not to use the ministerial code of conduct as a means to instruct Ministers to implement future deals. I appreciate the optimism of the hon. Member for Belfast South in seeking to legislate for future potential deals—or perhaps pessimism that they might be required—but I do not think that it would be appropriate to use the ministerial code of conduct. Should we need to revisit the code in the future, we should do so then. I therefore ask that amendment 18 be withdrawn.

Turning to amendment 19, although we acknowledge the importance of the Executive producing strengthened drafts of their relevant codes, as is set out in annex A to part 2 of the NDNA deal, that is an action for the Executive. We therefore do not think that it is appropriate at this moment for Westminster to legislate on it. It is for the Executive to agree to the amendments to relevant codes and, where appropriate, they must be agreed by the Assembly. It is not for this Parliament to make those changes. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Assembly has recently legislated in respect of some of these matters in the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 2021. That is the appropriate forum for such provision to be made.

Turning to amendment 6, as I have mentioned we are here to amend the ministerial code of conduct in line with requests received from the Executive and approved by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I acknowledge the concerns that the hon. Member for North Down raised about the process to secure Executive discussions on specific issues, and the points that the hon. Member for Belfast East made about the importance of having discussions behind the scenes about them. Ultimately, though, parties did not agree to address that as part of the NDNA deal, and it is not for Westminster to try to go beyond the carefully agreed package of reforms in the Bill.

The Bill is not, of course, the only or final means through which reform to the governance of the institutions of Northern Ireland can be delivered, but we will be guided by the needs and requests of the Executive. Should there be further consensus from the parties that they would like to revise the issue of alternative vetoes, we stand ready to support that, but I say to the hon. Member for North Down that that is not part of the deal that we are in the process of implementing. I therefore urge him to withdraw amendment 6.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I ask Claire Hanna whether she wishes to press amendments 17, 18 or 19.

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Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Certainly, Mr Stringer. In that case, the Minister would be deemed to have resigned. Amendment 16 would ensure that Ministers co-operated with any investigation and gave due regard to existing standards, including reports from the Commissioner for Standards. The Minister has made an argument, about legislating for the ministerial code of conduct within the Assembly, that I think has the broad support of this Committee, so I will be happy to withdraw the amendment.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s indication that she is prepared to withdraw the amendment. I will just offer a little further explanation. I understand the intent behind the amendment and agree that there should be a fair system of checks and balances through which to hold Ministers accountable. Provision for that already exists in section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998: if the Assembly resolves that a Minister or junior Minister no longer enjoys the confidence of the Assembly, or the Secretary of State is of the opinion that such a resolution should be considered, the Minister can be excluded from holding office for a period of not less than three months and not more than 12 months. As that provision already exists, I ask the hon. Lady, in addition to making the points that she has made, to withdraw the amendment.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Petitions of concern

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Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just want to give my reflections on the evidence that we heard from the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not agree that there is a chilling effect associated with the agreement reached––New Decade, New Approach–that would have a material impact on parties’ willingness to provide a Deputy Speaker for the Assembly. I would go further and say that our Deputy Speakers are not the same as Deputy Speakers here. Neither is our Speaker. Our Speaker in Northern Ireland does not resign from their political party. When they seek re-election, they do so as a member of a political party.

The element that I do not think the Speaker reflected on appropriately in his evidence last week is that, as each of the four parties provides a Speaker and three Deputy Speakers—one from each of the four parties—the consequence of assuming that office and so being unable to sign a petition of concern applies to the four largest parties. Each is supplying somebody and each takes the consequence. In that sense, what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach is fairer than one party losing a signatory from a petition of concern because they assume the position of Speaker, so I take quite a different view from that of the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and I do not believe that the fears that he outlined are merited.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The New Decade, New Approach deal was explicit that the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers shall not sign a petition. I therefore question why we would seek to amend the deal, which delivers on a key concern of the party of the hon. Member for North Down during the negotiations: that a petition of concern should be used only in rare situations.

I acknowledge the concerns that were raised by the Speaker, but as we have just heard, there are different views on their strength and there is the fact that four out of the five major parties in the Assembly are represented in the speakership or deputy speakership. There is a balance in its impact in that regard. I have offered a follow-up conversation between officials at the Northern Ireland Office and the Speaker’s officials to look into the matter further, but I cannot at this moment support an amendment because we are not aware of how real a risk this poses. We have heard divergent views on that. The Government are willing to return to the issue after further engagement with the Speaker, but for the time being I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

--- Later in debate ---
While there was disagreement last week and different interpretations of the reading of paragraphs 11 to 15, this amendment puts strictures on and revisits the finely balanced agreement of 1998 in a way that skews the narrative in one way. In that sense, Mr Stringer, I ask members of the Committee not to agree to this amendment. It goes beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. It touches on an area that is contested and for which there is no agreement, and, in my view, it would be foolish to proceed with such an amendment.
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was very interested to hear the hon. Member for Belfast South use the term “restore factory settings”. It is a good technological phrase with which we are all familiar. The issue is that the factory settings lie under what is there and are available to return to at all times. In this case, there is already such a provision for a committee in section 13(3)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Bill requires the Assembly to implement Standing Orders to make provisions for referral to that committee, in the same terms as exist in section 42 of the Northern Ireland 1998.

This is a matter for the Assembly’s Procedure Committee to implement through changes to Standing Orders. The parties did not reach agreement on this in New Decade, New Approach; the hon. Member for Belfast East made that point as well. I urge the hon. Member for Belfast South to understand that her party colleagues in the Assembly can take forward the issue of those changes to Standing Orders, but on the basis that the provision that she is calling for already exists in law, I ask that she withdraw the amendment and consequential amendments.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I acknowledge that they exist, but they are not enacted and, when I questioned the Speaker at the evidence session last week, it was not clear why they have not been established. While I understand where the hon. Member for Belfast East is coming from, there is a creeping narrative that the attempt to thwart the vetoholic nature of some Ministers is somehow pulling up a ladder as demographic change happens in Northern Ireland and in the Assembly. That is not the case. It is due to public concerns about the use of that veto on issues that have nothing to do with the in-built traditional divisions, for example around equality for lesbian and gay people, which is the most prominent use of that provision.

I acknowledge the Minister’s comments about the provisions already being there, but they are not being used. I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast East when he said that if these provisions have to be used it is because power sharing is not working, but I would argue that unfortunately the last few years would indicate that in many cases that is not working.

Sir Jonathan Stephens told us last week that no amount of regulation will push parties to power share if that is not what they want to do. Until we have parties that share power appropriately and use power in the interest of everybody, because they think it is in everybody’s interest and not because the law tells them to do so, then unfortunately we need these amendments. On the basis that the Committee is in agreement with the Minister in terms of the Assembly’s legislative ability, then I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 5, page 7, line 16, leave out “including” and insert “which may include”.

This amendment means that the standing orders need not specify the minimum period of notice for a petition of concern.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 2.

Amendment 8, in clause 5, page 7, line 19, at end insert—

“(aa) make provision for the minimum period under (a) to be reduced in prescribed circumstances to be determined by the Assembly;”.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Clause 5 reforms the petition of concern mechanism to reduce its use and return it to its intended purpose, as set out under the Good Friday agreement, as a safeguard to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully in the operation of the Northern Ireland institutions, that all sections of the community are protected when the Assembly legislates, and to prevent one party from blocking measures or business. The Government have tabled two technical amendments to correct an unintended consequence in drafting.

The Bill, as introduced, required that Standing Orders should specify a minimum period between when a vote is due to take place and when the petition in connection with it must be tabled: at least a day would be required. That was not the intention. Currently, the Standing Orders enable the Speaker to waive notice of the petition in exceptional circumstances. The amendment will enable Standing Orders to continue to include such provision, if that is what the Assembly agrees. The amendments ensure that there need not be any change to the timings for tabling a petition of concern.

While the Government have committed to reforming the petition of concern mechanism to return it to its intended purposes, we are not trying to legislate beyond what was agreed in the NDNA agreement. I can therefore reassure the Committee that the changes are purely technical and aim to ensure that we do not inadvertently alter things from what was agreed between the parties.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to refer to my amendment in this grouping that probably goes beyond what the Government are trying to rectify with their technical amendments. It goes back to some of the evidence we received from the Speaker of the Assembly. The New Decade, New Approach agreement talks about a 14-day timeframe in relation to the processing of petitions of concern. I welcome that and want to see that become normal practice in what I hope will be the very rare event of a petition of concern being tabled.

It is also important that we are conscious that there may well be some extreme situations in which the 14-day window becomes somewhat of a straitjacket. It may be in relation to some sort of statutory instrument or legal deadline or some other emergency in trying to take something forward. In parallel with that, there is probably a need for petitioners to have the right to withdraw a petition of concern rather than its sitting on the books for 14 days, particularly in the event that they are convinced there is no need for the petition to continue or they have changed their mind. It is essentially a means of trying to ensure there is some flexibility. That is best addressed by giving the Assembly the scope within its own Standing Orders to address the issue.

I am not minded to press my amendment today. I can see the Minister is nodding at some of the comments I am making and I welcome that occasionally. Can the Government give an assurance that they recognise that there is a genuine issue here? The Government might wish to reflect on what I have said today and, indeed, more importantly what the Speaker of the Assembly has said and come back with a Government amendment on Report.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member, particularly for the way he has presented this. I recognise the concerns, but it is important to recognise that we heard a number of positive comments about the 14-day cooling-off period envisaged in the legislation. I draw his attention to the fact that what we have tried to do with the Government amendments is return to what was specifically agreed in the NDNA agreement. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comment that this is something the Assembly should be able to address through Standing Orders, and we encourage them to do so. We do not think it is necessary to put in the Bill what should be in the Standing Orders of the Assembly, but I see no reason, if the petitioners who have signed the petition of concern agree to its being withdrawn, that it cannot be made possible to withdraw it at any stage during the 14-day period. That is an eminently sensible approach for them to take. Our view is that this is not the place to deal with it because that should rightly be for the Assembly and its Committee on Procedures to agree on.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and also for his comments. For the purpose of the record, can he assure me that there is nothing in the Bill today that would inhibit the Northern Ireland Assembly through Standing Orders from making its own decisions in relation to how it would manage a petition of concern around timeframes?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to give him that assurance.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think this is a constructive proposal. We have to be mindful of the concern that was raised last week in evidence: that Assembly authorities might be slow to consent or assent to such a restriction on the 14-day timescale should it not be elucidated very clearly—not just here, but on Report and so on. If we cannot find a form of words that is acceptable on Report, the exchange that has just been had needs to be expanded on and very clearly delivered on Report in Hansard. There should be no doubt or equivocation among the Assembly authorities that, should petitioners decide that the 14 days are no longer required, or that the issue is of such urgency or significance that it needs to be resolved within that timeframe, that flexibility is permissible.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I absolutely take note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and agree with his intent. I am happy to come back to that issue on Report, as appropriate.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment made: 2, in clause 5, page 7, line 17, leave out from beginning to first “the” on line 18 and insert “the presentation of the petition and the time when”.—(Robin Walker.)

This amendment means that the standing orders may specify a minimum period of notice of less than a day for a petition of concern.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 9, in clause 5, page 7, line 31, at end insert—

“(e) make provision to allow petitioners to withdraw a petition of concern at any stage in the process.”

The amendment relates to the wider package of comments I made earlier. I will not press it to a vote today. I just flag it up as part of that wider discussion and hope that the Government reflect on it and, indeed, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, speak further to this general issue on Report.

--- Later in debate ---
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for the brief discussion we have had on this. As the Committee will know, the Bill makes provision for a 14-day consideration period after a petition has been presented by 30 Members. The 14-day consideration period was part of the NDNA deal on the basis of which the five parties entered into the Executive. The consideration period provides MLAs with a vital opportunity to lobby those who are petitioning their item of business, persuade them of its merits and prevent it from going to a cross-party vote.

The question here is where this is most appropriately dealt with. We all broadly agree with the principle that petitions of concern should be able to be withdrawn. However, putting that on the face of the Bill and making it explicit could—we were warned about this in evidence—have the effect of actually making petitions of concern more common. I think Gareth McGrath commented to that effect. We think this would be better dealt with through the Standing Orders of the Assembly, and I am very happy to reiterate the commitment I made on the previous item—to discuss this further on Report if necessary.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Committee for the detail in which it has scrutinised this measure. As I said before, the purpose of this clause is to reform petitions of concern and return them to their intended purpose.

The UK Government are not seeking to legislate beyond what was agreed in the NDNA deal. That is exemplified by the amendments I have introduced today, which correct a technical error relating to the time period in which the petition of concern may be tabled. The Bill requires that petitions be signed and confirmed 14 days later by at least 30 MLAs from two or more political parties to prevent one party from being able to block measures or business that would otherwise have cross-community consensus. The changes and commitments from the Northern Ireland parties aim to reduce the use of the mechanism to only the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, having exhausted every other available mechanism.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Repeal of spent provisions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I can be very brief on this one. Clause 6 repeals the Northern Ireland Executive (Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, and sections 1 to 7 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Extent

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Bill extends to the United Kingdom, but applies only in Northern Ireland. It deals only with excepted matters under Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement, and does not alter the legislative functions of the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Executive functions of Northern Ireland Ministers or Departments. With that assurance, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Commencement

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 5, in clause 8, page 8, line 8, leave out “at the end of the period of two months beginning with” and insert “on”.

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Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There are no surprises in this Bill to the parties of Northern Ireland. There is no period of time that is required to get ready, implement or reflect the changes brought forward in the Bill. The shadow Secretary of State has clearly outlined that the agreement was reached 18 months ago. But for coronavirus—whether we accept it as an excuse or not—the provisions in the Bill would be in place and we would be able to fall back on them if they were required.

I am not sure what the rationale is for two additional months beyond Royal Assent. A strong argument has already been put forward by the hon. Member for North Down and the shadow Secretary of State. Subject to a compelling reason why an additional two months are required, there is merit in curtailing that timescale.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Committee members will know that it is usual practice and parliamentary procedure to allow two months before provisions come into effect following Royal Assent. The type of preparatory measures we might be referring to in this case could be the very changes to Assembly Standing Orders that we have debated. Nevertheless, I recognise the strength of feeling among Committee members.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley talked about recent events in Northern Ireland. The Bill was not brought forward as a response to recent events. It was brought forward as a response to NDNA and what was agreed between the parties. In terms of the time that has elapsed, she will know that Parliament has been extremely occupied with covid legislation, thanks to the pandemic, but we made a point of introducing this Bill early in this Session. We have also given the time for the Bill not to be rushed through as emergency legislation, but to be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny, which has been welcomed by all sides. That is good news and is all too rare an occurrence for a Northern Ireland Bill.

We are not minded to accept the amendment, but should the political context in Northern Ireland and an early commencement be beneficial for Executive stability, we are content for it to be considered in the other place. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment for the time being and allow the process of parliamentary scrutiny to continue. Should the progress that we have seen today be repeated in the other place, and the level of cross-party support that we are seeing at this stage, I see no reason why they could not allow for an amendment of this nature to proceed.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

Report on implementation of The New Decade, New Approach Deal

“(1) The Secretary of State must lay a report before each House of Parliament and before the Northern Ireland Assembly no later than six months after the date on which this Act is passed.

(2) The report under subsection (1) must set out —

(a) whether, and how, each provision of this Act has been implemented, and

(b) what plans the Government has to bring forward further legislative proposals to implement the remainder of The New Decade, New Approach Deal.”. —(Louise Haigh.)

This new clause requires the Government to report on what parts of The New Decade, New Approach Deal have been achieved under this Act, and what plans the Government has to implement the remainder of the deal.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I thank you, Mr Stringer, for chairing us through the speedy but proper scrutiny of the Bill this morning.

On Second Reading and this morning, the importance of all political parties abiding by commitments that are made in forming the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive has been discussed at length. The Government have made that very clear on important elements of NDNA. If it is true for the Northern Ireland political parties, it must be true for the UK Government as well, as one of the co-signatories, just as it holds true for the Irish Government.

The provisions of annex A of NDNA outline a financial commitment that the Government were prepared to provide about 18 months ago. Much of that has still not been delivered, by the Government’s own admission—£1.5 billion of the funding set aside has yet to be delivered. I know the Minister will have figures on how much has been given for covid, but it still remains that much was promised to be delivered on public policy to support the mandate set out in NDNA.

The standstill budget for Northern Ireland when covid support is removed means the 7,500 police officers promised is little more than a pipe dream. Indeed, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has confirmed that it will cut numbers if that budget remains at a standstill this year. That also apples to the investment in transforming public services, such as the health service, which has been repeatedly mentioned because of the appalling waiting times in Northern Ireland, and infrastructure delivery.

The Prime Minster, who could not build a bridge when he was Mayor of London from one side of the Thames to the other, seems more concerned with one that will not be built from Scotland to Belfast, than delivering commitments the UK made just 18 months ago on urgent infrastructure requirements. The Stormont House agreement, recommitted to New Decade, New Approach, seems further way than ever, with the Government unilaterally rewriting it in briefings to newspapers.

The establishment of a Northern Ireland hub in London is nowhere to be seen, neither is the connected classroom initiative. Little wonder that the NDNA review panel has met just twice, as the Minster confirmed on Second reading, when it was supposed to meet quarterly. The Government would clearly rather not review their progress on their commitments.

The new clause is important because it requires the Government to report on which aspects of NDNA have yet to be delivered, especially when there is little time left of this mandate. It would provide an important parliamentary mechanism for Members across the House to keep to their side of the bargain, just as we ask all Northern Ireland political parties to keep to theirs.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before I comment on the new clause, I want to correct an error I made in my closing speech on Second Reading on this issue, when I stated that the Government have released £556 million of £2 billion-worth of funding agreed in the NDNA deal. I want to put on record that to date, the Government have released over £700 million of the £2 billion funding agreed over a five-year period.

The Government made good progress on the delivery of commitments under the New Decade, New Approach deal. We provided support for the resolution of the nurses’ pay dispute by securing the advance drawdown of funding. The revision of immigration rules governing how people in Northern Ireland bring family members to the UK took effect from August 2020. The appointment of a Veterans Commissioner took effect in September 2020. The launch of the programme for the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, supported by £1 million from the shared history fund, and regulations to bring Union flag-flying days in line with guidance in the rest of the UK, came into force in December 2020.

I am grateful to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which has been scrutinising NDNA delivery closely, and we continue to welcome that. In “New Decade, New Approach Agreement: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report of Session 2019-21”, the Government were supportive of the Committee’s recommendations to produce an annual report and offered to explore this further with the joint board. The Secretary of State also offered to attend a one-off oral evidence session before the Committee to discuss implementation of the New Decade, New Approach deal.

Given the commitments the Government have already made to bring forward reports and offer further discussions on implementation, as well as the existing scrutiny function in NIAC, we do not consider it necessary at this stage to lay a further report on the NDNA agreement. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister confirm that £1.3 billion has still yet to be made available to the Northern Ireland Executive to fulfil the Government’s NDNA commitments? Can he confirm when the annual report will be published?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the first point, those commitments were made over a period of years. Much of the financial commitment has been front-loaded, and is why £700 million has already been brought forward in the first year. It is certainly the case that the commitments from NDNA will continue over that period of years. On the second point, I cannot give the hon. Lady a specific date, but am happy to write to her when that has been agreed with NIAC.

Louise Haigh Portrait Louise Haigh
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2

Appointment of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

“(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 16A (Appointment of First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers following Assembly election), in subsection 4, omit the words “of the largest political designation“.

(3) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—

“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”.

(4) In section 16(B) (Vacancies in the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister), in subsection (4), omit the words “of the largest political designation“.

(5) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—

“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”.

(6) In section 16C (Sections 16A and 16B: supplementary), omit subsection (6).”—(Stephen Farry.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

--- Later in debate ---
Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The previous amendments to the Bill tabled by SDLP Members were probably probing amendments, but we believe that new clause 3 is fundamental and fairly existential for the Assembly. It is worth saying that for the last 20 years the SDLP has advocated adherence to the Good Friday agreement and the mechanisms and safeguards designed in good faith during that process.

The reason why we have protected some of the changes that happened at St Andrews is that the agreement was designed in good faith and endorsed by a very large number of the people north and south. Subsequent changes have been made by politicians and for politicians in their own interests, frankly—and, we believe, over the heads and to the detriment of the electorate.

The joint election of First Ministers was a centrepiece of strand 1. In recent months, we have heard much debate about the concept of parallel consent, but this is really the clearest example of parallel consent as designed in the Good Friday agreement. In theory and in practice, in those early years the First Ministers would have been jointly elected by all the Assembly Members and in practice by a majority in total and a majority of each designation at the time.

The current distorted process, arrived at at St Andrews, has essentially privatised the election to the two larger parties. That was done to spare the blushes of those parties so that they did not have to endorse one another in the voting lobbies, but that has had knock-on effects on the joint character of the office. Leadership comes from the top, and that has an effect on the character of the Assembly and of political conversation more widely. The current process has also undermined the accountability mechanisms that had been designed for the Assembly and removed the primacy of the Assembly as an authority to hold Ministers to account.

The flaws in that approach become very clear in December 2016, when the Assembly was limited in its ability to hold to account Ministers who had presided over a substantial and fairly catastrophic example of poor governance. Restoring that joint election, as we have outlined in new clause 3, would restore some primacy to the Assembly as the key source of devolved authority. It would also facilitate the cross-party working and cross-party mandates, allegiances and alliances envisaged in 1998.

The St Andrews in this Bill is about sustainability and the new clause is very much in that spirit. The St Andrews change has also facilitated the ransom tactics that we saw most acutely in the 2017-to-2020 stand-off, but that we have also seen in recent weeks as well. The fact that the nominations are private decisions for those parties allows them to withhold a First Minister and therefore to withhold an Assembly. That prevents any potential emergence of a coalition of the willing, as might have come forward in the last three-year stand-off of MLAs from all parties. They wanted to get on with the job to which they were elected but, because of the privatisation of the First Minister’s nomination, had essentially been relegated to being bystanders and commentators with no power to implement a different mandate.

That change at St Andrews also has a ground-level impact, in that it has allowed parties to make every Assembly election a first-past-the-post race to be top dog. It effectively makes Assembly elections into many border polls; we have to race to become them’uns or us’uns as the biggest party and get the top job. That has sucked oxygen away from every other issue and prevented the emergence of a politics and discourse more about the everyday issues that affect people here.

Our new clause seeks to address those issues and would also formalise the joint and coequal nature of the offices in removing the word “Deputy”; the reality is that one First Minister cannot order paperclips without the say-so of the other First Minister. The “Deputy” and “First” mechanism undermines the joint nature of that office. The new clause is in the wider interests of this Bill, which is about sustainability, and would head off any potential existential crisis following a future election if the few hundred votes that separate those parties were to change and people in one were anxious about being deputy to the other.

The mechanisms that we have outlined would also go some way to address the issues discussed by the hon. Member for North Down and for which the SDLP has much sympathy. The designation system was designed and is in place to manage the traditional divides and the two communities, as was, and as has been spoken about, but it is a fair point that it is entrenching those communities, in which people are separated and divided out on that basis.

The mechanism that we have outlined in our new clause designs in other potential ways to ensure that the First Ministers have the support of sufficient numbers of the Assembly, through either majorities of each designation or, in essence, a form of qualified majority voting that would in practice ensure that those First Ministers were acceptable to different sides of the communities—different potential identities, but without negating the role and the vote of those who designate as others, which is a perfectly rational way to designate, whatever the constitutional outlook.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I turn first to the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for North Down. As I have stated previously, the purpose of the Bill and the reason why we are in Committee today is to legislate for commitments made to support the institutions and to improve sustainability under the New Decade, New Approach deal. I commend the hon. Gentleman on his creativity in seeking to reform the mechanism through which to nominate a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, but it is not something that I can support because it has not been agreed by the parties.

Of course, I know that the hon. Gentleman’s party may be looking at the polls and at the possibility of making gains in the next election, but it would not be appropriate for the UK Government to alter unilaterally the principles of power sharing so carefully negotiated as part of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and later by the St Andrews agreement.

The new clause could have an adverse impact on the make-up of the Executive should the First and Deputy First Ministers arise from the same designation. If both the largest and the second largest parties were from the same designation, the Executive could not command cross-community support within the Assembly, which would lead to the instability of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. That is precisely what the Bill aims to avoid. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman might wish the issue to be addressed at another time. As our previous Speaker used to say regularly, that is a bridge that we might have to cross when we come to it, but we do not have any mandate to address it in this particular piece of legislation.

The hon. Member for Belfast South is looking to return the situation to how it stood before the St Andrews agreement. Her party has championed that position consistently. It is worthwhile for her to consider what power sharing should look like in the future, in particular as the political landscape in Northern Ireland evolves. That conversation might need to be had, but it would not be right for this Parliament to reverse unilaterally the approach agreed at St Andrews.

To reiterate a point that I have made previously, the purpose of the Bill is to legislate for commitments made under the NDNA deal. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement has continued to be built on since its historic agreement in 1998 through periods of political difficulty, resulting in the deal that we legislate for today—itself built on agreements such as St Andrews, which the hon. Lady is looking to reverse with her new clause.

The history of devolution in Northern Ireland has shown that the communities and politics are changing continually. Shortly after the Good Friday agreement was reached, there was a prolonged suspension of the institutions between 2002 and 2007. The period of suspension was longer than the institutions had been functioning following the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Devolution was restored in 2007, following the St Andrews agreement, which the hon. Lady wishes to reverse. That historic agreement led to a 10-year period of political continuity, between 2007 and 2017. As I stated, it would not be right for this Parliament to reverse unilaterally the approach agreed at St Andrews. I therefore urge that both the motions be withdrawn.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We may return to the matter on Report. For now, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 3

Appointment of First Ministers

‘(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection 16A (appointment of Ministers following Assembly election), leave out subsections (4) to (7) and subsection (9), and insert after subsection (3)—

“(3ZA) Each candidate for the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister, or jointly First Ministers, must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.

(3ZB) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without one or more of the following measures of representational support—

(a) the support of a majority of members, a majority of designated Nationalists and a majority of Unionists; or

(b) the support of 60 per cent of members, 40 per cent of designated Nationalists and 40 per cent of designated Unionists; or

(c) the support of two thirds of members.

(3ZC) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister—

(a) shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office; and

(b) subject to the provisions of this Part, shall hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Ministers.”.

(3) In subsection (3)(a) the reference to “subsections (4) to (7)” shall be replaced by a reference to “subsections (3ZA) to (3ZC)”.’—(Claire Hanna.)

This new clause would restore the Good Friday Agreement provision for joint election by the Assembly of the joint First Ministers.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division 1

Ayes: 2

Noes: 10

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Lady. She is right that the Welsh Language Act 1993 massively strengthened our culture in Wales and us as a country. I press the Minister on when we can expect that legislation to be forthcoming.

Our amendment would help to push forward progress on two key areas: a Bill of Rights and the re-establishment of a civic forum. On a Bill of Rights, we on the Labour Benches are well aware that it is a reserved responsibility for the Secretary of State. The tightly drafted nature of the Bill meant it was difficult to put responsibility on the Secretary of State himself. Nevertheless, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was first promised in the 1998 Good Friday agreement, but progress towards its development has repeatedly stalled. The establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights at Stormont earlier this year represents a fresh attempt to move things forward. A Bill was an essential and fundamental safeguard of the Good Friday agreement, and it is simply wrong that it has not been developed. Action is needed now.

We believe the Secretary of State should take action by responding to the forthcoming report of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the House of Commons Committee on a Bill of Rights. The Secretary of State should request that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission provides advice on a Bill of Rights, further to its functions as set out in section 69(7) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Secretary of State would subsequently lay before Parliament legislation giving effect to that advice. It is time to act.

On a civic forum, we believe that that was an important feature of decision making envisaged under the Good Friday agreement. Done well, it would give communities a strong say in decision making. It would give a voice in a deliberative forum to groups not often considered, and could vastly improve decision making in the process. The Good Friday agreement was about a new participative politics. The argument the Women’s Coalition put forward for a civic forum was as an advisory second chamber designed to give the trade union movement and businesses, as well as the community and the women’s movement, a place in political policy making. The prize of that expertise and knowledge is a durable solution that keeps communities on board, one that I hope will be considered going forward.

Finally, I will turn to the amendments in the name of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) and my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). On new clause 1, on the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, it is clear that that was not envisaged by the Belfast-Good Friday agreement, but it is becoming an issue that must be dealt with through collective agreement. Polling shows, particularly among younger people, that identity is no longer binary. People identify as Irish, British and neither. It is far from inconceivable that the first and second-placed parties could come from neither Unionism nor nationalism. That raises important questions for the post-Belfast-Good Friday agreement and post-St Andrews power sharing mechanisms. I urge the Secretary of State not to put off serious consideration on this topic any longer. New clause 1, in the name of the hon. Member for North Down, raises questions that cannot be ignored and it is time for collective discussion.

On new clauses 2 and 4, we recognise the value and logic of a more consensual approach to electing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as envisaged by the Belfast-Good Friday agreement.

On new clause 3, in the name of the hon. Member for North Down and my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle and for Belfast South, the logic is again clear. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have exactly the same powers: each have an equal say in the affairs of Northern Ireland and each have a fundamental right for their position to be respected. Equality was the essence and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and that is reflected in the joint powers held by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. New clause 3 reflects that, and it is one the Secretary of State should take away and look at seriously. Whichever tradition is elected to the position of First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be respected. Failure to do so simply undermines the principles of the Good Friday agreement. We hope the Minister will seriously consider the proposals.

Conor Burns Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Conor Burns)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to be back at the Dispatch Box. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I might briefly beg the indulgence of the House. I was in my office on Sunday afternoon, having had a very busy period in my first weeks in the Northern Ireland Office. There were some letters on my desk that were addressed as personal. I opened one to find it was a letter congratulating me on returning to Government from our late colleague Sir David Amess. I would just like to place on record my tribute to David. I knew him well. We served together on the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See and had very many enjoyable trips to Rome. He had an irrepressible and irreverent sense of humour, and one was always cheered up by being in David’s company.

This has been a fascinating debate. It has been a debate, if I may say so, of two parts: the debate that makes reference to what is actually on the Order Paper and the amendments that have been tabled; and then there was the majority of the debate, which bore very little relationship to what is on the Order Paper or the amendments before the House. I will, in endeavouring to respond to various points, try to stick to the amendments and the Order Paper.

The Bill is deliberately limited in its scope. It is designed to implement the agreements reached under New Decade, New Approach. I make this point to all hon. Members who sit for Northern Ireland constituencies. Critically, those agreements were entered into by the parties in Northern Ireland. That is why we deliberately limited what we seek to do here. We are seeking to implement those commitments. We do not think it is the role of Her Majesty’s Government to innovate in this space when future changes, were they to be made, should be driven by the parties in Northern Ireland.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand entirely the point the Minister makes, but there have been occasions when the Government—both Governments, in fact—have given commitments. One is on an Irish language Act, or legislating for Irish language provisions and the rest of the cultural package. The Government said that they would do that by the end of October if legislation or agreement was not reached in Stormont. A spokesman for the Government reiterated that commitment at the start of this month. Can the Minister tell us when he is going to bring that legislative package forward? If he cannot tell us that today, can he at least give an assurance that the Government will hold to their word, and are still committed to legislating for Irish language and other cultural provisions?

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the Government have no intention of introducing an Irish language Act. We will bring forward a cultural package in which Irish language will play a part, but he knows as well as I do that language in Northern Ireland is often analysed very carefully, so we are not proposing such an Act. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have more to say on that in due course.

I read carefully the Committee stage and evidence sessions of the Bill to familiarise myself with the content before this debate. I place on record my appreciation for my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who had a very clear grasp of matters.

In essence, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) summed up the Bill in his intervention on the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry). This Bill implements the commitments in New Decade, New Approach; it does no more and no less. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) of course oversaw the negotiations that gave rise to that document. This Bill delivers on our commitments and seeks to put the institutions into a more sustainable format, should we ever—as we hope we do not—reach a position where the institutions again become vulnerable.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) hit the nail on the head: what the people in Northern Ireland want us to focus on is the national health service and deprivation. That was certainly the message I got when I visited the Caw/Nelson Drive Community Action Group in his constituency and the Greater Shantallow Area Partnership. They were talking to me not about the intricacies of governance in Northern Ireland, but about their lives in their community, and how the Executive and the UK Government could make their lives better. That should absolutely be our focus.

There was an outbreak of consensus between the hon. Member for Foyle and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I had a very enjoyable visit to the latter’s constituency. I met the Portavogie fishermen, who were powerful advocates for what needs to happen to support the fishing sector in Northern Ireland, and I enjoyed my visit to Castle Gardens primary school near the Bowtown estate. The hon. Gentleman, too, talked about health and education. Those are the priorities, and hopefully the stabilising measures we are bringing forward today will ensure that the Executive remains functioning and operational and can get on with those important matters within the devolved space—in particular, the national health service in Northern Ireland, which is under great stress indeed.

Another axis developed during the debate between my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). It is a rare thing that they find common ground and consensus. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset talked about the six months, and I would say to him that six months is a limit, not a target. We are trying to create maximum space, but we would hope that the Northern Irish parties would want to move quickly.

My hon. Friend suggested that perhaps the agreements were past their sell-by date. It is for the parties in Northern Ireland, if they want to innovate in that space, to get together and talk, but we are very clear that our job is to implement, to arbitrate and to oversee the agreements as they stand. Some of the amendments concerning the titles of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and some of the points made about the changing demographics within Northern Ireland may be things that the parties in Northern Ireland will want to come together to address, but we do not believe it is our role to be forcing that change on the parties in Northern Ireland within the devolved space without their consent.

Other parts of the Bill come, of course, from the requests of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, particularly the revisions around the ministerial code. We have taken what they have said and sought to put it into the Bill. We have also sought to return the petition of concern to the purpose for which it was originally intended and to make it more functional.

This is a straightforward and sensible set of proposals, aimed, as I said, at putting the governance system in Northern Ireland on to a more stable footing, to recognise some of the concerns that have been put to us, to honour the commitments that Her Majesty’s Government entered into in New Decade, New Approach. I commend the Bill to the House.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make some brief comments in closing the debate. First, I thank everyone who took part and presented their views. It was a largely good-natured debate. I thank in particular those on both Front Benches, including on the Government Front Bench, for their comments in that regard.

There is, shall we say, a certain tension between those who want to faithfully implement New Decade, New Approach—I include myself in that category—and those who acknowledge that we are almost two years on from that point, a lot of politics has happened and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. We must be mindful of the next set of crises that are coming; sadly, this is Northern Ireland, and there is always a crisis around the corner, so we must be mindful to anticipate that in a reasonable way and act ahead of time, for once, rather than having to do so after the crisis emerges.

--- Later in debate ---
Brandon Lewis Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Brandon Lewis)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

In doing so, I acknowledge the hard work that has got us to this point. I pay tribute to former Secretaries of State for their role in supporting institutions in Northern Ireland during the most recent collapse. As this is the first time I have been at the Dispatch Box since the sad news, I pay particular tribute to James Brokenshire. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Absolutely; I appreciate the comments from across the House. Both as a friend I have known for just over two decades, and in his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he showed truly admirable dedication to the people he represented, to colleagues and to friends, and dedication and commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.

I also want to thank hon. Members from all political parties who participated in debating the merits of the Bill. In particular, I thank the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), for their diligent scrutiny efforts and broad support for the measures set out in this Bill, and for their comments today.

I also express my thanks to colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Office of the Speaker of the Assembly, and to those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies in this House, all of whom have contributed to and been part of the work that has led to today, and the negotiations on New Decade, New Approach.

I acknowledge the hard-working civil servants, here in Whitehall and in Belfast. Not only did they support the successful negotiation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, but they have since helped the progress of the Bill and continually help to deliver on the fundamental commitments made by this Government within that deal—including, I have no doubt, some very late nights supporting my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who would have put in those hours of effort in the lead-up to the final agreement of this Bill. I say a huge thank you to everyone who has been involved.

I reaffirm our view that our Union is strongest when its institutions work well, work together and deliver real change on the issues that matter, as colleagues have mentioned today. For Northern Ireland, that means properly functioning institutions, both in Stormont and Westminster, that allow Stormont to focus on the core issues that, as colleagues across parties have said today, must be focused on. To have one third of the population on a waiting list is not good enough for the Northern Ireland health service. Some 23 years since the Good Friday agreement, only to have approximately 7% of the population benefiting from integrated education is not good enough for the people of Northern Ireland, and we must move further on that together.

The Bill is a focused Bill. It will deliver necessary and well overdue reforms to strengthen the sustainability of institutions in Northern Ireland, update the ministerial code of conduct and reform the petition-of-concern mechanism. These measures, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has outlined, were all agreed by the main political parties in Northern Ireland when the Executive were restored, and it would be remiss of us to begin to tweak and change the details here in Westminster without further agreement from the parties. I am confident that those in the Executive and the Assembly will continue to work in the same good faith in which the measures were negotiated, as we in Parliament will; I will come back in a few moments to comments made on that point.

For those reasons, the House should support the Bill’s Third Reading. UK Governments of all colours and types have worked to maintain peace and encourage political stability in Northern Ireland over the decades. I am grateful to the Opposition for welcoming the Bill and the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

The Government accept, however, that this is just one piece of the jigsaw. The positive difference that a restored Executive have made to the people of Northern Ireland is clear to see, despite the great challenges that we have all had as a result of covid-19—particularly as the Executive were restored just days before the covid pressure came upon us all. The past 18 months have demonstrated that a power-sharing Executive can work together under the hardest of circumstances to find compromise and act in the shared interests of all communities in Northern Ireland. The Bill can only empower their capability in that respect.

The Government have listened to and are grateful for all contributions made by Members of this House. I appreciate that it is frustrating for some Members that we have been unable to accept non-Government amendments, despite the great intentions behind them, some of which have been outlined today. That is because many go beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach, although I note the comment from the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) that we are now two years on and that there are some things in New Decade, New Approach that, as time moves on and we learn more, we need to look at.

But my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon is right: we need to focus on delivering what was agreed. As co-guarantors of New Decade, New Approach, we have a duty to ensure that, for all people in Northern Ireland, the measures are delivered as they were agreed upon by the main parties.

Members of this Chamber have expressed eagerness for the delivery of further commitments made under the New Decade, New Approach agreement and will be glad to hear that we have made good progress. For example, we have appointed the Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner; introduced legislation to further enshrine the armed forces covenant in law; published reports on the use of the petition-of-concern mechanism in the Assembly; contributed to the creation of a new Northern Ireland graduate entry medical school in Derry/Londonderry, which I agree we want to see developed further; and supplemented the new deal for Northern Ireland’s £400 million fund to promote Northern Ireland as a cyber security hub, to name just a few things.

There is more to come. We have made commitments to ensure that areas that were committed to be delivered within the mandate for Stormont will be delivered; a cultural package is part of that, and we will do that. We are proud of the progress made thus far. The UK Government are committed to ensuring that New Decade, New Approach is delivered in full. I reassure hon. Members that further progress will be made in due course.

Both for the Executive and for us, covid has meant decisions being made, and pressure being put on legislative time, on decisions and on work done—we all understand that. As we move out of covid, we want to move quickly and get things done, and I hope that the Executive will be doing the same.

Simon Hoare Portrait Simon Hoare
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May I go back to the cultural package? I think the House’s understanding is very clear as to how my right hon. Friend envisages dealing with the matter. However, is he able to say a little more, not so much about what it might be called as about when we might actually see it, if indeed this place needs to see it—or is it his expectation that Stormont will deliver it?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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My hon. Friend the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee highlights an important point. It is still technically possible for the Executive to start a procedure that would allow the package to be delivered within the mandate, which has always been the intent, the focus and the desire for those involved in New Decade, New Approach. As I have said, we are very clear that, if it becomes clear that the Executive are unable to do that, or are not moving it forward, we will bring forward legislation to deliver the cultural package as set out in NDNA—no more, but no less. We will do that; I will not go further than that at the moment.

The purpose of the Bill is to implement what was agreed by all parties in the New Decade, New Approach deal. During the passage of the Bill, including this afternoon, there has been sensible, interesting and well-argued debate on the wider institutions and options in Northern Ireland. I look forward to seeing discussions continue among the Northern Ireland parties and to engaging on these matters with them and with colleagues here, as well as to following discussions in the other place, as the hon. Member for North Down rightly outlined.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry
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Could the Secretary of State go slightly further and give an assurance that, if the House of Lords considers potential further reforms, and if soundings from the Northern Ireland political parties show consensus in relation to them, the Government will be open-minded about legislating—either in the Bill, which may be the most obvious opportunity, or in other legislation—to put them into effect, particularly ahead of the next Assembly election?

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Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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I am always open-minded about listening to ideas and options, particularly for things that come together on which there is agreement between the parties. As others, including my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, have said, the important point is about New Decade, New Approach: the issues that we have dealt with in the Bill were agreed, negotiated and discussed among all the parties in Northern Ireland. We need to see those discussions continuing. If there are things on which all parties agree and on which Westminster is required to legislate, I am very open-minded about looking at them, but there needs to be a discussion that has support in Northern Ireland widely and across the Executive.

We will continue to work closely with the Opposition, the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland to deliver on the wider promises of our New Decade, New Approach agreement and its commitments for the people of Northern Ireland, including ensuring that we are levelling up as we build back better across the whole United Kingdom. We are resolute—I will continue to be personally resolute and determined—in promoting Northern Ireland’s place in the world, its opportunity and its integral place in and importance to the United Kingdom. In doing so, we will ensure that, with New Decade, New Approach and its commitments, we deliver for all people in Northern Ireland, through New Decade, New Approach and beyond. I commend the Bill to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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Labour helped to secure the precious Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and it remains one of our proudest political legacies. We therefore welcome attempts to safeguard power sharing and improve the sustainability of the Executive, the Assembly and the institutions, which collapsed following a political crisis and took three years to restart.

In Committee and on Report, we outlined at length our concerns about some of the flaws that we saw in the Bill and sought to correct. It is disappointing that those concerns have not been taken on board, particularly as they are likely to be tested sooner or later.

The instability in recent months has been unsettling for all of us who cherish the Good Friday agreement and who believe that its institutions and the principles that underpin it represent the best way forward for Northern Ireland. As ever, that instability has been most keenly felt by the people of Northern Ireland.

Power sharing is the scaffolding of peace. Without it, the Good Friday agreement is fundamentally undermined. It is integral to the trust that communities have in the post-Good Friday agreement landscape, and it underpins the devolution of the powers contained in it. We should not forget the evidence given by Jon Tonge, who reminded us that devolution of power remains overwhelmingly popular: he said that when voters have been asked “What is your preferred mode of governance?”,

“direct rule has never come above 15% as a preferred option. Devolved power sharing is overwhelmingly a preferred option that comes back from…surveys”.––[Official Report, Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Public Bill Committee, 29 June 2021; c. 7, Q5.]

People in Northern Ireland are emerging from one of the most profound health crises that it has ever faced. A third of the entire population are languishing on health waiting lists, nearly 300 children are without a post-primary place for next year’s term and people are recovering from the deepest recession on record. In that scenario, it is unthinkable not to have a functioning Executive. For all political leaders in Northern Ireland, that must be the priority in the coming days and weeks.

It is partly for that reason that the Labour party supports the Bill, but our broader concern relates to the time it has taken to bring the Bill to this stage. We strongly urge the Government to look at how they can fast-track the remainder of its passage. It has now been 22 months since they agreed to implement this legislation to preserve power sharing, and we fear that they are sleepwalking towards a political crisis.

It is also disgraceful that the Secretary of State previously said that we would expect a cultural package and an Irish language Act by the end of October 2021—

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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Just to be very clear—the hon. Lady should look back at the record—we have always said that we will deliver a cultural package. There has never been discussion of an Irish language Act; that is not what is in NDNA. It is a cultural package. It is important that the Opposition get their facts right.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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The House was promised the commissioning of an Irish language Act by the end of October 2021. That is where we are now, and it is nowhere to be seen. The Secretary of State’s refusal to give a date is a disgrace, and a betrayal of the people of Northern Ireland.

This legislation has simply come too late to address the current political instability in Northern Ireland. Given the political crisis there, and the ongoing warnings about the collapse of the Executive, Labour pushed for amendments to ensure that it was implemented without delay. As it stands, even if it were passed before Christmas there would still be a months-long commencement clause, leaving it highly unlikely to be in force to prevent instability in the coming months. We would like to hear a firm commitment from the Secretary of State to fast-tracking it through the House of Lords, and a clear timetable for it being enacted. We cannot wait months when we may have weeks. Will the Secretary of State address that? If so, we will work with him to ensure that the Bill is on the statute book within weeks.

The instability that the Bill in part attempts to address has not emerged out of thin air, and I fear that the delay in bringing it forward is symptomatic of the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland. Too often over the past decade, Northern Ireland has been an afterthought here. As the consequences of decisions taken by Ministers have played out in Northern Ireland, the Government have frequently behaved as though they had found themselves at the scene of an accident entirely beyond their control. Too often, Northern Ireland has been overlooked and the work to deliver on the promise of peace has been allowed to stall.

It would be foolish to assume that the provisions of the Bill alone can guarantee stability; they cannot. To do that, Ministers must address the effects of their own actions, which have shaken faith in Northern Ireland. Progress has stalled and instability has grown. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement has been treated as a crisis management tool, rather than as the vehicle through which lives and communities can be transformed.

Although Labour supports the Bill, we believe that there are several missed opportunities for the Government to refocus on delivering on the promise of peace, which they have allowed to stall. A Bill of Rights, integrated education and housing, women’s rights and giving communities a real say in decision making were the essence of the Good Friday agreement and the shared future that it imagined, but progress on them has been virtually non-existent over the past decade. We do not believe that the instability we see can be separated from the failure to deliver on such commitments. Above all, the way to guarantee stability is to demonstrate that commitments made will be honoured, and that Westminster is still prepared to step up and honour our side of the bargain.

I reiterate our support for the limited measures in the Bill and ask the Secretary of State to speed up the timetable as a matter of urgency, but I wish to make it clear that this is only a start: there is much, much more work to be done.

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Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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With the leave of the House, I shall briefly sum up. I again thank all colleagues in the House. We have seen throughout today’s discussions, both on Report and on Third Reading, a good, wide range of subjects covered. To build on the point made by the Minister of State, some of those points were about the Bill, which relates to the New Decade, New Approach deal, and I want to touch on them.

As was welcomed when we started deliberations on the Bill, it is the first Bill relating to Northern Ireland that the House has had a chance to consider without operating under emergency processes for some time. As we have seen, we have had a chance to have a good, wide discussion about the issues in the Bill. That is a good thing and has allowed people the opportunity to air and talk about issues that go beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. As I said earlier, I look forward to continuing those discussions and seeing whether we can find some agreement across all the parties in the Executive to move things forward together.

I say gently to those colleagues who have raised issues as things to be amended today—I make this point to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones)—that when we talk about making sure that we work through consensus and move things forward together in Northern Ireland, that means having all the parties come to an agreement, not just rushing into doing things today. It is right that we have these discussions.

On the package and questions raised by the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), and others, it is disappointing to see the Opposition, in a well-informed debate that has been good and well-mannered in large part, looking to play politics around these issues. Let us be clear that the cultural package will include a new office for identity and cultural expression, to promote cultural pluralism and inclusion across all identities and cultures, alongside commissioners to protect and enhance the Irish language and develop the language, arts and literature with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland. We have already been making progress on those things. When the hon. Member for Pontypridd speaks at the Dispatch Box, she may want to make sure that she has done some research. To help her out, I suggest that she looks back to the written ministerial statement from 21 June, because our position is still as per that statement and we will still be seeking to deliver that, as we promised we would, if the Executive themselves cannot take it forward.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Brandon Lewis Portrait Brandon Lewis
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No—the hon. Lady spoke earlier.

We have already delivered £2 million-worth of a funding package announced earlier this year, including for Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish language broadcast fund and the Ulster-Scots broadcast fund. We will continue to deliver on that, stand by our word and make sure that the cultural package is delivered within the mandate, but this Bill relates to the New Decade, New Approach deal and I look forward to seeing its progress continue in the weeks and months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

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Moved by
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Caine Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Caine) (Con)
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My Lords, before I move to Bill itself, I first thank noble Lords from across the House for their good wishes on my appointment. I am pleased to see in the Chamber this evening a number of noble Lords with whom I go back many years.

It is also a great pleasure to stand across the Dispatch Box from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. The noble Baroness was a very popular and highly regarded Minister during a difficult period of direct rule in Northern Ireland, while the noble Lord served two distinguished terms as shadow Secretary of State. I look forward to working with them both, as I do the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, on his return to this House, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for the Liberal Democrats. Whatever differences we might occasionally have on points of detail, I am committed to maintaining a bipartisan approach, which has served Northern Ireland so well over many years and under successive Governments.

I also place on record both my own personal support and that of Her Majesty’s Government as a whole for the 1998 Belfast agreement, the constitutional principles it enshrines, all the institutions it has established and the rights it guarantees across the whole community. I first became directly involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland some 33 years ago and well remember the misery, death and destruction caused by totally unjustified and unjustifiable terrorist campaigns, and of course the security response that they necessitated. I for one will always salute the heroic service and sacrifice of the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and our Armed Forces.

The fact that those dark days are now mercifully almost a quarter of a century behind us is in large part down to the success of the 1998 agreement and its successors. It has been the bedrock of the progress achieved in Northern Ireland over recent years, and protecting it must be at the heart of everything we do. This Government will not take any risks with the hard-gained relative peace and stability ushered in by an agreement that remains an inspiration for so many across these islands and the wider world.

While of course that agreement is not beyond change and improvement, as has occurred a number of times through successor agreements and with further changes in this Bill, its principles are enduring. Not least of those is the consent principle, which guarantees Northern Ireland’s integral place within this United Kingdom for so long as that is the wish of a majority of those living there—a constitutional position that I, as a Conservative and a unionist, strongly support and on which I will never be neutral.

To strengthen the stability and effective functioning of the devolved institutions established by the 1998 agreement is the core purpose of the Bill before the House. It does so by implementing a number of the commitments made by Her Majesty’s Government in the New Decade, New Approach document of January 2020: extending the period for the appointment of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive following an election; enabling Ministers to remain in office and carry out functions for a period after the First and Deputy First Minister have ceased to hold office or following an Assembly election; reforming the use of the petition of concern in the Assembly; and updating the code of conduct for Executive Ministers in accordance with a request from the Northern Ireland Executive and in line with the recommendations around transparency and accountability in New Decade, New Approach.

That document was, of course, arrived at in the weeks immediately following the decisive general election result of December 2019, in which voters in Northern Ireland made very clear their desire to see Stormont return. The document was instrumental in securing the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. Yet the document itself was the product of almost three years of painstaking negotiations under three successive Secretaries of State following the resignation of Martin McGuinness in January 2017 and the subsequent collapse of the institutions. They were three years in which Northern Ireland was effectively left in a state of political limbo, with no functioning Executive or Assembly and with civil servants able to take only limited decisions.

I know from personal experience just how deeply frustrating a period it was, including many late nights, long hours and false starts. Many of the measures in New Decade, New Approach, and subsequently in this Bill, are designed to avoid a repeat of this. As a result, the Bill is fairly narrow in scope, though I appreciate that noble Lords in this House with a vast wealth of experience in Northern Ireland might want to make some broader points that go beyond the confines of the legislation before us.

I turn to the clauses of this short Bill. Clause 1 amends Sections 16A and 16B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by extending the time available to appoint a First or Deputy First Minister following the resignation of either, or after the first meeting of the Assembly following an election. Currently, the period for ministerial appointments is only seven days after the First or Deputy First Minister ceases to hold office, or 14 days after an Assembly election, after which the Secretary of State is by law bound to set a date for another election within a reasonable timeframe.

The Bill extends the period for filling ministerial offices to a six-week period that is automatically renewed, unless the Assembly resolves otherwise on a cross-community vote, for a maximum of three times up to a total of 24 weeks. This is designed to allow more time for discussions between the parties and to facilitate a resolution of issues and avoid the need to rush headlong into another election. It will also give some parties the opportunity to reflect on whether they wish to be in the Executive at all or, alternatively, to go into opposition.

Clause 2 will enable existing Ministers to remain in post following an election until the end of the 24-week period for appointing new Ministers, rather than ceasing to hold office automatically on polling day as at present, or for a maximum of 48 weeks since a functioning Executive was in place. This is designed to provide for greater stability and sustainability of the devolved institutions and for continuity in decision-making, thus avoiding the scenario I have described following the effective collapse of the institutions in January 2017, when Northern Ireland was left with little or no governance.

Clause 3 amends Section 32 of the 1998 Act which currently requires the Secretary of State to propose a date for an Assembly election in two scenarios: first, where the Assembly resolves to dissolve itself by a two-thirds majority, and, secondly, where the existing period for appointing all Executive Ministers, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, expires without those offices being filled. This Bill places the Secretary of State under a duty to propose an election date as soon as is reasonably practical and within 12 weeks of either scenario having taken place. This provides greater legal certainty over the date of an election than at present. Clause 3 also allows the Secretary of State to certify or call an Assembly election at any point after the end of the first six-week period for appointing new Ministers if he considers that there is not sufficient representation among Ministers to secure cross-community confidence in the Assembly.

Clause 4 substitutes a revised ministerial code of conduct which sets out expectations for the behaviour of Ministers, including provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, public appointments, the use of resources and information management. This is an excepted matter and, as such, exclusively for Parliament, and follows a request from the former First Minister and Deputy First Minister, with Executive approval.

Clause 5 reforms the petition of concern in the Assembly to reduce its use and restore it to its original intention in the 1998 agreement. The Bill keeps the existing threshold for triggering the petition at 30 Assembly Members but introduces a requirement that they must be from two or more parties. Once lodged, any petition will have to be confirmed after a period of 14 days’ reflection. The Bill limits the matters in which a petition can be lodged and prevents the Speaker and deputies from signing.

Finally, Clauses 6 to 9 deal with repeals, extent and commencement.

Nobody claims that the Bill will be a panacea should we again be in the unfortunate situation in which the devolved institutions come under severe political strain. It does, however, contain important safeguards against a situation arising in which one party can simply crash the institutions and leave Northern Ireland effectively with limited or no governance at all.

The Bill faithfully implements the commitments of the UK Government as set out in New Decade, New Approach to make the devolved institutions more resilient and more sustainable, so that they can continue to focus on delivering for the benefit of the whole community in Northern Ireland.

Successive surveys and the 2019 general election demonstrate—I think conclusively—that inclusive, power-sharing devolution within the United Kingdom is the preferred form of governance for most people in Northern Ireland. That is also the Government’s preference, and we are determined to do whatever we can to make devolution work in order to build a brighter, stronger and more prosperous Northern Ireland—a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows and society is more united. This short Bill takes a number of steps to help us on that course and, in that spirit, I commend it to the House.

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to such an excellent and well-informed debate this evening and, if I may say so, for giving a new Minister such a warm welcome—so much so that I was thinking of inviting the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, to do some of my PR in future. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for reminding me of some of my misspent years in the Red Lion public house during the 1990s. As part of my approach to this role, my door is always open to noble Lords on all sides of the House. Whatever concerns, issues or queries they have about Northern Ireland, however big, however small, they should always feel free to contact me and to come to see me and talk about matters.

The quality of the contributions this evening on all sides of the House is testimony to the expert knowledge and interest that so many Members of your Lordships’ House have in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I am, of course, very grateful for the general welcome of the Bill and its provisions. I welcome many of the comments made and look forward to discussing a number of them in greater detail and at greater length, no doubt, in Committee and during the passage of the Bill through the House.

As we heard, the Bill implements a number of the commitments set out in the New Decade, New Approach deal/agreement/document—however you want to describe it—made in January last year. It will improve the sustainability of the devolved institutions. It is not just on legislative commitments that the Government have been delivering through New Decade, New Approach. There are other areas outside the scope of the Bill, which include the appointment of a Northern Ireland Veterans Commissioner for the first time, legislation to enshrine further the Armed Forces covenant in law, UK Government contributions to the creation of a new graduate-entry medical school in Londonderry/Derry and funding to promote Northern Ireland as a cybersecurity hub, which are all commitments in New Decade, New Approach.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, mentioned some of the economic issues in Northern Ireland. The Government are supporting the Northern Ireland economy through the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund, the community ownership fund and, of course, the spending review that delivered the largest funding settlement for Northern Ireland since the start of devolution in 1998-99. Taken alongside the more than 360,000 jobs protected as a result of government schemes during the pandemic, this underlines to many noble Lords the strength and security that Northern Ireland gains as part of the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Turning to the debate itself, most of the contributions fell into one of three categories: those relating directly to the narrow provisions of the Bill, those dealing with possible broader reforms of the devolved institutions—what might be deemed other strand 1 issues—and those more generally about the situation in Northern Ireland, notably, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, talked about, legacy, and of course contributions from across the House that dealt with the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol.

I shall try, in the time available, to respond to as many of these points as I can, beginning with a number of issues that were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. She, along with many other noble Lords, highlighted the importance of the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. As I outlined in my opening speech, I remain very personally committed to those institutions. I have worked in the Northern Ireland Office during periods of direct rule, which I have to say were very unsatisfactory, as has the noble Baroness. Like her, I think that the institutions are far easier to collapse and dismantle than they are to bring back together. They were down between 2002 and 2007 for five long years, and we just experienced the lack of functioning institutions from 2017 to 2020, very much to the detriment of Northern Ireland.

I agreed with a number of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, about the beauty of the architecture of the agreement. For me, one key aspect of that is the way in which the agreement is able to accommodate difference, but in ways that allow us all to work together. I think that is terribly important.

A number of noble Lords referred to the commencement clauses in the Bill—I shall deal with those straightaway—and to the speed with which the Bill had been brought forward, or the lack thereof, in the view of the noble Baroness. The reality is that the provisions in the Bill were only ever intended to be made in relation to the next Assembly mandate—so never necessarily in the context of this Assembly—and the commencement date does follow the conventional “two months after Royal Assent”. However, if the political situation changes dramatically, that is something that the Government will be prepared to look at during the passage of the Bill through your Lordships’ House; noble Lords have my assurance on that.

A number of noble Lords raised what were described as unfulfilled commitments from New Decade, New Approach and from previous agreements. A Bill of rights is an issue that has obviously been around since the 1998 agreement. The agreement itself, as somebody pointed out, is actually quite ambiguous in its wording around a Bill of rights. The issue has always been around consensus, or lack thereof. New Decade, New Approach does contain provision for an ad hoc Assembly committee to look at this, and we look forward to seeing work on that.

On language, it is important to stress that what the Government are proposing to bring forward is not just around language, but a balanced package that covers identity culture and language, and we will do so as soon as parliamentary time allows.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to caretaker Ministers and the powers they would have. We would expect, as New Decade, New Approach sets out, that Ministers who are still in office would have regard to the Administration’s previous programme for government. There would be constraints: cross-cutting issues would still have to go to an Executive for executive approval. If we were in a scenario where there was no First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the Executive could not meet, so those cross-cutting issues could not be agreed anyway.

There are clear limitations on which issues caretaker Ministers could take decisions on, but the principle that there is continuity of decision-making in Northern Ireland is very important. The alternative could well mean just going back to the situation that we endured between 2017 and 2020, which nobody found satisfactory and is one of the reasons for the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, talked about Clause 3 and sufficient representation in the Executive. New Decade, New Approach does not define what is meant by that, and the Bill essentially follows that document. As the noble Lord, with his long experience of Northern Ireland affairs, will know, there are some areas where it is sometimes advantageous to give the Secretary of State some leeway and discretion on these matters, which is why it is not defined more clearly in the legislation.

I am very pleased that my noble friend Lord Godson referred to Sir John Chilcot, who was my first Permanent Secretary when I walked through the door of the Northern Ireland Office 30 years ago next month and a very wise and good man. My noble friend made a number of important points about the lack of an Executive during the Brexit process and about the protocol. I commend the work of my noble friend and Policy Exchange, which has consistently taken an interest in this issue and put forward a number of suggestions on the protocol and so on. Those points were reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Bew.

I think back to the summer of 2016, shortly after the referendum, when Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, signed a joint letter setting out the priorities for the Northern Ireland Executive throughout the Brexit process. It is a great tragedy that, as a result of the collapse of the institutions in January 2017, the voice of the Northern Ireland Executive was simply not heard. That is something we should remember and not go back to. The Bill is designed to try to avoid that kind of collapse and political limbo.

The nobles Lord, Lord Hain and Lord Coaker, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, all mentioned legacy. It was the main focus of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Before I respond on legacy, I pay tribute to his work on victims’ payments over the past couple of years. They are now open for application, and I know that he stays in very close touch with groups such as the WAVE Trauma Centre and our mutual former colleague, Dennis Godfrey.

Legacy is an issue that has eluded successive Governments ever since 1998. It was not part of the 1998 agreement. The Labour Government made efforts to deal with it through the Eames-Bradley commission. This time seven years ago, I was permanently based in Stormont House during the discussions that led to the Stormont House agreement, but that was seven years ago. For better or worse and for whatever reasons, the bodies envisaged in Stormont House have never seen the light of day.

The Government are committed to bringing forward legislation to try to deal with this subject, and I hope very soon. It will focus on providing better outcomes for victims and survivors, principally through looking at information recovery but also, importantly, ending the endless cycle of reinvestigations and possible prosecutions of former members of the Armed Forces. I cannot give a precise date for when this will be introduced, but I hope it will be very soon.

A large number of noble Lords mentioned the Northern Ireland protocol. I am slightly limited as to what I can say on that issue, but, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, I assure him that I will discuss these matters with my noble friend Lord Frost and keep in very close contact with him on this crucial subject.

The reality is that the construction and implementation of the protocol has increased burdens on businesses, disadvantaged consumers, diverted trade and contributed to some of the political instability we have seen in Northern Ireland over recent months. An agreement or protocol deemed to be essential for upholding and supporting the Belfast agreement has now had the unintended effect of undermining confidence in and support for that agreement. Therefore, it is very important that the Government iron out the difficulties that are apparent.

Our clear preference, as my noble friend Lord Frost has said many times from this Dispatch Box, is to resolve these issues through agreement and negotiation with the EU. That is very much our preference, but we cannot rule out having to take measures should that agreement not be forthcoming. I remember years ago John Major wringing his hands at a press conference and saying, “Like me or loathe me, don’t bind my hands when it comes to negotiations with Europe.” I think that is very sensible. My noble friend is continuing those important discussions. I agree with the comments of noble Lords behind me from the unionist Benches and elsewhere across the House: it is vital that we resolve this, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s place within our United Kingdom and our internal market is absolutely secure.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred to the code of conduct, the Nolan principles and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It will not surprise him to hear that I am not completely across the detail of those decisions, but I undertake to go back to the department, look into that issue in some more detail and come back to him. On the code of conduct, I think the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked me a rather specific question about who polices the code. That would be the Commissioner for Standards in the Assembly, and the Assembly itself would look into breaches and bring forward whatever sanctions there are.

My noble friend Lord Dodds—he is my noble friend —referred to the petition of concern and where its original purpose is set out. My understanding is that that is contained in strand one, section 5, under the heading “Safeguards”, in the original Belfast agreement, but, not having a copy to hand, I will undertake to give him a fuller response in that respect.

I am conscious of time and the hour. I have endeavoured to deal with a number of the issues raised this evening. If I missed any glaringly obvious ones, I trust noble Lords will forgive me, on this my debut at the Dispatch Box, but I commit to follow up in writing any that I have missed. In the meantime, it just remains for me to thank noble Lords once again for their contributions. I look forward to working very closely with Peers from across the House during the remaining stages of the Bill. On that note, I comment the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister, in his response at Second Reading, provided some clarity on this, indicating that there would be constraints and that cross-cutting issues would still have to go to the Executive for approval. But what happens if there is no First and Deputy First Minister in that period of interregnum? We are supposed to have collective responsibility. Issues are supposed to be taken on a partnership basis. I can remember many times when we did not necessarily have that partnership basis, so I agree with the amendment in the names of my noble friends Lady Smith and Lord Coaker.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to the period between 2017 and 2020. That was a time when civil servants were placed in an invidious position, with limited powers, which piled frustration and anxiety on the wider community. Those civil servants, because of their limited powers, could only take certain decisions. I can well recall the decision in court on the incinerator north of Belfast, where the judge’s judgment indicated that the civil servants had probably acted outwith their powers in this instance.

The Minister was, as I still am, a member of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee. He will recall that the common frameworks came into place in the post-Brexit situation to deal with policy divergence in certain areas devolved to the DAs. Quite a significant amount was devolved to Northern Ireland, but no decisions were taken on those common frameworks during that three-year period because there were no Ministers in place to deal with that—there was no Northern Ireland Executive. The Minister will recall that we in our committee had great difficulty in trying to pursue those common frameworks to their final degree of approval, or to the next stage, where they could be examined with a greater degree of scrutiny. That illustrates the case where there is a need for full-time Ministers.

However, in that period of interregnum, where a Minister’s authority is being extended because of the nature of the difficulties in the Executive, what authority do they have and can that be prescribed in this legislation? Perhaps the Minister could provide us with more clarity and more detail today. If need be, will the Government consider tabling an amendment on Report to deal with this issue and specify the areas of authority?

Lord Caine Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Caine) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful for the warm welcome from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. As my noble friend Lord Empey said to me after Second Reading, it all goes downhill from here. I thank the noble Baroness for her amendment and hope that my response will provide her with some clarity and sufficient reassurance over the role of caretaker Ministers under Clause 2.

It is worth reminding noble Lords of the central purpose of this clause. As noble Lords will recall, the Assembly and Executive ceased to function, in effect, following Martin McGuinness’s resignation in January 2017. As a consequence, Northern Ireland found itself in a state of political limbo, with limited or no decision-making, for nearly three years. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, I sincerely hope that we will never be in that situation again.

During the period while the Executive was not functioning, civil servants, as has been mentioned, were left trying to maintain the machinery of government and provide public services in the absence of ministerial decisions. Without the direction and control of Ministers, those civil servants were significantly limited in the powers that they exercised. The noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to differences of opinion between civil servants over which powers they could exercise and we all remember the court case over the incinerator in north Belfast, around 2018, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred. The noble Lord’s comments yet again underline the unsatisfactory nature of the situation in which we found ourselves.

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, I am conscious that I speak to this group of amendments surrounded by a number of people who were directly responsible for the negotiation of the 1998 agreement. Like her, I pay tribute to them for an agreement which, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, mentioned, is not perfect but has been the bedrock of the relative peace, stability and progress that Northern Ireland has enjoyed over the past 23 years.

The noble Baroness mentioned wincing: I was probably wincing at the prospect of living up to the expectations of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, but I will endeavour to do my best and I am grateful to him for his kind words.

I thank my noble friend Lord Empey and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, for their amendments and the debate that they have generated around the shape of power-sharing and the appointment of the First and Deputy First Ministers. Personally, I am sympathetic to a number of the points that were made in the debate and I dare say that they will be raised again on many occasions in the future, but I respectfully suggest that the Bill is not necessarily the right vehicle in which to address them.

As noble Lords are aware—they will probably be tired of hearing me repeat this—the purpose of the Bill and the reason we are here today is to legislate for commitments made to support the institutions under the New Decade, New Approach deal. These amendments take us somewhat beyond that, even though the issues that they contain have been debated extensively in many talks processes over recent years.

I will discuss each amendment in turn but will make an overarching point. The basis for political progress in Northern Ireland, dating back to the 1990s, has been what is known as the sufficient consensus rule, which is that any important changes to institutions, including even the establishment of the institutions, require sufficient consensus, which means, in effect, the support of parties commanding a majority of unionism and a majority of nationalism. Although a number of proposals in the amendments on the Marshalled List have had significant support in recent talks processes, certainly the ones that I have been involved in, they have not reached that threshold of sufficient consensus in order to be enacted.

On Amendment 2, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, said that the intention was to restore the provision made under the Belfast agreement for the joint election by the Assembly of the First and Deputy First Ministers. I suggest that the amendment goes rather beyond what was agreed in 1998, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, picked up. The 1998 model, as noble Lords will know, appointed the First and Deputy First Ministers on a cross-community basis of parallel consent only, whereas the noble Baroness has included the further cross-community arrangement of a weighted majority of members present and voting. As I say, that goes somewhat beyond what was agreed in 1998.

Amendment 4, in the name of my noble friend Lord Empey, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, seeks to return the process back to the 1998 model set out in the Belfast agreement by reverting to the original wording of Section 16 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. My noble friend will not be surprised to hear me say that I have a huge amount of sympathy for both his amendment and his argument. I am on the record publicly as stating my own belief that the 1998 model was a better model than the one that was agreed at St Andrews. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, who negotiated that agreement, is not present today. I do not doubt for one second his good intentions in changing the appointment mechanism; I just personally believe that the 1998 model was a better one and more accurately reflected the joint nature of the office. So I have considerable sympathy with my noble friend.

However, as I said earlier, we have had discussions around this in the Stormont House negotiations, in the Fresh Start negotiations and in a number of the working groups that led to the New Decade, New Approach agreement. There has not yet been sufficient consensus to go back to the old model—the original model—so ably negotiated by my noble friends Lord Trimble and Lord Empey. I regret that but, unfortunately, and to borrow the phrase that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, used on a previous occasion in this Room, we are where we are.

Amendment 3 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, provides that the First and Deputy First Ministers should be referred to as “Joint First Ministers”. Again, I have been involved in talks processes over the years where this issue has been raised, but there has not been sufficient consensus. The comments of my noble friend Lord Trimble suggest that there still is not sufficient agreement around this particular issue to change it, and certainly not in this Bill.

None of this is to say that the Government are opposed to change in the future. As I said at Second Reading, the Belfast agreement, while containing a number of enduring principles, has continued to evolve as a result of successor agreements. Where parties can reach widespread agreement on further changes, consistent with the underlying principles, the Government would be open to making those changes. However, I do not think that they are for this Bill, which is a very narrowly focused Bill to implement New Decade, New Approach, which was itself an important milestone in restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. On that basis, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

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Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Lab)
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My Lords, I also accept this amendment and declare an interest, in that I am a former MP and Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who served in both for a short time. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that this amendment would prevent a cliff edge from happening, because those who are Members of the Assembly and of Parliament—and many of my colleagues were a Member of Parliament and then became a Member of the Assembly—brought with them a knowledge of legislative procedure. The Northern Ireland Assembly was very different from councils, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, said. It was about bringing forward and scrutinising legislation so, in the early days, it was important to have people of experience there.

I am opposed to double-jobbing, but this amendment brings a transitional phase that would help the situation. I recall an election count for the Assembly in 2016, when my colleague Colin McGrath, who had been a member of Newry, Mourne and Down council, was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The chief executive of the council arrived at the same time as Colin McGrath was elected and asked for his letter of resignation and his computer to be handed over there and then. Whereupon Colin McGrath said, “That indicated that you thought I was going to be elected and it was very august of you to think that. But I am not in a position to do either of those things this evening. You will get them on Monday morning”.

What currently exists gives officials an upper hand, of which people may not have been aware, to execute their responsibilities and feel mighty important. I think there is a case for this amendment, in that it provides for the transitional phase, and allows for that essential knowledge to be carried through and for people to bed down while they transfer to their new situation in a fully pledged way. Then it allows for their replacements to be selected and take their place in the Assembly. It is all done not according to a list system, as it was originally, but from internal systems within parties. We are undergoing one in South Down at the minute, and they can cause consternation among friends and colleagues by creating unnecessary rivalry.

It is important that people concentrate on issues, legislation, scrutiny and investigation, rather than who is going to replace who. That is not good politics, in the truest sense of the word, and is not about service and delivery. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, would make sure of continuity in transition, and of concentration on legislation and the issues that matter to people and on which they expect their elected representatives to deliver for them.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for moving Amendment 5 on dual mandates. I am afraid my noble friend Lord Dodds knows me too well on this issue, because I am about to confess to a degree of mea culpa for putting us in this position in the first place. As my noble friend pointed out, the promise to stop the practice of double-jobbing or dual mandates was a commitment made in the 2010 Conservative and Unionist Northern Ireland manifesto, when my party and that of my noble friend Lord Empey put up joint candidates at the general election. I am afraid I actually drafted that section of the manifesto, along with a speech by David Cameron, given at La Mon House on the eve of the poll in 2010, in which he promised to end the scandal of double-jobbing. So my noble friend is absolutely correct.

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith of Basildon and Lady Suttie, for the amendments in this group.

I shall begin with Amendment 6 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I acknowledge the importance of civic engagement to politics in Northern Ireland and I recall that at times of political difficulty in the past civil society has played an important role in trying to move things forward. Indeed, in the discussions that ultimately led to New Decade, New Approach, there was a body called “Make it Work”, which was a collection of people from across civil society in Northern Ireland. It had a positive impact on the political debate, bringing about a situation in which, eventually, the institutions were re-established.

However, I gently suggest to the noble Baroness that, interesting as her amendment is, using the ministerial code, which essentially deals with ministerial behaviour, as a vehicle for pushing forward policy outcomes and for public policy purposes might not be appropriate.

As the noble Baroness pointed out, we all know that the Civic Forum provided for in the 1998 agreement and the 1998 Act last met in 2002. Since then, various proposals have been put forward to revive it or something akin to it. The Stormont House agreement, in which I was involved seven years ago, almost to the day, proposed a more compact civic advisory panel. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, made clear, New Decade, New Approach proposed that that the existing compact civic advisory panel be reformed to include a renewed membership appointed by way of a public appointments process within six months of the Executive returning. This panel, whenever it is established, will be invited to propose the most appropriate model of engagement on specific issues, including one citizens’ assembly a year.

Having listened to the debate and taken on board the contributions of noble Lords across the Committee, including the noble Lords, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown and Lord Hay of Ballyore, and my noble friend Lord Lexden—who I am delighted to see in his place today, as he interviewed me for my first job 34 years ago in the Conservative research department—I note that this is a matter on which there are clearly differences of opinion.

In summary, I hope that the Executive will make progress on what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, about the time that has elapsed since the re-establishment of the Executive. These are primarily matters for the Executive. I should also point out that the Civic Forum is already legislated for in Section 56 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, so I am not sure that further legislation in this respect is required when it is already on the statute book. On that basis, I urge the noble Baroness to consider withdrawing her amendment.

Amendment 7, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, seeks to change the definition of “cross-community support” in a way that goes beyond the proposals to reform the petition of concern in New Decade, New Approach, although I appreciate that the noble Baroness’s purpose in tabling the amendment is to have a broader debate on designations in the Assembly. That was brought out in noble Lords’ contributions. I point out that, if we were to move to the model as drafted in her amendment, it would give a small minority of MLAs who designate themselves “other” a veto across a wide range of Assembly business and, indeed, could almost paralyse the entire functioning of the Assembly. While I appreciate that these are important matters for debate, the amendment would be defective in operation.

I also appreciate that the current system of designation has not always been universally popular or accepted. In her comments, the noble Baroness reflected the long-standing position of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, which has consistently argued, over many years, that the designation system institutionalises sectarianism. It has proposed a move away from that and the introduction of weighed majorities, along with a move away from mandatory coalition to a more voluntary arrangement.

Whatever the merits of these—and one thing I am not going to do is speculate on the possible outcome of the Assembly election in May—the noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear me say that they are not changes that this House can unilaterally make during the passage of this Bill. At the time of the 1998 agreement, the current arrangements were considered the best way to secure cross-community consent for legislation. If, in the future, there should be sufficient consensus—I return to that phrase time and again—to move away from the current designation system to an updated model, we would be happy to look again at this question, but I suggest that this is not quite the moment and urge the noble Baroness not to move her amendment.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. Indeed, my amendment is probing. I think I said at the beginning that all the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Coaker are probing amendments to tease out a bit more of the Government’s thinking on a number of these issues. That has not always been easy, and I am grateful to the Minister for taking the time to respond. Had the Minister in the House of Commons responded on this point when it was put to him, we would not have felt the need to raise it today.

For us, this is an issue about trust and engagement in the political process, which all want to see improved across the UK. There are certainly areas where it is lacking. As the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, would say, too often it is the usual subjects. The whole point of something like this is to try to avoid the usual subjects and to reach out to people who do not always feel that their voice is heard, but have a contribution to make. That is something for which we should all strive at different times, however we are engaged in political life and at whatever level.

I am grateful to the Minister. It was never my intention to push this further, but it is useful to get the Government’s thinking and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, for her manuscript amendments. Obviously, she referred to a number of arguments that are currently being considered by the courts and on which I have no intention of commenting today. As my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn generously pointed out, this amendment only came in this afternoon, so I hope noble Lords will forgive me that I have not had the opportunity to study it in detail or discuss it more broadly within the department.

The protocol came up extensively at Second Reading and, on that occasion, I set out the Government’s position on this issue. It is clear that in the construction and implementation of the protocol we have seen a diversion of trade, burdens on business, an impact on consumers and how it has affected confidence in the Belfast agreement and its institutions throughout the community. The irony is not lost that a protocol that was designed primarily to support and uphold the 1998 agreement now risks undermining it.

As I also pointed out at Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Frost is currently engaged in intensive negotiations with the European Commission on a number of the problems I have referred to arising from the protocol. As he has made clear to the House on a number of occasions, while progress has been made there still remain substantial gaps. The Government’s hope and intention is that these differences can be resolved through agreement; that is our clear preference. If that is not possible, then we will take whatever steps we feel are necessary to safeguard not just the interests of Northern Ireland but the United Kingdom as a whole, because the protocol impacts the whole of the UK and not just one part of it.

I assure both the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn that the Government are firmly of the view that any solution to the issues arising from the protocol can be lasting only if it has democratic support from across the community in Northern Ireland, ensuring a balanced settlement which is sustainable in the long term. As my noble friend has made clear, the current arrangements are not sustainable, and he is trying to address that issue.

Beyond that, I am not in a position to say a great deal more. At the risk of repetition, this Bill is primarily about implementing New Decade, New Approach, which was instrumental in securing the re-establishment of the devolved institutions after the hugely frustrating period from 2017 to 2020. I respectfully suggest to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that we should press on with passing this Bill, allow my noble friend Lord Frost to press on with his negotiations and secure the right outcome for Northern Ireland. In the meantime, I urge her to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hoey Portrait Baroness Hoey (Non-Afl)
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I thank the noble Lords, Lord Dodds, Lord Trimble and Lord Morrow. All noble Lords here should be concerned about the seriousness of the situation in Northern Ireland; it will not get better if the protocol stays. As we have said many times, in the end the Government have to choose between the Belfast agreement and the protocol. Of course, the Belfast agreement is now being fractured—I think that is the word. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that those who did not speak are in agreement or have been thinking so carefully about it all that they will come back on Report. I thank the Minister because the amendment was tabled this morning and I appreciate that he may not have seen it until later in the day. Obviously Members need to look at it, study it and think about it.

Normal dealings in Northern Ireland are not going to continue unless this is sorted. We can no longer ignore it. It is not going to go away. We are wasting our time with the New Decade, New Approach if this is not sorted. Things will get very difficult indeed. In view of what the Minister has said, I hope that he will go away and perhaps discuss the amendment with the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and other members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, and that by the time we get to Report we may have a different view and a different outcome in terms of what can be put on the Order Paper. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
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I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, with whom I find myself in agreement on a range of issues and not only those relating to Northern Ireland. He has brought forward an extremely important amendment in the interests of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this Parliament, we need to know how the long list of commitments that the noble Lord outlined and that have been entered into by the Government are progressing. This is vital information for securing the proper working of the partnership between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There has been much talk of partnership within Northern Ireland, but the union is itself a great partnership and this Parliament needs to be kept properly informed about its progress.

I noted one point about the commitments when they were first brought forward at the beginning of 2020, which was the establishment of a joint UK/Northern Ireland board, to which reference has already been made. Oral Questions that I put down a little while ago revealed that the board had come into existence and had had a first meeting. Its continued meetings are vital to ensuring the success of what has been agreed. My noble friend kindly made reference to me earlier, saying that I had given him a helping hand some 30 years ago—a helping hand that I do not regret in any way—but I hope that, in replying, he might be able to say a little more about this board, which clearly occupies a central position in the matters that we have been discussing under this amendment.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for these amendments. If I may, I will on this occasion take them in reverse order.

As I mentioned at Second Reading, the Bill follows the standard practice of allowing two months before provisions come into effect following Royal Assent. However, I have listened to the arguments and I am very happy to repeat the assurance I gave the noble Baroness at Second Reading that we will go away and return to this matter on Report. She has my assurance on that point.

I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. He raised a number of important points about the implementation of the agreement. He reeled off, if I may say, quite a long list from Annex A—

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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Not all of it.

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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No, not all of it, but I hope he will forgive me if I do not reply in detail to each and every point. I will look at Hansard and write to him on any that I have missed.

The noble Lord was particularly focused on a number of the financial commitments. I can tell him that, thus far, the Government have allocated over £700 million of the £2 billion funding in New Decade, New Approach, which had the impact of ending the nurses’ pay dispute he referred to in his comments. As I mentioned at Second Reading, we have already contributed towards the creation of the Northern Ireland graduate-entry medical school in Londonderry and supplemented the new deal for Northern Ireland with £400 million to promote Northern Ireland as a cybersecurity hub. The noble Lord referred to the fiscal council, which has been established. It was originally a commitment in the fresh start agreement, which was repeated in New Decade, New Approach. That has been established.

Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
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Could I invite my noble friend to tell us a little about the fiscal council, how it is composed and the work it is going to do?

Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine (Con)
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My understanding is that the council is chaired by Robert Chote who, my noble friend will recall, ran the Office for Budget Responsibility. It is a similar body, and will comment on the Executive’s budget and spending plans. One benefit of the financial settlement that was set out in the spending review is that—this is currently being negotiated—Northern Ireland is able to get away from the in-year or single-year spending reviews that have been particularly frustrating in recent years. It can now move to a proper, three-year spending review that will provide greater financial stability and certainty. That was welcomed by the fiscal council in a report I looked at, which was published only a couple of weeks ago. This is an important development that will improve not just financial stability but scrutiny of the Executive’s spending plans.

My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, also referred to the joint board. I am advised that it has now met on three occasions, and the Government are committed to maintaining that forum as a means for the UK Government and the Executive to discuss the implementation of many of the commitments in New Decade, New Approach. I hope that reassures my noble friend on both the fiscal council and the joint board, as this work is ongoing and will continue.

I mentioned the spending review. As I said at Second Reading, the settlement in the spending review is the most generous that Northern Ireland, or any of the devolved Administrations, have received since devolution was established in 1998-99.

There are a great many other commitments. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, mentioned the centenary fund, which has benefited from £1 million of UK Government money. There is a host of other non-financial commitments that have not required legislation, some of which I referred to at Second Reading, such as the appointment of the veterans’ commissioner and regulations to bring the flying of the union flag into line with those of the rest of the United Kingdom. They came into force in December 2020 and are a development that I am sure many noble Lords welcome. We have introduced legislation to further enshrine the Armed Forces covenant in law and appointed an advisory committee for the establishment of a Castlereagh foundation, the case for which DUP and UUP Members have long pressed. We have provided £50 million to support low-carbon transport in Northern Ireland, enabling the Infrastructure Minister to announce a new fleet of 145 low-carbon buses for Belfast and the north-west.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine
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That the Bill do now pass.

Motion

Moved by
Lord Caine Portrait Lord Caine
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That the Bill do now pass.

Lord Caine Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Caine) (Con)
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My Lords, I promise to be slightly less dramatic. I first want to express my sincere gratitude to all noble Lords who have participated in proceedings on this short Bill and to thank them for their thoughtful and sometimes challenging contributions, not least on the very odd occasion when the debate has strayed beyond the narrow confines of the Bill.

I welcome the positive engagement and constructive support for the Bill from all sides of the House and put on record my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and all noble Lords from Northern Ireland itself.

I also thank the Bill team at the Northern Ireland Office, officials in the Northern Ireland Assembly and, last but not least, my noble friend, Lord Younger of Leckie—not just for his support and very wise counsel on this piece of legislation, but also for his handling of much Northern Ireland business in your Lordships’ House in recent times.

The Bill has been debated extensively during its passage and I am sure that noble Lords will be relieved to hear that, in accordance with Standing Orders, I do not intend to rehearse its provisions again. It is a faithful implementation of a number of measures contained in the New Decade, New Approach document, which paved the way for the re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland in January 2020 and was itself the product of detailed and lengthy negotiations over a period of nearly three years.

The purpose of the Bill is to seek to give greater resilience to the institutions established under the 1998 Belfast agreement and to provide for greater continuity in decision-making. I am pleased that with the support of opposition parties we have been able to agree on early commencement of the important measures contained in it.

This Government remain deeply committed to the implementation of the Belfast agreement and its successors, and to building a stable, prosperous and shared Northern Ireland, within this United Kingdom, for everybody—a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows and society is stronger and more united. I hope that this Bill, while in no way a panacea, can make a contribution to supporting those fundamental objectives. I beg to move

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I add our thanks to the Minister. As we have just heard in the drama a moment ago, a Minister’s life is not an easy one. I think that we are all still reeling from the shock resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, who clearly cared a great deal about his work. His colleagues will mourn his loss from the Front Benches, and this House will admire his integrity. He may go down in history for the way he resigned, showing his integrity.

I thank the Minister for his work on this Bill, which is, I think, the first one that he has taken through the House, although his commitment, interest and work on Northern Ireland issues for many years have preceded him. In many ways this was a short, perhaps relatively non-controversial, Bill, though we had our moments. I thank him for the way in which he and his Bill team engaged with noble Lords across the House. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, if she were here, would say the same, and would thank him for his meetings.

We had our own dramatic moments as we prepared to come to the House to debate a particular amendment. We heard the Prime Minister say, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, that that amendment would not be moved, when we had all expected it in the afternoon. So perhaps this is the time for dramatic moments in the House. Nevertheless, I add our commitment and our thanks to the noble Lord. We await the further Bill on Northern Ireland that we were supposed to be getting and had expected—the legacy Bill—which will also, I am sure, involve detailed discussions, and I hope that he will be willing to engage in the same way with us on that Bill as on this.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill

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Consideration of Lords amendments
Monday 7th February 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 60-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (17 Jan 2022)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Conor Burns Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Conor Burns)
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I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendment 2.

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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Before I come to the Lords amendments, I say to the House that this is the first occasion that a Northern Ireland Office Minister has been before the House since the withdrawal of the First Minister of Northern Ireland from the Northern Ireland Executive in recent days. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in close contact with the party leaders in Northern Ireland, the Government of the Irish Republic and others. Our strong message to the party of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is that we would rather he returned his party to the Executive. A stable Executive and stable governance are in the interest of the people who matter the most in all this—the people of Northern Ireland.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The Minister must recognise that it is in the hands of the Government to restore the situation in Northern Ireland quickly by simply living up to their promise that there would be no separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of our market in GB, and no constitutional separation between Northern Ireland and the country to which we belong. If the Minister and his Government were to take action to live up to that promise and to take on the EU, we would be back in government tomorrow.

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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As a courtesy, I thought to update the House briefly before the substantive business before us. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that talks between the Government and the Commission to make the changes necessary to the protocol to make it work for all the people of Northern Ireland are ongoing and intense. Those discussions will continue until we get to a satisfactory conclusion. If we do not, the Government’s position has been clear: we will take the necessary steps available to us to act unilaterally.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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Will the Minister give way?

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not; the business of the House that we are dealing with is Lords amendments.

I thank the other place for its scrutiny of the Bill. I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Caine for guiding it through the other place and to my noble friend Viscount Younger for his work in assisting him during the Lords stages of the Bill.

There are two Lords amendments to consider this evening, both of which deal with the commencement clauses of the Bill. Both here and in the other place, the Government were clear that we would consider early commencement if the political situation in Northern Ireland were to warrant it. We listened to the strength of argument put forward by the political parties of Northern Ireland in both Chambers and agreed to make this concession.

Lords amendment 2 will allow for provisions in the Bill to come into effect on the day of Royal Assent. To ensure that there is no ambiguity over whether the provisions of the legislation apply, Lords amendment 1 allows for the relevant provisions in the Bill to apply retrospectively if Royal Assent coincides with the resignation of a First Minister, thus triggering the existing seven-day Executive formation period.

In practice, that means that if Royal Assent is given by Thursday this week, the relevant provisions of the Bill will apply retrospectively, and instead of the seven-day period for filling the offices of First and Deputy First Minister applying, the new period of up to 24 weeks will apply, as agreed under New Decade, New Approach, which was negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who is sitting behind me. I therefore urge the House to agree to the Lords amendments.

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Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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I recently tabled an amendment on immediate commencement, so I am pleased that that has finally come to fruition. In the circumstances, I have a few extremely brief points to make. First, most people in Northern Ireland are not focused on the protocol—it is there in the background, and it does pose challenges—as their priorities are health, jobs, the cost of living and their children’s education. That is where their focus lies and it is important that we fully represent that.

I fear that we are walking into an even bigger crisis after the next Assembly election. If people walk away from power sharing, they do so at their peril, because power sharing devolution is the only way in which Northern Ireland can be successfully governed. That is a clear lesson from history.

The protocol is the product of the Government’s choices around the nature of Brexit. Pragmatic solutions are available if people want to work on them, but what is not available is delusions and fantasies about what is out there. If people want to walk back some of the choices made on Brexit, that is good. However, given the nature of Northern Ireland, there will always be a need for some form of special circumstances. Whenever you leave the single market and customs union, you draw a line on a map, and that will inevitably create some degree of friction, but we have a challenge and a choice to manage it.

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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First, may I say to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), that it is good to be opposite him in the Chamber this evening? I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions, which have, if I may gently say so, strayed slightly beyond the scope of the two amendments that we are debating.

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear with me.

I say to the shadow Secretary of State that the content of this legislation was set out a significant period of time ago. This has not been an emergency piece of legislation; in fact, it is very welcome that this is one of the first pieces of legislation dealing with Northern Ireland that has not been emergency legislation. The debate on the final stages of consideration of Lords amendments was timetabled for today some time ago, although I do concede that the amendments are landing in a period of political turbulence. It is worth remembering that Ministers remain in place, however, and the Assembly continues to sit and can make progress even in the context of the withdrawal of the First Minister and the consequential lack of a Deputy First Minister. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued a written ministerial statement on Friday calling for the DUP to reinsert the First Minister and get the Executive fully back and focusing.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) has rightly taken a huge interest in all this, not least because he was the author of New Decade, New Approach. On the question of the responsibility of ownership of the protocol and the checks, the operation of checks at the port is clearly a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. The protocol is the consequence of an internationally negotiated treaty, which is a responsibility of the United Kingdom Government as a whole. As he will understand, given the live court proceedings I am slightly constrained from saying too much more than that, but we were certainly not seeking in any way to abrogate responsibility.

I want to pick up on my right hon. Friend’s point about charities. Yesterday afternoon, I was in Belfast Cathedral, St Anne’s, as a guest of the Dean. I had gone before Christmas to join the collection of the Black Santa appeal, and I was there yesterday when those involved revealed that they had raised more than £150,000. Many of the charities who will benefit from that want the restoration of stable power sharing and a stable approach, as do the other people I met during the last few days in Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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Does the Minister of State accept that the people of Northern Ireland think they have been in a “call waiting” queue since 1 January 2021? They feel that their opinion has been undervalued and their voice has not been heard. Will the Minister give a commitment to ensuring that the Northern Ireland protocol is done away with, article 16 is initiated and the voice of the people of Northern Ireland is heard in this House and across the whole of Northern Ireland?

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns
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I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that article 16 and its triggering and doing away with the protocol are not the same thing. Triggering article 16 is a provision of the protocol; it does not remove the protocol.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that we understand the destabilising impact of the protocol. The Government remain absolutely committed to resolving the issue of the protocol, the writing of which, by the way, recognises Northern Ireland’s integral place in the internal market of the United Kingdom. I visited a shop in Lisburn before Christmas and was told that it had had to reduce its range of shortbread, because shortbread now requires a veterinary certificate as a result of the butter content. That was clearly not what we signed up to when we agreed to the protocol.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—I will be very nice to him, because I am giving evidence to the Committee tomorrow—tempts us to legislate beyond the scope of what is in New Decade, New Approach. We have very deliberately decided to stay within the scope of what was agreed, because it was agreed by the political parties. That is certainly not to say that some of his suggestions are not without merit.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) talked about the divided nature of society in Northern Ireland. I have to say—I say it in affection—that I think it was slightly superfluous of him to reassure and remind us that he was not a Unionist. He did say that this was all about the build-up to the election, and there was a bit of electioneering in the air, but I suppose that is understandable.

In the moments left to me, let me say that I returned this morning from five nights in Northern Ireland. I bookended my trip with a visit to Clonard monastery on the Falls Road, where I listened to an engaging talk with the Northern Irish boxer Carl Frampton, and with a moving service yesterday at St Matthew’s on the Shankill Road, with a sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury—all part of the 4 Corners festival, bringing together all that unites Belfast and, indeed, wider Northern Ireland—led by Father Martin Magill, a Catholic priest on the Falls, and the Rev. Tracey McRoberts, a Protestant clergywoman on the Shankill. I met businesspeople yesterday afternoon in Lisburn. I met a victims’ group in Fermanagh. I talked to Ards, Banbridge and Craigavon council about levelling up. I went to the Ulster museum, where I saw the silent testimony of “The Troubles and Beyond” exhibition, a powerful and stark reminder of what happens when society in Northern Ireland goes backwards. These are modest proposals that improve the governance and flexibility in Northern Ireland, and I commend these amendments—