Examination of witness

Part of Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:21 pm ar 29 Mehefin 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Emma Little-Pengelly:

First, to be fair to the Democratic Unionist party, I should make it clear that I am not here as a spokesperson for the DUP, so I cannot comment on the particular issues of the current situation. What I can say is that the DUP, along with many others, has, over the years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, pushed for a better form of government, as you will be aware, very much around trying to put better democracy in that and a better system that is not so slow or difficult to try to get agreement through.

There is a real issue around protections and safeguards. It is notable that the petition of concern is in the safeguard section. It does apply to all key decisions. That is the system that was set up—purposely difficult, I suppose, one might say—to ensure that there was maximum buy-in. What we are rapidly seeing is that people now have a particular policy proposal, they get the majority for it and they want to push that forward, against the will of significant sections of the other community.

People need to get back better to fundamental consensus policy making. Potentially we have lost that over the years. As I said, it is slow but there is a benefit to that. When you look back to the original point about intent, it is important to point out that equality and human rights are very well protected, cooked in right across the system.

If you look back to the narrative around the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, including the discussions and the debates in the House of Commons on those matters, you will see that the key safeguards lay with the establishment, under the agreement, of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Human Rights Act, which at any time can give advice or perhaps even take a legal challenge against a Department or the Northern Ireland Assembly—certainly give advice on that.

Importantly, the Northern Ireland Assembly is set up but it does not have competence to deal with matters that would be in contravention of the European convention on human rights or equality legislation. I understand that your evidence will go on next to the Speaker. The Speaker will have a legal team, so it is not even a case of a discretion. The Northern Ireland Assembly, certainly even set down in the agreement and the Northern Ireland Act, emphasised and safeguarded even further in the Human Rights Act 1998, has no power to legislate in a way that is in violation of that. A piece of legislation should never be introduced where there is a decision by the Speaker’s legal panel that is in contravention of that.