Clause 1 - Period for making Ministerial appointments

Part of Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:25 am ar 6 Gorffennaf 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:25, 6 Gorffennaf 2021

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.