Clause 1 - Period for making Ministerial appointments

Part of Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:30 am ar 6 Gorffennaf 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 9:30, 6 Gorffennaf 2021

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I appreciate the Minister laying out clauses 1 to 3 and his exposition of some of the issues raised on Second Reading, in particular on caretaker Ministers. As I made clear on Second Reading, we welcome these limited attempts to safeguard power sharing and to improve the sustainability of the Executive and the Assembly, which reflect commitments made in New Decade, New Approach. We believe that all parties to that agreement, including the UK Government, should fulfil all the commitments made in it. That is the basis of amendments that we will come on to.

On clause 1, I appreciate the Minister’s description of the safeguards to ensure that caretaker Ministers do not step beyond the bounds of what is reasonable. I want to tease some of that out, not to put it in statute but to make it clear on the record. On Second Reading, the Minister said that there were well-defined limits for caretaker Ministers and explained that they would be constrained by the ministerial code. Will he confirm that only the ministerial code constrains Ministers in that regard, and not the programme for government?

It will not have escaped the Minister’s attention that at the moment, there is no programme for government, so if there were to be an election and this scenario envisaged, in that situation there would be no programme for government to constrain Ministers. Also, the ministerial code is silent on powers in that situation. I will be grateful if he could make it clear which section of the ministerial code would constrain Ministers.

On the courts being able to step in to hold Ministers to account, exactly what would they hold them to account on—on what point of law, or on what code? Will he clarify that? How exactly do we stop Ministers taking decisions that are significant, controversial and cross-cutting in the absence of an Executive in that scenario? In evidence, Professor Jon Tonge posed questions that need an answer today. What ministerial decisions will be taken that are not significant, controversial or cross-cutting? Will the Minister give us examples of what does not fall in that description? In a caretaker capacity, will Ministers be able to take decisions with financial implications? The reality is that few decisions will fall outwith those scopes.

On Second Reading, we discussed the possibility of Ministers going beyond their mandate and their remit. The reality is that what we are constraining them with is potentially extremely limited. We might be in exactly the same situation as we found ourselves in during the three years of collapse, with Ministers able to take very few decisions. I will be grateful if the Minister explains how he envisages that working.

In the evidence session, Mark Durkan expressed concerns about the possibility of the Assembly being up and running for 24 weeks during this period, albeit a caretaker one, but with potentially no protection for the operation of the north-south institutions. The ministerial code is clear that Ministers are required to attend the north-south institutions, so I will be grateful if the Minister confirms that that would remain the case and that strand two of the Good Friday agreement would be respected equally in such a period, while the Assembly is up and running.

The clause also excludes the possibility of a six-week extension period for filling the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister if the Assembly passes a resolution to stop that extension. It further states “without cross-community support”. In evidence, concerns were expressed about exactly what cross-community support looks like in that scenario. What is his definition of “sufficient”?

Clause 3 gives effect to a point that was of some debate during the NDNA talks in late 2019 and early 2020: paragraph 3.15 of the sustainability annex to the agreement. It was aimed at ensuring that a caretaker Executive that might be in place for up to six months had

“sufficient representation to command cross-community confidence in the Assembly.”

That finds expression in the Bill at clause 3, with the authority for the Secretary of State to call an election

“if the Secretary of State considers that it is necessary to do so in order to give effect to the purpose underlying paragraph 3.15 of Annex C of Part 2 of The New Decade, New Approach Deal”.

That leaves open the possibility that all the Unionist parties or all the nationalist parties refused to continue as caretaker Ministers, but that there would not be cross-community support in the Assembly to call an election, so the caretaker Executive could limp on with only one community represented for the six months before an election had to be called, subject only to the judgment of the Secretary of State. It would of course be open to the parties to ensure representation by staying in the ministerial roles as caretakers. However, it is clearly a dilution of the safeguard and places it as much as possible in the hands of the Secretary of State.

There is a difficulty quantifying absolutely what would constitute sufficient cross-community representation in circumstances where, for example, the Deputy First Minister resigns and Ministers withdraw. The common-sense view is that it would be sufficient if either the Ulster Unionist Party or Social Democratic and Labour Party stayed on. I concede it is difficult to quantify in legislation, and would be grateful if the Minister could expand on that.

At a basic level, the safeguard could be strengthened by saying that the Secretary of State “will” rather than “may” call an election if there is not sufficient representation in the Northern Ireland Executive to command cross-community confidence in the Assembly. Is the Minister comfortable that the Bill reads the Secretary of State “may” rather than “will” call an election? Can he explain the circumstances in which the Secretary of State would not call an election, even in the absence of sufficient cross-community support?