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 Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:30, 6 Gorffennaf 2021

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.