Monday 13 December 2021
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, Members are encouraged to leave some distance between themselves and others and to wear a face covering when not speaking. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, this Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill
Clause 1: Period for making Ministerial appointments
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Duration of Ministerial appointments
1: Clause 2, page 2, line 35, leave out subsection (3)
Member’s explanatory statement
This is a probing amendment, to probe what powers will be available to a Minister who remains in office for the provided period of up to 24 weeks, or 48 weeks, following an Assembly election.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to what is probably his first Committee on a Bill in his new position. I am sure he will enjoy the experience in the Moses Room.
This is a probing amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Coaker about an issue that I raised at Second Reading. Clause 2 advises that Ministers will no longer cease to hold office after the election of a new Assembly, and provides for a maximum of 24 weeks after an election, or 48 weeks since there has been an Executive in place, whichever is the shorter, in which Ministers may continue to hold office. We support the clause, but it would be helpful to have some guidance and clarity from the Minister on this issue.
I appreciate that some of this was first mentioned by Karen Bradley when she was Secretary of State back in 2018, when the Northern Ireland Civil Service was taken to court because it was felt that civil servants had exceeded their powers in taking decisions without ministerial direction. There has to be a way through that. When I lost my seat in 2010, I remained a Minister, but only for five days. You could say that under direct rule the situation was self-limiting for those of us who were Ministers, as we were not elected by anyone in Northern Ireland in terms of what we were able to do. The key question raised at Second Reading was what powers these caretaker Ministers will have and if there is any limit on those powers. In a number of areas there is a lack of clarity.
I was surprised by the comment made in the House of Commons by the Minister, who said that the courts will be able to deal with this. He said:
“given that legal safeguards are already in place”,
there is no need for additional statutory clarity, and:
“We also know that the courts are ready to step in, should Ministers act unlawfully.”—[Official Report, Commons, Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill Committee, 6/7/21; col. 70.]
I am not clear what a Minister “acting unlawfully” would be or where the limits would be. If the decisions taken are going to be controversial, some decisions can be delayed, but depending on where they are in the cycle of that decision-making process or when the Executive are likely to be up and running again, there may be quite a time lag.
It is better to know at this stage where the balance is and what the Government’s thinking is. Clearly, to have ministerial accountability is significantly better than leaving civil servants in the position where they are trying to make decisions without any ministerial direction, but I am really not sure where the Government think the clarity is. What is the point at which Ministers could not take a decision? It could be that a Minister had lost their seat or decided not to stand again, but remained a Minister. Where are the limitations on ministerial power if they are a caretaker Minister? I beg to move.
My Lords, following on from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on this issue, it is an important area that deserves greater clarification.
We all remember the period when Northern Ireland was deliberately left ungoverned and civil servants had the most difficult task of all: having to keep their departments ticking over with no real precedent for any guidance as to the extent of their decision-making powers. Some Permanent Secretaries went a little further than others. I remember speaking to one particular Permanent Secretary who indicated that there was a live debate continued among the Permanent Secretaries as to the extent of their powers, and at one stage whether they should be doing some of the things that they were doing in the absence of political guidance. There was certainly a difference in emphasis.
We need to understand, and perhaps the Minister could clarify, what in essence the difference will be between the sorts of decisions that civil servants were taking during the period that we all know about, the three-year interregnum where there were no Ministers, and the decisions that Ministers in these circumstances will be able to take. Could he, for instance, give me a concrete example of a decision that a Minister could take as a caretaker under this that a civil servant could not have taken? I would imagine that they are pretty limited.
There has been reference to carrying on with the decisions that have been made by the Executive in the run-up to caretaker Ministers being in place and that such Ministers should follow the trajectory of the Executive in decision-making going forward. Thinking of the current circumstances regarding the Budget, which appears not to have found agreement in Northern Ireland—there is apparently some limited agreement on the priorities within it, but not all departmental allocations—yet it is out for consultation. What would an interim Finance Minister be able to do in such circumstances? A certain amount of guidance would have been given to him in this situation, but not any kind of final decisions on allocations. So, again, it is not an entirely academic hypothesis that a Finance Minister could find himself in such a position as a caretaker with the Budget in this kind of condition.
I know these are difficult circumstances, and we are trying to find a balance between having no governance and leaving the Province in some kind of sensible situation when it comes to governance in the absence of a full Executive, but I would be grateful if the Minister could try to address those particular issues.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, has said, this is a probing amendment. I think we would all agree that the recent experience of over 1,000 days of political uncertainty when there was no Executive in Northern Ireland is not something that anyone would want repeated. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, have said, it put the civil servants in an incredibly difficult position. We very much hope that we will never again be in a situation where the Assembly is on the brink of collapse, but if such circumstances were to arise, it is important that there is as much stability and clarity on this as possible.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I would be grateful if the Minister could say a little more about how he sees this working in practice and, in particular, if he could say a little more about the requirements, as set out in New Decade, New Approach, for Ministers
“to act within well-defined limits”.
Can he explain what that would mean in practice?
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?
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.
Another example is the lack of decision-making on health in that period. At one point, the situation was so serious that it led my noble friend Lord Empey to propose a Private Member’s Bill to take health back under the control of Westminster and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
In the discussions that led to the New Decade, New Approach document, it was agreed that, to remedy the situation, Ministers could remain in office in a caretaker capacity to allow for greater continuity of decision-making. This did not mean that they would be able to take new decisions; they are not there to be innovative or to implement new policy, but to ensure that Northern Ireland does not shut down and return to the political limbo that I have just outlined.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, mentioned the situation in which a Minister either loses their seat or does not stand again for the Assembly. In those cases, they would cease to be Ministers, but the party to which they belong would be able to nominate a replacement within the Executive.
New Decade, New Approach states that Ministers will be required to act within well-defined limits, including those set out within the statutory provisions in the Ministerial Code and pledge of office. They will act in accordance with the requirement that any decisions that are significant, controversial or cross-cutting are required to be considered by the Executive and should also have regard to the policies contained in the programme for government of the previous Executives. Further to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, in a scenario where the First and Deputy First Minister have resigned, there would be no Executive by definition and, therefore, no provision for cross-cutting issues to go before that Executive. Those decisions could therefore not be taken.
Under Section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which implements paragraphs 19 and 20 of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement, an individual Minister cannot take any decisions that ought to have been taken by the Executive as a whole. We therefore believe that there is no real need to provide further statutory clarifications, given that there are legal safeguards in place. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who moved the amendment, referred to the line that was used in the House of Commons about the courts being ready to step in. In essence, that means that any decision that is deemed controversial and is made by any Minister would be subject to legal challenge and, therefore, the courts would be able to adjudicate.
My noble friend Lord Dodds asked a straightforward question about which powers Ministers could exercise that civil servants could not. One example would be to allocate additional resources to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, should that be required. Another particularly relevant example in the current circumstances would be to source alternative clinical supplies and medicines, all of which would require a ministerial direction and would not be available as an administrative act to be carried out by an official.
All along, we have been clear that the legislation before the Committee is about delivering on the New Decade, New Approach agreement. As I have said, that deal requires Ministers to act within the well-defined limits set out in statute. We are not including specific details, as we expect that the Assembly will also make provision for how caretaker Ministers should operate in the Ministerial Code. Moreover, the limits on Executive Ministers and how they operate are set out in Section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
I hope that provides some clarity and reassurance to the noble Baroness and others who have spoken. On that basis, I hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I hope that it works in practice. My greatest fear is that if we do not have adequate clarity now, there could be some confusion or conflict later on, which is exactly what the Bill seeks to avoid, but I do not intend to pursue my amendment at this stage. I am not 100% certain that it is absolute guidance, but I am confident that it is significantly better than where we are at present. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.
2: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Appointment of First Ministers
(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.(2) In section 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 joint First Minister must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.(3ZB) Two candidates standing jointly may 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 designated 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) may 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, hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Ministers.”(3) In subsection (3)(a) the reference to “subsections (4) to (7)” is replaced by a reference to “subsections (3ZA) to (3ZC)”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would restore the Good Friday Agreement provision for joint election by the Assembly of the joint First Ministers.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 2 and 3 in my name and to support Amendment 4 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Rogan.
Amendment 2 refers to restoring the Good Friday agreement provision for joint election by the Assembly of the joint First Ministers. Amendment 3 would provide that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister be referred to as joint First Ministers, reflecting their identical status, powers and responsibilities.
I looked at some of the Commons stages of this Bill and noticed that my colleague, the former Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan, gave evidence. He was one of the negotiators, along with the noble Lords, Lord Trimble and Lord Empey, of the Good Friday agreement. He and the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party talked about going back to the factory settings of that agreement, in which both First Ministers are jointly elected by the Assembly and are therefore jointly accountable to it. In their roles and responsibilities, they are seen as equal.
The change took place in the St Andrews agreement. Those of us at St Andrews back in October 2006 will well recall those particular issues. I am sure that those in the room—I think I was outside it, but some of those who were inside it are here—could relate some of that. That destroyed or undermined the principle of parity of esteem, respect for political difference and, above all, the principle of power sharing and of working together, and it led to the sectarianisation of elections: that is, the elections of 2007, in which I was a participant, 2011, 2016 and 2017, and it looks like the Assembly election 2022 is heading in the same direction. The contest will not be about the issues that matter to people: a Covid recovery plan, education, the need for sound infrastructure, the economy or addressing health waiting lists. It will be, “Make me First Minister, so that they don’t get it”. It becomes a confrontation between them and us across the sectarian divide.
PR elections in Northern Ireland were never meant to be about that level of sectarianism. They were meant to be about breaking down barriers and respecting the various viewpoints, whether unionist, nationalist or other, but taking all into the melting pot. We now see that what was contrived at St Andrews has led to the sectarianisation of these elections.
I have had discussions with the noble Lord the Minister about these particular issues, so I am probing at this stage with a view to bringing this back on Report. Can the Minister say whether positive consideration will be given to these amendments? What discussions, if any, have taken place with ministerial colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office and with the Prime Minister about their intent and purpose and about the need to desectarianise the elections to the Assembly and the subsequent work in the institutions? We must always bear in mind that strand 1, which dealt with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive, and strand 2, on the North/South Ministerial Council, are interlinked. One plays off on the other, which from the nationalist perspective gives us that all-Ireland perspective. It is important that the method that is used for the election of the First Ministers is joint, so that they are accountable to the Assembly, are nominated and elected together and are voted on together. We need to go back to that particular position.
There also needs to be an equalisation of titles, as in Amendment 3, so that there is respect for political difference and a sense of agreement and consensus and, above all, so that the principle of consent is the kernel in all this.
I look forward to the Minister’s answers in relation to those two amendments.
My Lords, Amendment 4 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rogan is self-explanatory. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has said, it brings the proposals back to the arrangements that were entered into in 1998.
I believe of course that no agreement can be set in stone, and this was a multi-party agreement. Therefore, in my view, if you are going to change it, it should be a multi-party change. However, things are done, unfortunately, in back-stairs deals or behind closed doors and without the consent or knowledge of a number of the participants in the process that originally led to the agreement.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I have made the point that this amendment to the agreement came into effect following St Andrews, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, but it never had the support of those parties that negotiated the Belfast agreement in the first place. The purpose of the original model was to ensure that the necessary partnership between the parties that qualified for these positions was endorsed by the Assembly by joint resolution, giving public and political expression to the concept of a shared office of equals. The 2006 proposals have changed the character of subsequent elections. They have become sectarian headcounts. Some parties have, for example, argued that if they are not supported Sinn Féin would occupy the office of First Minister or vice versa, even though there is no legal difference between them.
My party believes that if the agreement is to be changed, as it is a multiparty agreement, proper discussions should precede new legislation. The Minister is well aware of my views on this, which have been held for many years. However, the evidence of recent years has shown that the change, while no doubt introduced by the Government of the day with the best of intentions, has held back the development of normal politics and resulted in ongoing stalemate and silo government. After 23 years, we are sitting here talking about the legislation before us, which is basically a patch-up job to prevent the institutions from collapsing completely. It clearly indicates that all is not well.
I do not intend to detain the Committee much longer, but I will make the point that what was done at that stage has not worked and we have wasted a further 15 years in failing to advance the cause of more normal arrangements and politics where things such as the economy, health and education are seriously debated and those debates make a difference. So far, that is not happening because people are forced into circling the waggons at each election. Even a cursory examination of election manifestos will clearly indicate that that is the direction of travel.
I shall speak briefly in favour of Amendment 3, to which I have added my name. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, spelled out, it would provide for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to be referred to as Joint First Ministers, reflecting their identical status, powers and responsibilities. I hesitate slightly to speak in too much detail on this amendment when there are quite so many noble Lords in the Room who were directly involved with the various negotiations, but it seems to me that the current terminology allows for a distortion of the reality. In reality, if the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are entirely equal, can the Minister say what would be the disadvantage of passing this amendment or similar amendments? My honourable friend Stephen Farry said during the debate in the House of Commons when it passed this Bill that making this change would
“take the heat out of the fairly … meaningless contrast that is made and creates huge tension in our election campaigns.”—[Official Report, Commons, 26/10/21; col. 159.]
I rise to support the amendment standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Empey. In common with my noble friend, I was there on Good Friday 1998 when the Belfast agreement was finalised. My role at that time was chair of the Ulster Unionist Party. My noble friend Lord Empey was our chief negotiator. He deserves much of the credit for that incredible achievement almost a quarter of a century ago.
It was not a perfect document—far from it. Negotiators from all parties involved in the talks, as well as the two Governments, had endless battles over the finer details of the agreement. Arguably, the biggest battles were around the release of terrorist prisoners, a concession that most unionists hated—we in the Ulster Unionist Party still do. However, the agreement was a compromise. We all had to make concessions that we would rather not have made. It was a delicate balancing act.
Every aspect of the Belfast agreement was critical to the final outcome, including the procedure by which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were to be elected. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who I am pleased to see here today, and the late Seamus Mallon of the nationalist SDLP were the first holders of these posts. They were a joint ticket, elected by a cross-community vote of the Northern Ireland Assembly. That required the support of the majority of the MLAs—a majority of the designated unionist MLAs and of the designated nationalist MLAs. The endorsement of the Assembly, the elected representatives of the people, gave them their authority—the leaders of the unionists and the nationalists working together in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, would openly acknowledge that every day was not harmonious, but at important and often tragic moments, such as the horrific deaths of the Quinn brothers and the Omagh bomb, both in the summer of 1998, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were able to stand shoulder to shoulder and speak on behalf of the country that they led.
However, all that changed following the St Andrews agreement in 2006. The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act changed the process for appointing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister—and I ask noble Lords to note the word “appointed”, rather than “elected”. Since 2006, the First Minister had been nominated by the largest party overall and the Deputy First Minister by the largest party in the next largest community designation. The reasons for that change were entirely political. First, some MLAs wanted to be able to tell their supporters that they had no hand in electing a nationalist, whether they be from Sinn Féin/IRA or the SDLP, into office. Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has stated, they wanted to be able to proclaim at every subsequent Assembly election campaign that failing to support them would allow a nationalist to become First Minister, despite the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister being a shared office. I am sorry to say that both those reasons are rooted in sectarianism. That is shameful but it is the stark reality.
The Belfast agreement, which the DUP had no hand in and refused to support, was supposed to be a means of ending sectarianism, with the matter of the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister a key element of that. Unlike the St Andrews agreement, the Belfast agreement was endorsed by the people and should not have been changed without their consent. The amendment standing in my name and that of my noble friend would restore a key element of the Belfast agreement and deserves your Lordships’ support.
My Lords, I shall speak to the three amendments in this group. I shall start with the third of them, Amendment 4, which has been spoken to by the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Rogan. They and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, have talked about going back to, or resetting, the Good Friday agreement, which, as has just been pointed out, had the support of the people in a referendum—not something that happened subsequently—and there is great strength in that. The noble Lord also referred to the situation at the time, which was still overshadowed by the terrorist campaign.
For me, there were two issues about which I disagreed with Prime Minister Blair in the negotiation right up to the very last day. The first was that, in my view, decommissioning and the release of prisoners should have been related. I was quite prepared to go down the road of releasing of prisoners so long as the matériel that they had used and might use was decommissioned. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach failed to achieve that agreement and all of us suffered for some years after that in addressing that question. That was why the IMC was established—I spent some years working on that.
The other issue was so-called parallel consent, which had actually emerged as a formula from the experience of South Africa, where it was not a formula but an understanding. It was always my view that to identify people as “unionists, nationalists and other” was a mistake, and to draw up an electoral formula based on that would make the situation more problematic. However, I had another proposal: a proposal for a majority of two-thirds—in other words, 67%. It was clear to me that no one party and no one part of the community could pass a piece of legislation if it had to get over two-thirds.
I know why that did not happen. That was because John Hume in particular, who was the driving force and an architect of much of the agreement and deserves huge praise for that, could not conceive of a situation where the SDLP would not be the largest nationalist party and the Ulster Unionist Party would not be the largest unionist party. It seemed to me that with this formula the opposite was likely to happen. It would strengthen those on the extremes, because there was no pressure to reach across to voters from the other community. On the contrary, it was, to put it in the parlance not of your Lordships’ House but of Northern Ireland, super-Prod versus super-Taig. In that situation, the SDLP could not out-green Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists could not out-orange the DUP. So the result of the formula was going to be an increasing polarisation. That was why I wanted to go for the 67%.
I am extremely interested, and even after this length of time a little encouraged, to see that hidden in the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, at proposed new paragraph (c), the third option for a vote:
“the support of two thirds of members.”
If this was agreed, and inserted into Amendment 7, in terms of parallel consent, it would change the dynamic at a stroke. It is a very important proposition. I welcome it very strongly, and I rather suspect that the noble Baroness’s friend Mark Durkan, the former Deputy First Minister, would probably support it, because he will remember the debate at that time. This is a very important amendment. I hope that the Minister will take it away and think through its consequences, because it is extremely important for the future.
The other amendment that I hope not only the Minister but our noble friends on the unionist side will also take seriously is that in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and Lady Suttie, for
“The First Minister and deputy First Minister… to be referred to as Joint First Ministers”.
Why was there any difference anyway? It was fundamentally to emphasise who had the support of the larger amount in their community. I understand that. However, we are now getting to a place where that is a much more doubtful proposition. It seems that the people who should absolutely grasp hold of this are those from the unionist community. If not, they will find—maybe at the next election or at the one after that, but certainly in due time—that there will be a nationalist or republican First Minister. Then they will come asking for this amendment, and the answer will be, “Too late.” However, if they go for it now and say, “Let’s operate as in fact we have to, as joint First Ministers”, it will protect them against some of the adverse propositions that have been referenced in upcoming elections and indeed in previous election: the sectarianisation, as it has been described.
One of my colleagues said that these are very technical amendments. I replied, “Yes, they’re technical and they are of massive political significance”, and the future well-being of the process that emerged from and after the Good Friday agreement may well depend on some of them being carried. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Caine, will consider them.
I have to say that I am a little bit hopeful in a way I have not been for some time. The Northern Ireland Office seemed over a period to do less and less, remember less and less, and have less and less experience than at many previous times. The return of the noble Lord, Lord Caine, to the Northern Ireland Office fills me with a degree of optimism, because he has a very substantial, long-standing experience that few others have, either at the political or the official level. I hope that he will bring that experience to bear. I have no doubt that he will, and I hope that the rest of those in the office will listen to him.
My Lords, I support, in general terms, the amendments that have been proposed by my noble friends and by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie. They carry me back to past events. I was the first First Minister when Seamus and I were elected. We both regarded it as very important that we should be elected jointly, because that would carry to the public the image and the reality that we were going to work together and with due regard to the views of the various parties. Consequently, I am very much in favour of returning to that. In the circumstances, I would be pleasantly surprised if the Government did so, and it would be a good thing for them to do.
I have some reservations about the references in Amendment 3 to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister as “Joint First Ministers”. They have the same powers, but the difference in terminology is a matter of who goes first into a room and who speaks first. It is a formal matter. The Lib Dems’ representative in the Commons may not realise that precedence matters. I leave you to reflect on that. Precedence matters, and speaking first makes a difference, even if you are speaking on the same subjects.
Some of the other things that have been mentioned in passing here reminded me of when we were in office later and could see that the opinions of the electorate were shifting. We were thinking about the position of Sinn Féin, so we quietly sent a little message to Sinn Féin saying that it should reflect on whether it could provide a Deputy First Minister who would be acceptable to the public. I notice that it has followed that in the way in which it has handled things in the Assembly.
As to the points from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, about what might happen on or after an election, just wait and see. Do not jump to conclusions in the way you are at the moment, because it is not particularly useful.
My Lords, I rise only briefly on this issue to concur with some of the comments that have been made. As the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, there is always some hesitation on the part of those who were not there to revisit some of these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, made a point about those who compromised and found that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was not perfect. Perfection can often be the enemy of any progress at all, so I have enormous admiration for those who were able to compromise to reach what has been a long-standing and impressive agreement. Along with others who have spoken, I put on record my tributes to those who were mentioned.
I saw the Minister wince slightly when the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, talked about how much more confidence he has that there may be some progress on various issues now that the Minister is there. My only comment is: no pressure there then. I could tell him not to worry about it, because this is an issue where people want to and can find agreement, and there is always good will in the discussions. I remember, during direct rule, when I took over from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that he was nothing but courteous and helpful to me when I was making my way as a Minister in Northern Ireland.
We are very supportive of what the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Suttie, and the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Rogan, are trying to achieve with these amendments. There is value to a more consensual approach to this, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, outlined, but I suspect the Minister will say that this discussion is for outside this Bill, because the Bill is to progress issues in the NDNA. Nevertheless, I think there is an opportunity for the Minister to reflect on the comments that have been made. Even if they are not for this Bill, there could and should be discussions on them to see if further progress can be made and if there are benefits to taking such an approach.
My Lords, I am listening intently to this debate and I am beginning to wonder if I live in Northern Ireland at all or if I lived there during the making of the Belfast agreement. We have heard all the woes being poured on to the St Andrews agreement. That is unkind to say the least. If politics has been—and it is—sectarianised in Northern Ireland, it was the Belfast agreement that did that. The Belfast agreement said, “You must nominate as a unionist or a nationalist”. That did not come out of St Andrews; it was the brainchild of the Belfast agreement.
Furthermore, during the early stages of the Government and the Assembly in Northern Ireland, it was all stop-go. The Assembly was more in abeyance than it was working at that time. It has to be said—I am not sure that it gives me a lot of pleasure to say it—that during the time when Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were First and Deputy First Ministers there was more cohesion within the Assembly and it had a longer duration of continued government. It was also Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness who had to stand together and condemn the shooting of a police officer by dissident republicans. Those of us who live there can well remember that. Those were extremely difficult times. If there ever was a time when government could have fallen apart, it was at that time, but it was due to the influence of Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness that government continued, though not without difficulties.
I hasten to add that I do not think there will ever come a day when anyone, irrespective of what position they take, can stand confidently and say, “The Assembly is here for ever and a day.” I have said that often in public meetings. It is the type of animal that is going to be always trying and will come through its difficulties. But please do not say that all the problems emanate from the St Andrews agreement. That remark does not sit well at all.
There are those who want to blame some other exercise for the position that the Assembly finds itself in from time to time. Decommissioning has been mentioned. We, and those who wanted to listen, were told that the release of republican prisoners was never in the agreement. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was the closest to it when he said that he had conditioned it by saying that if that had to happen—I do not want to misquote him—then it was on the proviso that the weaponry that was used would be decommissioned and put away. Let me say this clearly: when decommissioning did not happen and the prisoners were released, we were told that that was never signed up to. Let us not paint a picture that was not real at that time. I know that, when you look back on these things with hindsight, you can think things through and say, “Well, we should have done this and we should have done that.” Maybe we are all in that position from time to time, but let us not paint it as if it was something different.
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.
I thank all noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have contributed to this wide-ranging debate on these three amendments, which stand variously in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Empey, Lord Rogan, Lord Alderdice, Lord Trimble and Lord Morrow, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Smith. We are all coming from our different perspectives, but we all want to see that sense of partnership and of working together and to think about how we achieve that. For my part, I believe that it can best be achieved through the Good Friday agreement and subsequent legislation.
We all have memories in Northern Ireland and, because of our political perspectives, we come forward with the overlay of those memories, so I just caution noble Lords in that respect.
I know that the Minister does not see this Bill as the vehicle for dealing with these issues, as it simply for implementing New Decade, New Approach. I respect that viewpoint, but I know that certain elements of New Decade, New Approach are still outstanding and are, shall we say, outwith this Bill and are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive; I do not necessarily see much progress in relation to those areas. But I am heartened that, if I have got the Minister’s words correct, the Government are not opposed to some change in the future. I ask the Minister to go back and reflect on the views conveyed today and to have discussions with the Secretary of State and Minister of State. Perhaps he could come back on Report and indicate how the Government intend to move forward in respect of Amendments 2 to 4, whether in this piece of legislation or another.
I do not think that the political infrastructure and the politics of Northern Ireland can wait much longer. We have to get back to the central issues in the agreement of consent, agreement, consensus building, working together, partnership, reconciliation and building that shared society which we so earnestly yearn for.
Rather hesitantly—but I know the procedure in Committee—I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 and 4 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
5: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“Disqualification of MPs and Members of the Dáil Éireann for membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly
(1) In section 1A of the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 (members of the House of Commons)—(a) in subsection (1), for “the period of 8 days beginning with the day the person is so returned” substitute “the period beginning with the day on which the person is so returned and ending with the day on which Parliament is next dissolved”, and(b) for subsections (2) to (4) substitute—“(2) Where a person is returned as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and is subsequently returned as a member of the House of Commons, the person is not disqualified under section 1(1)(za) at any time in the period beginning with the day on which the person is so returned and ending with the day on which Parliament is next dissolved.”(2) In section 1B of the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 (members of the Dáil Éireann)—(a) the existing text becomes subsection (1),(b) in that subsection, for “at any time in the period of 8 days beginning with the day the person is so returned” substitute “before Dáil Éireann is next dissolved”, and(c) after that subsection insert—“(2) Where a person is returned as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and is subsequently returned as a member of the Dáil Éireann, the person is not disqualified under section 1(1)(db) at any time in the period beginning with the day on which the person is so returned and ending with the day on which the Dáil is next dissolved.””
Noble Lords will know that, for some time, I have harboured a degree of anxiety that the fragmentation which we see much more largely in politics around the world and in Europe is affecting the United Kingdom, and that there is a danger that some of the relationships which have stitched us together over the years as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are being shaken and loosened up. There are things that we need to do and to pay attention to that will hold that fabric together. For example, I was pleased to see the Lord Speaker going to Northern Ireland and meeting people there—that is a helpful development, and I am sure that he will carry that forward; I have no doubt that he will take himself to Scotland before long, and I hope he goes to Wales as well.
It is because of this concern that I am also on the lookout for other things that can be done to help hold us together. When the Northern Ireland Assembly was being set up, it was extremely helpful to have people from Northern Ireland who were experienced in Westminster, in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, who understood what being a legislator was about. There were many others who had no experience in politics or, if they had experience, it was at local government level, which is a completely different exercise. I found myself doing quite a lot of work with some quite experienced councillors to help them realise that the exercise of executive responsibility in a council was very different from the exercise of legislative responsibility in a Parliament or Assembly.
Over a few years, people began to get concerned about what became called “double-jobbing”. In the early days, they did not have much concern about it; there were some people who were not just double-jobbing but triple-jobbing and more, and they had to be very busy in getting themselves about the place. The problem arose when people began to look at the pay being accumulated by some of those who were in more than one place. There was a lot of concern and anxiety and some anger about that, and it affected some electoral outcomes. So there was a move, as is very often the case in politics, to the other end of things and to saying, “We shouldn’t have any double-jobbing at all.” The result was legislation which meant that, at the drop of a hat—or, one might say, more like a guillotine, at the drop of a head—when someone was elected to another place, within eight days they lost their right to sit, initially in the House of Commons and then, much later, the House of Lords. Legislation was passed, and it goes quite considerably back, to make the practice impossible and there would be an eight-day period when the change would have to be made.
For many people it is not necessarily a huge problem, but it does seem to make it difficult for people to move from the Assembly to the House of Commons, to this place and indeed to Dáil Éireann, and for people in those other parliaments, such as Dáil Éireann and the House of Commons, to move back to the Assembly. This means that things are becoming siloed. It is not quite like that in Scotland, and even in Wales there is around a year’s leeway, so the problem is specific to Northern Ireland. Frankly, it is not very helpful. I understand why it has happened and I understand that things can be abused, but it has created a siloing of people into the Assembly, the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament, and away from Parliament here and indeed in Dublin.
The amendment I have tabled is complex, and I am grateful to the Public Bill Office for helping me work through all its implications. I am perfectly prepared to accept that it may not be a perfect amendment yet, so if the Minister tells me that I will have no real dispute with him; it is a slightly complicated business to get right. However, while I would accept that argument, I caution him against the argument that he has made against the previous amendments: that the Bill is only about implementing a political agreement that has been achieved before.
There were times in the past when one could accept that as reasonable and democratic. After the Good Friday agreement, for example, there was a referendum, after which Parliament was told: “There has been an agreement and a referendum where the people concerned have approved it, so really it is simply about implementing it. We are happy for Parliament to discuss it but we don’t want you to change things.” There were also times when I remember a good deal of frustration in Northern Ireland, when social security legislation would come up in the Assembly and the Assembly was told basically, “Look, if you don’t simply approve this you’ve got a problem with the Treasury and you’re not going to be able to continue social security payments at the same level as the rest of the United Kingdom.” That did not mean there was not still a lot of frustration among the Members who came to me. I said, “There’s nothing I can do about it. If you want to break that link there would be a very serious consequence of that.” Of course, that was true when we were part of the European Union as well.
Parliamentarians get very frustrated when you tell them that they are in Parliament to make a difference, to make a change, to scrutinise the Government and keep them accountable, but also that, “You can’t touch this because the real decision has been taken somewhere else.” Over the years I have found that argument being made repeatedly: “You can’t mess around with this because an agreement has been reached elsewhere by parties, Governments or whatever, so don’t rock the boat. Don’t kick over the beehive, for goodness’ sake; it has been very difficult to get things sorted out.” Well, what is the point of Parliament if the major decisions are being taken elsewhere and our job is simply to say, “We don’t really agree with it but there’s nothing we can do but accept it”? That is a dangerous argument. It is part of a trend of an Executive who do not like to be held to account by Parliament and do not necessarily like it coming up with proposals to improve on legislation—or they do accept them, but grudgingly.
We are all here to try to improve the legislation, and I think some of these proposals would improve it. I hear what the Minister says—I have no doubt that it is in his brief, and that it will be in the brief that he gets for the next Bill that comes out of some kind of political agreement—but he and his colleagues in government need to beware that they are not going down a road that is going to lead to increasing frustration and the diminishing democratisation of the work that we do in Parliament. With those comments, I beg to move.
My Lords, this is an important issue, and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has set out very clearly the reasoning that lies behind the amendment.
I will come on to the remuneration point in a moment but, as someone who benefited politically from being able to sit in the House of Commons and in the Assembly, as did most Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland at that time—I think all but one MP was also a Member of the Assembly and some held ministerial office, as indeed I did—I know that it provided a bridge between what was happening here in Westminster and Whitehall and the Northern Ireland Assembly. That meant the Assembly was not deprived—I would not necessarily say of “talent”—of experience and knowledge of the political process, certainly of the negotiations that had led up to the settlement. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, as Speaker, was also a Member of this place, which, again, provided heft and authority to the office of Speaker.
On the remuneration point, it needs to be borne in mind that Members of Parliament who were also Members of the Assembly received only one-third of their Assembly pay and, indeed, in the end received no salary whatever for being in the Assembly, so it was not particularly beneficial from a remuneration point of view to sit in both places. It also has to be borne in mind—not to rehearse the arguments about the issue because that has now been settled—that at every election the electorate had an opportunity to make their decision, in the full knowledge of the mandates that people held, about whether they thought a person was suitable to be a Member of Parliament or a Member of the Assembly. In most cases, the electorate made their decision very firmly.
We are at the point where we accept that the principle you should be either a Member of Parliament or a Member of a devolved assembly is now well established and I am not seeking to reverse that, but what the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is seeking to do is to address this hard edge so that we have a transition to enable that flow of membership to happen, but not in a way that creates unintended consequences, to bring us in Northern Ireland into line certainly with Scotland and to a large extent with Wales.
I think this is a sensible amendment. On the point that it is not part of the NDNA agreement, it is not, but this provision about how so-called double-jobbing should end was part of the Conservative manifesto in 2010 and was implemented in 2014. The speedy implementation of manifesto commitments was once again on display. That was beyond the NDNA. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has set out very clearly that this is something that needs to be addressed and this Bill is a good vehicle in which to do it.
If the Minister is minded to deploy the argument that this Bill is about the NDNA only and nothing else, I say gently to him that this is not how the Government have approached other issues. They have on occasion moved, and are currently considering moving, on issues and legislating on issues that do not have agreement among the parties in Northern Ireland. One thinks first of the timing of the bringing forward of the cultural package under NDNA, which is entirely a matter for the devolved Assembly. It is nothing to do with Westminster. It is a matter for the Assembly, yet the Government have indicated that they are minded to legislate on it here without any agreement on the timing; I shall not going to go into the substance of it, as it is a different matter. Secondly, on abortion, whatever one’s views may be on the issue, it is clearly an entirely devolved matter. There is no agreement on that issue among the parties in Northern Ireland or in the Assembly, yet the Government are going to legislate on it. Indeed, they have legislated on it. If the Government are going to use the argument that these things have to be done by agreement, that they are going to change things only by agreement and that they will not do anything that is against the agreement of the parties in Northern Ireland, that needs to be consistent.
No doubt when the Minister comes to speak, he will claim credit for the provisions against double-jobbing because he was instrumental in that matter at that time. The reasons why it was done are fully understood in the context of the time, but this amendment would remedy a gap in how it is implemented—that is the important thing—and provide for a proper transition period.
My Lords, having heard what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice and Lord Dodds, I think this is a very sensible amendment and I hope it will be accepted by the Government.
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.
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.
Noble Lords will recall, as was mentioned earlier, that 16 out of the 18 Northern Ireland MPs in 2010 were also Members of the Assembly. Lady Sylvia Hermon was one of the exceptions, but I cannot for the life of me remember who was the other one. Polling at the time showed this practice to be deeply unpopular with the public, particularly in the context of the expenses scandal that was then raging. It was therefore right that the coalition Government acted and gave effect to this commitment to stop dual mandates in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014.
My noble friend referred to the speedy enactment of that manifesto pledge, but it is worth pointing out that by the time we got to 2014 the threat of legislation had had the desired effect in that most of the Northern Ireland MPs had already made their choice. I think that, with the exception of Martin McGuinness, every Member who was also a Member of the Assembly chose the House of Commons over Stormont.
As was pointed out, the 2014 Act requires Members to decide almost immediately—within eight days, I think—whether they wish to remain in the Assembly or in the House of Commons. At the time it did not appear that this was an issue because most of the MPs affected had already made their decision. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I do wonder whether, in the interests of continuity and greater stability, we should have adopted an approach closer to the one that now pertains in Scotland and in Wales, where there is a longer period in which Members of the House of Commons who are elected to the Scottish Parliament or to the Senedd have to decide which institution they sit in. On reflection, perhaps we should have adopted an approach that allowed for what I think the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, called a longer transition period.
I acknowledge the wealth of experience of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on these matters. I am, however, advised—and I think he alluded to this—that, as drafted, the amendment may not have the effect that he intends. As this is rather technical, I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I read directly from the script.
The amendment to Section 1A(1) of the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 would allow an MP who is elected as an MLA to hold a dual mandate until Parliament was next dissolved. However, when Parliament is dissolved all MPs cease to hold office, so the MLA would not be disqualified at that point as they would not be holding both offices. If that MLA was then re-elected as an MP, the amendment to Section 1A(2) would prevent them being disqualified upon re-election until the end of that Parliament. At that point, the MLA could start the process all over again and continue to hold a dual mandate indefinitely. In summary, this means, in essence, that MPs and MLAs could continue to restart the process and to hold dual mandates.
This is an important issue on which I am not, as I have indicated, unsympathetic. If the noble Lord is prepared to withdraw his amendment, I will undertake to go back and look at this further.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister. He is right, I did say that I was not going to stand over all aspects of the wording because it is quite a complex thing to get right. I referred to the Minister’s experience in Northern Ireland. That will have given him an insight into the kind of ingenuity of Northern Ireland politicians over the years to find ways around nearly everything that gets proposed. The whole notion of consent Motions has come back to us again, when, at the time that was drafted, we thought it was a very reasonable and appropriate thing—which it was, but it was not without potential loopholes.
I am more than happy to allow this to go back to the Minister and his officials for them to try to find their way through this technical maze. He is absolutely right about the intention and I am grateful to him for accepting it and for the spirit in which he is accepting it. I look forward to a redrafted amendment coming forward in the not-too-distant future. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Clause 4: Ministerial Code of Conduct
6: Clause 4, page 5, line 34, at end insert “, including by supporting the establishment of the consultative Civic Forum, as provided for under paragraph 34 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement, and obtaining its views on social, economic and cultural matters;”
Member’s explanatory statement
This would add the re-establishment of a consultative Civic Forum for Northern Ireland, to enable the Assembly to obtain views on social, economic and cultural matters as envisaged in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998, to the matters that Ministers must have regard to under the Ministerial code.
My Lords, this is another probing amendment, which I hope the Minister will look on favourably. The amendment requires Ministers to consider the re-establishment of the Civic Forum for Northern Ireland as one of the issues
“that Ministers must have regard to under the Ministerial code.”
Noble Lords will be aware that the Civic Forum was provided for by strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. At the time it comprised representatives of business, trade unions and the voluntary sector. I believe the voluntary sector was the largest part, with 18 members. There were members from agriculture and fisheries, arts and sports, business, the churches, community relations, culture, education, trade unions and also those who identified as victims of terrorism. It met 12 times in total between 2000 and 2002; then, of course, the institutions were suspended.
We raised this at Second Reading in looking at parts of the Good Friday agreement where, despite good intentions and agreements that were made, those agreements have not been fulfilled. That comes back to the point we were discussing earlier on New Decade, New Approach. It is difficult when agreement is reached but the implementation becomes somewhat elusive at some point, as I know noble Lords will be aware.
There is an opportunity, when people get disillusioned with politics—and Northern Ireland’s politics are perhaps more difficult than those anywhere else in the UK at times—for communities and the public to engage better with issues and debates, particularly when issues are cross-community or there are community differences, to have a full discussion and debate without any time constraints or legislation, just to look at things and talk things through. It is about engagement. When trust in politics is low—particularly, as we have seen, with Christmas parties and other issues—anything that engages people to understand and be part of the process, even slightly at arm’s length, can be an advantage.
When this was debated in the other place, my colleague Alex Davies-Jones said:
“The Good Friday agreement was about a new participative politics.”
The Minister will be aware that
“The argument the Women’s Coalition put forward for a civic forum was as an advisory second chamber”—
not unlike your Lordships’ House, but perhaps with even less authority than your Lordships’ House—
“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.”—[Official Report, Commons, 26/10/21; col. 169.]
When it was debated in the other place, the Minister did not respond to this or give any answer. I am raising it today is in the hope that the Minister will have something more to say about this and any views the Government may have. I raise this as quite often in government thinking—I exclude the Minister from this entirely—Northern Ireland has been an afterthought. We saw it with Brexit; people did not fully realise the implications for Northern Ireland and it was never talked about during the whole Brexit debate, as we will probably hear about later. There is a need for leadership and proactive interest in Northern Ireland. Looking at issues such as reinstating the Civic Forum could be extremely beneficial. I really want to test where the Minister, on behalf of the Government, is on this one.
We will hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and I do not want to pre-empt anything she will say. However, looking at her amendment, which I am sure she will speak to in a moment, there is quite an interesting debate. If you look at the current designations in the Assembly, there are 40 unionists, 39 nationalists and 11 other, and it is quite possible that in the future a different kind of balance could be returned. I want to listen to what she has to say on this, but the general question of designations, how they work and what that means for power-sharing is a worthwhile discussion for your Lordships to be having and indeed for the Minister to respond to. I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness has to say and to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 7 in my name is intended, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, just said, as a probing amendment designed to give the Committee the opportunity to discuss the issue of designations. As I said previously, perhaps in response to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, I talk about some of these issues with a degree of hesitancy when there is quite so much experience in the Room. However, as someone who has been following Northern Ireland politics now for several years, I none the less feel that these are issues worthy of debate. I also declare an interest as a member of the Northern Ireland Alliance Party.
As noble Lords will know, under the Assembly’s standing orders one of the very first things Members of the Assembly are required to do is to enter in the roll a designation of identity: nationalist, unionist or other—my colleagues in the Alliance Party always have to put themselves in as “other”. Designations are required for the operation of cross-community votes in the Assembly. Cross-community support is required for a number of matters in the Assembly, including the election of the Speaker, changing the standing orders, and agreeing that a reserved matter should become a transferred matter and vice versa. However, the operation of cross-community votes means that the votes of some Assembly Members count twice, whereas others count only once. Under the current calculations, the votes of nationalist and unionist MLAs count twice. If an MLA is designated as other, their vote counts only in determining either the support of the majority of Members or the support of 60% of Members voting.
Why is that important? It is not just that there is an inherent unfairness in the system as I have described it but I believe there is also a broader principle at stake; that is, more than 20 years after the signing of the 1998 agreement, why are we continuing with a system that perpetuates divisions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said, rather than creating a system that brings people together? In speaking to my friends in Northern Ireland, many of whom are political but some of whom are not, I am increasingly struck by the desire for a united society where everyone is treated equally, and yet the Assembly continues to represent institutionalised division through the outdated designation system. Northern Ireland has moved on considerably since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement was signed. Increasingly, a growing number of people do not want to be identified by community backgrounds. Northern Ireland society is becoming more mixed and more diverse. If we want seriously to increase participation in Northern Ireland politics, particularly from those with ethnic backgrounds, and make Northern Ireland politics more diverse, we should recognise that those who are not traditional unionists or nationalists are not second-class.
I am sure that the Minister will say that once again this is beyond the scope of the Bill. None the less, the purpose of this probing amendment is to ask the question: when do we think that politics in Northern Ireland can begin to normalise and move forward?
My Lords, I support Amendment 6, to which I have added my name. I also see merit in the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, although I see that as an area where a manner of negotiations would be required, which I suggest might happen in the post-election scenario. I recall my colleague, Mark Durkan, at a meeting of the British-Irish Association in 2008 talking about the removal of the “ugly scaffolding”—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Caine, was there that evening. In the fullness of time, the Good Friday agreement was meant to evolve and our society was meant to evolve, through working together, through partnership, through the consent principle and through agreement. We have not necessarily achieved that position, but it is an area where further negotiations might be required.
I support the idea that Ministers should have to take account of the need for and the views of a civic forum. I recall the original Civic Forum that was established as a result of the agreement and the Northern Ireland Act back in 1998. I know many people who were involved in that and made a contribution, from the trade union movement and from civic society, from farming and fishing, because they were policy focused. That can only be good, because they bring their knowledge and their experience, which no doubt can inform Assembly Members and Ministers of the issues that are pertinent at a particular time. In my old constituency of South Down, such issues might be agriculture and fisheries. Nothing lasts for ever; things change, and Brexit was obviously a major change in terms of fishing. People involved directly in those industries can add much, and there is a role for the civic forum, but, more importantly, for Ministers to have due regard to what is said in that. There have been very powerful tools in the form of citizens’ assemblies in the Republic of Ireland, which have helped to change and mould society as it has developed.
I have received a copy of a letter that was sent to the then chair, or former chair, of the Executive Office, who was making inquiries about the outstanding issues of New Decade, New Approach. Reference was made in that agreement to a civic advisory panel, which would be not unlike a civic forum. New Decade, New Approach states:
“The parties recognise the value of structured and flexible engagement with civic society to assist the Government to solve complex policy issues. The Parties have agreed that the existing Compact Civic Advisory Panel should be reformed to include a renewed membership appointed within 6 months”—
that should have been by June 2020—
“by way of a Public Appointments process.”
It is to be noted that this remains an outstanding commitment which was interrupted by the impact of Covid on public engagement generally. The letter to which I referred, from October 2021, stated that work would be initiated to enable the panel, subject to the availability of supporting resources, to come into operation as soon as circumstances permitted to fulfil its intended remit as effectively as possible. I see that as a staging post on the way to the establishment of a civic forum by way of this legislation.
It is interesting that the civic advisory panel has not yet been established. Surely the impetus should have been Covid and the need for an organisation such as that, consisting of people from the trade union movement, civic society, health and social services, the economy, business and manufacturing, and from the retail organisations, to discuss the ingredients of what was required in a Covid recovery plan and help inform Ministers and Members of the Assembly of the most up-to-date thinking in this regard.
While I speak in support of both amendments, recognising that a new set of negotiations would be required in terms of Amendment 7, I ask the Minister: where is the civic advisory panel? Will the Minister and the Government talk urgently to the Northern Ireland Executive about the establishment of this panel? It would only be of benefit, and not a hindrance or impediment, as sometimes Members in the Assembly and even Ministers could think, but they should always see things in terms of compromises and solutions. I support both amendments.
My Lords, I will just say something briefly on Clause 4 and the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. A civic forum sounds brilliant, does it not? But I am really not sure what we mean by a civic forum. I presume that this is a probing amendment, because clearly we could not support something where we have no real idea of how anyone would get on to it; who would be representing who; what the rules would be; whether they would get paid to come—would someone coming up from Londonderry/Derry get their fair pay?—or whether it would move around and people would be moving around with it.
I think this is one of those ideas that sound great but in practice would become just another group of people—mainly the same people, probably, who are already involved in politics in the wider sense in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is quite a small place, as those of us who come from there know, and everybody knows everybody, really. Wherever you go, people know somebody who knows somebody—probably sometimes they are even a relative. I am therefore not quite sure how this would work. We have, for example, a very strong Women’s Institute in Northern Ireland, where WI groups meet in the country areas regularly and do great work; we have the Young Farmers’ Clubs; we have all sorts of other organisations already, such as residents, tenants and community associations; and a huge amount of work is being done by churches and community groups. I am just not sure about introducing another layer of supposed democracy and accountability—I am not sure who it would be accountable to, anyway.
I hope that the Minister will treat this with great care, because it is one of those things that sounds good and could be set up, but then we discover that it is in fact pretty meaningless and does not do anything to move things forward in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak on this, but I just want to pick up on some of the things that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, has just said. We know exactly how such a thing would be established, because it was—it was running. When I was the Speaker, I met regularly with Chris Gibson, who was the chair of the Civic Forum, so this is not some kind of thing where we can say, “We’re really not sure what it is, how it will happen or where it would be”—it was operating. The puzzle is not whether it could operate, but why, as a part of the agreement that was voted on, it stopped operating.
There is an argument that it could have done more at the time. One of the discussions that I had with Chris Gibson as chair was to encourage him to take more initiative in enabling the forum to do things. My goodness, we sit in the House of Lords, which is in itself not entirely different from this proposition, which is that you have people who are not always involved directly and immediately in party politics but nevertheless have a role to play.
Therefore, I just flag up, after what the noble Baroness says about being puzzled as we do not know what it would be like or who would be appointed and so on, that it was in fact in place.
That was 20 years ago.
Twenty years ago, indeed. The agreement itself, which is the basis for the Assembly, from 20 years ago, was the basis for the Civic Forum as well. The puzzle is how it has been possible to talk about implementation of the agreement and not talk about something that was voted on and supported in a referendum. I just flag that up.
My Lords, Northern Ireland has nearly 500 councillors, 18 MPs, 90 MLAs and Members of the House of Lords. We would need another tier of advisers. I listened carefully to what the noble Lord said about knowing how the forum would operate because it has operated in the past. However, I suggest to noble Lords that we did not know how members were appointed because the same grouping of people seems to be appointed to whatever body is going to be thought of next. It never widens out to Johnny Citizen; it seems to be that same stratum of people.
At a time when we have no money for health, education, agriculture or roads—they are nothing but potholes; we cannot get tar and we cannot get them properly looked after—we would like to expend more money on having people travelling around the countryside on an extra body. I suggest to the Minister that now is not the time to be spending more money on another tier. Spending money on many of the things that the people of Northern Ireland are crying out for, whether that be education, health, agriculture or the environment, would be a better use of public finance.
My Lords, the Civic Forum may certainly have been a good idea 20 years ago, but I am not too sure that it would work in today’s politics. I remember the forum. In fact, on occasions it was in opposition to much of the work that the Assembly was doing at the time.
I am not too sure that it worked that well 20 years ago. I am not sure it represented all shades of opinion out there, and there were issues around some of the people who were appointed and how they were appointed. It goes along with the serving and all of that. Now it would be wrong to add a further layer of government in Northern Ireland, with everything else that is going on.
We can argue whether or not the Civic Forum did a good job while it was there, but when I look back those 20 years, I am not too sure that it exactly helped politics in Northern Ireland or helped the Assembly to move on, because, as I have said, on fairly major issues it was almost in opposition to the Assembly and the work that it was doing then, during a very difficult period. I am not too sure that a civic forum would work in the present-day politics of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I am on the side of the forum sceptics, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey. Some obvious questions arise. It existed briefly and quite a long time ago. Is there any obvious demand in Northern Ireland for its recreation? My experience, which was not recent but was not inconsiderable some years ago, was that there never seemed to be any difficulty for elected representatives in Northern Ireland—as has been mentioned, a fairly small part of our country—to find out what businessmen, trades unionists, farmers and indeed a variety of people of different occupations and backgrounds thought. My experience of Northern Ireland was that farmers, businessmen and tradespeople were only too anxious to come forward with their views and make them known directly to their elected representatives. One of the glories of politics in Northern Ireland is the approachability of politicians and the close connection between them and the people who they would represent in a civic forum. It would be hard to make such a forum anything more than a talking shop whose purpose and conclusions had uncertain status and could lead to complication and confusion, not to better government in Northern Ireland.
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.
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.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Petitions of concern
Amendment 7 not moved.
7A: Clause 5, page 7, line 42, at end insert—
“(9) This section has effect notwithstanding section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. (10) No inference is to be drawn from subsection (9) as to whether this section would otherwise have effect subject to section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.”Member’s explanatory statement This amendment at subsection (9) would ensure that s7A of the 2018 Act cannot transport the requirements within the Protocol into domestic law, and thus nullify the cross community consent mechanisms.
My Lords, I am sorry that this amendment came in rather late. I thought there were going to be two days in Committee, and I had checked that I would be able to put something in today. I am very grateful to the Public Bill Office for its support.
Amendment 7A in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, is designed to restore the balance at the heart of the Belfast agreement. The agreement has been unbalanced by the manner in which the protocol has sought to nullify cross-community protections to prevent them being utilised by unionists to vote down the protocol. This has been accepted by the Government’s barristers in the High Court as subjugating the Acts of Union. The very essence of the union is being subjugated by the protocol. How can any Peer who values the union stand over that approach?
The Government in the Command Paper and in subsequent contributions by the noble Lord, Lord Frost, have conceded that the protocol has no consent from the unionist community and identified that as a core problem. It is therefore time to restore the fundamental balance and cross-community protections inherent within the Belfast agreement. In the absence of those core pillars being restored, there is no basis for any pro-union person to continue to support the agreement. This amendment would restore the principle of cross-community consent for key decisions, which is a core commitment in strand 1(5)(d) of the Belfast agreement. The Committee will note that this relates to any key decisions coming before the Assembly.
Later there were efforts to create some technical loophole to justify demolishing this cross-community consent mechanism for the protocol vote because, it is claimed, it is not devolved. As noble Lords will know, the Secretary of State by regulations unilaterally amended the 1998 Act by inserting Section 56A and Schedule 6A. That has the effect of disapplying cross-community consent. In practical terms it is designed to nullify cross-community protections being utilised in this case by unionists. Can this Committee and noble Lords imagine for a moment the outcry there would be if the Northern Ireland Act was unilaterally amended to nullify cross-community protections for nationalists?
We have heard much talk of protecting the Belfast agreement. What that really seems to mean is protecting certain aspects of the Belfast agreement and certain interests in the agreement—namely, those who have more of a nationalist view. All those who claim adherence to the Belfast agreement should support it in all its parts. That means the protections must apply every bit as much for those who are pro-union.
This amendment restores the fundamental principle of cross-community consent and the ultimate outworking of that is that, if these amendments are passed, come 2024—though I hope it is gone long before that—the protocol cannot continue in the absence of a resolution which commands cross-community support. A simple vote of nationalists would not suffice. A vote against such a restoration of balance will send a message to the unionist community that cross-community protections do not really matter. I do not need to point out how corrosive that is at the moment in the Northern Ireland—the idea that cross-community does not really matter, that it matters only when certain people have decided it does.
If the Government wish to be loyal to their Command Paper and their New Decade, New Approach promise to protect the UK internal market, the way to do that is to insert these amendments and correct the monumental error in disapplying cross-community consent. Repealing Section 56A and Schedule 6A would cut out the corrosive infection which has been injected into the Belfast agreement by the protocol. It is also important to restore the primacy of the cross-community protections and to make very clear that the constitutional statue in the form of the Northern Ireland Act cannot be subjugated to the general words in Section 7A of the withdrawal Act.
Of course, those of us who went to court on this say that Section 7A has no such effect in any event, but given that the Government and their lawyers have come to the High Court and made that case, these amendments will make expressly clear the primacy of the key cross-community protections. I accept that the Minister has had very little time to study the amendments. I hope that he will not simply say that this should not be in this Bill, because if it cannot be in this Bill, then the Government are really saying that there is no way to change what has happened in respect of those consent principles.
I hope that the Minister will give this some thought and that the Government will perhaps come back with an amendment of their own, if not this amendment, on Report. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and to speak in support of this amendment, which is also in my name, because this issue goes to the heart of the political crisis that currently afflicts Northern Ireland.
We are debating a Bill which in a way—I suppose, ironically—arises out of the previous crisis in Northern Ireland. We have had a series of such Bills over the years. Noble Lords on the Labour Front Bench will recall that when their party was in office it too brought forward from time to time various Bills concerning Northern Ireland, which not only dealt with the operation of the Assembly and the institutions but sought to legislate on things such as legacy and other issues which we are still grappling with today. That shows that many of the issues are still to be resolved and this is a work in progress. Many people who felt that, once we had the Belfast agreement of 1998 or subsequent agreements, everything was fine have been disillusioned of that by events. One of the problems has been that, instead of adhering to agreements that have been entered into, there have been efforts to undermine the principle of consent which is at the heart of the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement. This is what we are dealing with in this amendment.
I totally accept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, said, that the Minister has had very little time to consider this matter—that goes for other noble Lords as well—so we clearly understand that this is a matter that we will have to consider over the coming days and, no doubt, at a later stage of the Bill. However, I emphasise that it is a matter of urgency. As things stand, the protocol poses a danger to the union. The noble Baroness alluded to the court action currently under way—not just to findings in the High Court but to some of the Government’s own lawyers’ submissions, which are troubling and worrying for unionists in Northern Ireland, where they have argued that sections of the Act of Union, particularly Section 6, are suspended, in effect, by the withdrawal Act. That is an incredible position for a Conservative and Unionist Government to find themselves arguing for in the courts; it really is quite staggering. Whether it is today or another day, this issue of the protocol needs to be addressed soon. At the heart of it is the issue of democratic consent.
Earlier in the debate on other clauses we discussed the importance of the principle of consent and the assertion of its primacy, as well as issues concerning returning things to the way they were in the 1998 agreement. What was at the heart of the 1998 agreement but the principle of consent and the idea that there should be cross-community support in the Assembly for every key decision? As the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, alluded to, that is explicitly referred to in paragraph 5(d) of strand 1 of the Belfast agreement. We therefore have a situation, for all the reasons we know, that every key, major decision made in the Northern Ireland Assembly is either a cross-community vote or susceptible of being turned into one. That was agreed not by us but by those parties who put their hands to the Belfast agreement. In the amendments that were made in St Andrews we made some improvements to the overall structure, but that was the fundamental agreement that was made.
There is only one key vote, one important decision—probably the most important one of all—which cannot now be a cross-community vote. That is the vote in 2024 on whether the Northern Ireland protocol should continue to apply; in other words, whether all the EU laws on manufactured goods, agri-foods, VAT, state aid, and so on—those matters covered by Articles 5 to 10 of the Northern Ireland protocol—should continue to apply in Northern Ireland and to its people. Those laws were made without any final decision being susceptible of being made by anyone in the Northern Ireland Assembly or at Westminster. They were made in Brussels, not necessarily—or, rather, certainly not—in the interests of Northern Ireland. They will have been made necessarily in the interests of those who made them. I do not object to that; that is perfectly understandable. However, the fact that we are then subjected to them even if they disadvantage us is an outrageous proposition in a 21st-century, modern democracy, and it would certainly not be tolerated in Scotland, Wales or any part of England for a second. It is certainly not taking back control.
The decision in 2024 is offensive in its own right because it should already have been made—it should have been made prior to this coming into force. In 2024 that decision is then to be made by a majority vote, so it is not a cross-community vote and it cannot be turned into one. That was done in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (Democratic Consent Process) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. One of the most significant changes to the structure of the Assembly and the principle of consent was made in subordinate legislation, in the regulations that I have just described, not by primary legislation, in an Act of Parliament, but unilaterally by the Government here in Parliament, making a fundamental change to the way in which the Northern Ireland Assembly takes decisions. Again, there was no vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on such a matter, only one which was made here unilaterally.
The significance of that should not be underestimated. The Government’s argument was that this is not a devolved matter. Of course, the reality is that if it is not a devolved matter, there should not be a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly at all. If it is not a devolved matter, it is a vote for Parliament. By giving the vote to the Assembly, they then decided to change the voting mechanism to ensure that one outcome would be agreed. That, on top of everything else regarding the protocol, has rightly exercised unionists of all parties, backgrounds and descriptions in Northern Ireland.
These amendments seek to restore—as we heard earlier in some of the arguments put forward regarding other amendments—what the original agreement and the 1998 Act said, and to restore the principle of consent on a cross-community basis for all key decisions. If done in a timely way, they would go some way towards alleviating the current crisis and perhaps avoiding what is coming down the road. As I said at Second Reading, it is simply unsustainable for people to expect that the institutions will just operate as normal while the east-west relationship has been trashed, which is strand 3 of the agreement, as well as strand 1 through the changes that were made to the consent principle and the mechanism regarding agreement.
I understand the difficulties today for the Minister regarding the late notice and being able to examine the amendments in detail, but I urge him to take on board the heartfelt views, the real concerns and the matters of principle that are at the heart of them.
My Lords, I think most people know that I am one of the parties, together with the noble Baroness opposite, who are pursuing these issues through the courts. Despite what has been said at first instance, I am quite confident that when we reach the end of this litigation we will be vindicated. However, that will take time.
At the same time, we hope that the Government, who have been in negotiation with the European Union for some time and I think are making some progress, will acknowledge that they have not yet made enough progress for us to be able to go back to normal life. Hopefully, this issue from 1924 or whenever it is will never arise, but if it does then the comments that the noble Lord opposite has made are very important. If, in a number of years’ time, we come to a vote on this issue where we are denied the procedures that we put in place in the Belfast agreement, that will not be acceptable. I say that very firmly and clearly.
What the Government have tried to do on this issue is not going to work. They cannot just try to slip this through and somehow hope that it will work out all right when the time comes. It was a bad mistake for them to eliminate cross-community voting on an issue that is of huge importance. In the agreement we were very conscious about making sure that all important issues would be decided by cross-community vote. To take that away from the people is not going to be acceptable. We have problems going on at the moment and I do not want to say anything to exacerbate them, but I will just say that the Government have got themselves into a hole. They should get out of that hole before it gets too big and overwhelms them.
My Lords, I wish to make a few brief remarks about this issue. Those who have spoken before me—the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Trimble—have articulated the situation. I say to the Government that they need to demonstrate clearly that they have not fallen out with devolution, because their actions in recent times are getting the message over to Northern Ireland that they are rather weary of devolution or no longer believe in it.
There is a crisis coming. Those of us who sit here want to avert it if we possibly can, but the Government are the ones who can really avert it. They have created it—that has been put very straight to them by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble—and only they can ensure that this crisis does not hit us in the face. Let it be clearly said and understood here today: it is on its way. It is in the making. It is almost here.
I will not say anything more, but I urge the Government to take note in particular of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, and the noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Trimble, have said. There is an issue, and if it is not sorted quickly then I believe it will go beyond sorting.
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.
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.
Amendment 7A withdrawn.
Clause 5 agreed.
8: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“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.”Member’s explanatory statement
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.
I apologise to the Committee for my late arrival. I was unavoidably detained. I will read Hansard to discover the various contributions that have been made. It was very interesting to hear the thoughtful contributions about the constitutional issues that are emerging as a result of different policy decisions.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, that, notwithstanding what she has just said, I hope that she appreciates the reason I tabled this probing amendment. I know that among all the huge constitutional clashes that there are at the moment and the deep concerns arising from the protocol, some may regard an amendment which seeks to lay a report after six months to see how far New Decade, New Approach has got may not seem to be of huge political relevance, but it is important that we discuss it. That is why I tabled my probing Amendment 8. I also support Amendment 9 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie.
I thought that the Minister would say that much of this is beyond the scope of the Bill. Since we are talking about the implementation of New Decade, New Approach, I thought the Minister would be interested in ensuring that I spoke only to Annexe A. It is the Government’s financial and economic commitments to Northern Ireland as agreed in New Decade, New Approach, so it is the document that underpins it. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, said. He spoke about the need for education, environment and health. All that is laid out in New Decade, New Approach. The purpose of my amendment is simply to ask the Government what happens to all this? The constitutional debate goes on, but alongside that there are the very real issues that the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, raised. Other members of the Committee will know better than me and understand the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland.
The annexe sets out the areas that the UK Government’s financial commitment will cover and the conditions that would be attached. Such a report in six months would no doubt detail the financial commitments that the Government have made to Northern Ireland in order to meet everything that is laid out in New Decade, New Approach. I will be interested if the Minister can lay out the financial package that has been made available to Northern Ireland and the additional money made available to ensure the delivery of New Decade, New Approach.
For example, it talks about
“Providing the Executive with additional support for 2020/21, and addressing the health crisis”
“Providing additional funding for the Executive in 2020/21 … to place Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing, and address its priorities, such as delivering parity with England and Wales for nurses’ pay”.
It would be interesting to know whether that is actually happening, is a government aspiration or is just on the back burner.
Under “transforming public services”, as well as health, it talks about
“a better and more efficient education system”
“Ensuring faster, fairer justice”.
Under “turbocharging infrastructure”, there is
“Essential sewage … ‘Better Connecting Dublin and Belfast’ strategy … A5/A6 roads”,
et cetera. These may be regarded as devolved matters, but what is the financial commitment from the UK Government to allow the devolved institutions to deliver them? I am not trying to impact on the decision-makers; I am simply laying out what the Government have said are important for them to support to enable the devolved institution—the Northern Ireland Assembly or whoever controls it—to deliver these things for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.
New Decade, New Approach talks about implementing the Stormont House agreement. For the benefit of time, we will move over that and assume it has gone or will at least be a debate for another day on legacy issues. That has been replaced.
It goes on to talk about
“Addressing Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances”.
I am sorry to take up this time, if the Committee does not mind. It is Committee and it allows this level of detail. This is particularly important, as the document was signed by all the major parties. I accept the point made by the Ulster Unionists that they received it late, but it was generally supported by all five major parties of Northern Ireland and accepted as a way of restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is massive. To be fair to the Secretary of State, it was an achievement on his part, as it was for the five parties and the Irish Government.
We have all these different things, such as
“Additional funding to support mental health”.
The people of Northern Ireland will be interested in
“Additional funding for tackling paramilitarism”.
I read that there is a commitment to fund 7,500 police. Does the Minister know how many police officers there are in Northern Ireland? The latest number I could find was 6,900, so they are 600 short. Are the Government committed to funding that 600? That is in the financial commitment. The people of Northern Ireland would be interested to know whether the 600 will be funded to provide the additional police laid out in New Decade, New Approach.
“A Culture and Community fund”
“Funding to support … the 2021 centenary and related projects”.
I accept that the pandemic has made some of this difficult. Again, I know that “languages and broadcasting” are difficult, but again it is laid out here. There is support for all that. They are huge spending commitments that the UK Government have made to the people of Northern Ireland. As laid out in my amendment, there should be a report to this Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the people of Northern Ireland to explain what has happened to this. Whether that is in three months, six months, a year or 18 months is irrelevant. What has happened to these commitments? It is no wonder people find themselves a little despairing or unsure of reality sometimes. What does this mean? Is it worth the paper it is written on? Of course it is, but how is it being delivered, what is going to happen and when?
Then it talks about the
“Conditions of the UK Government Financial Commitments in Support of a Restored Northern Ireland Executive”
and an “independent Fiscal Council”. People will tell me whether we have that or not, but I am interested.
“There will be regular (quarterly) reviews of UK Government funding provided under this agreement, and implementation of all agreements via a UK Government-NI Executive Joint Board.”
The Minister will tell me that that has been set up and has met quarterly. It will be interesting if it has, but perhaps the Minister will confirm whether that is going to meet, has met or is just something written on the paper.
I will finish there. We have Northern Ireland Government commitments and so on, but there is a huge range of other things through this report. The Committee has debated, quite reasonably, very serious issues around the constitution and everyone’s points of view, as well as what should change or what might change. I thought it important to bring this amendment before the Committee today because, in among all that, there are very real commitments that the UK Parliament and this UK Government in Westminster have made to the people of Northern Ireland. Alongside all those constitutional issues and debates and discussions about how Northern Ireland should be governed and what should take place as a result of the protocol, there are huge financial commitments to deliver improvements to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland will want to hear how the Government will meet what they have put down in that agreement.
My Lords, I will speak extremely briefly on Amendment 9, which is tabled in my name and signed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie and Lady Smith of Basildon. The purpose behind this amendment is really quite straightforward: it is to speed up the implementation of this Bill. It is now two years since New Decade, New Approach was signed, and yet we face growing political tensions ahead of the Assembly elections next year and threats from the DUP to withdraw its Ministers from the Executive as a result of tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol, as illustrated all too clearly in the earlier debate. This Bill would go some way towards managing such a crisis, were that to happen, yet we could potentially find ourselves in a situation where the Bill had been passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords but, because of the two-month commencement period, the Act could not be deployed in order to help with such a potential crisis.
The Minister indicated at Second Reading that
“if the political situation changes dramatically, that is something that the Government will be prepared to look at during the passage of the Bill”.—[Official Report, 29/11/21; col. 1258.]
Can the Minister repeat that reassurance today? Surely avoiding a political vacuum at such a critical time is in everyone’s best interests. I also look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the very important points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, not least on the meeting of the board and whether that has happened.
My Lords, I rise as a signatory to both amendments and to speak in support of them. To deal with Amendment 8, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has gone through the New Decade, New Approach agreement with a fine-toothed comb and highlighted all the various commitments and undertakings that were made back in January 2020 by two Governments and the parties to a greater or lesser degree.
In many ways, New Decade, New Approach could be characterised as a highly aspirational document. It contains lots of commitments but, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said, where are the funding commitments to match and deliver those undertakings? For delivery, you need the money. While it could be provided out of the block grant, there are some elements that can be provided only directly from the Exchequer here in London.
However, proposed new subsection (2)(b) in Amendment 8 deals with
“what plans the Government has to bring forward further legislative proposals to implement the remainder of The New Decade, New Approach Deal.”
I look at what has not been addressed or fulfilled yet and, by and large, I would say that some of that is perhaps down to differences within the Executive Office between the First and Deputy First Ministers, as well as to the concentration of work on Covid, and now, obviously, we have the new variant.
There is a need for a bill of rights. We have been talking about it since 1998. Loads of meetings have been held in the Assembly on the bill of rights, we are still no further forward. We are told that the Northern Ireland Assembly Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights has received 45 briefings from experts since September 2020, and it recently held a public call for evidence which attracted 2,400 responses. The committee is due to report in February 2022. There is a panel of experts who are intended to assist the committee, but who have yet to be appointed. When will that happen? Promises were made about an age, goods, facilities and services Bill to prevent discrimination against people because of their age. Perhaps some of us might fall into that category at some stage, or perhaps we are already do.
Then there are the more fundamental issues: rights, language and identity proposals. Although that is within the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, I do not see a lot of movement there. Can the Minister indicate whether the Government here at Westminster intend to legislate for them? I have already referred to the civic advisory panel, upon which there has been no significant movement. It was to be established within six months, which should have been June 2020, and we still have not heard about it. On the programme for government, New Decade, New Approach says:
“There will be a multi-year Programme for Government, underpinned by a multi-year budget and legislative programme.”
The public consultation on the draft programme for government outcomes framework closed on 22 March this year, some 14 months after New Decade, New Approach. A total of 416 responses were provided to the main consultation on the equality impact assessment and, in addition, there were 23 responses to an associated children and young people’s consultation. The feedback received demonstrates that there remains strong support for the outcomes-based approach and for the draft outcomes as consulted upon. The Executive hopes to be in a position to have a final revised version of the outcomes framework as soon as possible. That begs the question of whether the Northern Ireland Executive are currently working according to a programme for government or what are they working towards and how do they get or achieve that collective responsibility?
The amendment in my name and the names of my noble friends Lord Coaker and Lady Smith is timely. It seeks to ensure that the commitments that were to be undertaken by the UK Government and by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly should be brought forward in an expeditious way for the benefit of all the community of Northern Ireland, properly costed, with a column indicating how much money, where it is coming from and when it will be spent.
On Amendment 9, in my name and the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, it is vital that we have commencement with Royal Assent. New Decade, New Approach is now 23 months old, and it is important that some fundamental issues in the Bill to do with the appointment of Ministers, elections and petitions of concern are put in place immediately.
For too long we have seen the misuse of the petition of concern. It was never meant to be a petition of veto but a petition that helped minorities and which understood and appreciated the issues they raised. It was not meant to be a petition of objection but was to be used as a special proofing procedure during which a special Assembly committee would hear specifically from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. It was meant to be equality and human rights focused, and to be used as a proofing procedure to ensure that rights were upheld. It was never there to prevent rights being legislated for.
In that regard, it is important that the Government look kindly and benignly on both Amendments 8 and 9 —I urge the Minister to do this—and provide indications of acceptance in relation to them. That would allow the timely implementation of this Act to coincide with the end of the current Assembly in March, with Assembly elections on 5 or 6 May.
My Lords, I am sorry to disappoint the Minister; I hope that will not happen on too many occasions. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I thank the noble Lord for moving this amendment, raising the issues that he has and exploring with the Government the commitments entered into by the UK Government in Annex A of New Decade, New Approach. He is right to do so and we are grateful to him. The noble Baroness has highlighted a number of areas of interest that are worth exploring today in Grand Committee for the Minister to respond to.
I want to take the opportunity, in this discussion of Amendment 8 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to add a few words about some of the commitments that the Government have entered into. There were quite a number of commitments. Certainly, during the negotiations our party was very keen that the Government would commit to a range of actions, funding and other objectives. It was not just a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly parties; the Government have a big role to play in making that Assembly work well and providing it with the necessary resources to make that happen.
I want to highlight briefly a couple of matters. I know the Minister will not be able to give detailed answers on all of them but perhaps he can take them away and if necessary write to us or explore further how he thinks things can proceed. I am interested in the section on financial and economic commitments to Northern Ireland. Under the heading “Turbocharging infrastructure”, the Government commit to helping to turbocharge infrastructure in Northern Ireland and set out a number of capital projects, such as “Essential sewage investment” and “The ‘Better Connecting Dublin and Belfast’ Strategy”. One of those mentioned is the York Street interchange, yet we have had very disturbing news in recent days that that interchange may not now be proceeding. I am not au fait with all the details but that is a key, major improvement that would greatly benefit connectivity in Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s economy. It was one of the things that we discussed as part of the confidence and supply agreement, which the Minister was very much part of helping to get settled. It was very much seen as a major driver in terms of infrastructure investment.
For those noble Lords who have not had the pleasure of visiting Northern Ireland and travelling along the west link—I put “pleasure” in inverted commas, particularly at certain times of the day—unfortunately, despite this major project designed to alleviate congestion, it has become one of the most congested roads in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, according to reports Belfast is now the third most congested city in the entire United Kingdom in terms of traffic. So, we need to get up to speed—literally—on these issues. The problem is that we have a major link designed to link the M1 to the M3 and M2, but when it was being designed some bright spark came up with the idea of putting a set of traffic lights at the end of it. As a result, the whole purpose of the link has been under-mined.
Excellent and major work was carried out a few years ago with major investment, but unfortunately, that particular problem was not sorted. There has been disquiet that there appear now to be reports from within the Northern Ireland Executive that this may not now proceed, despite the fact that money was set aside and it was a NDNA commitment. I would like the Minister to address that point and, if he cannot talk about it today in any detail, to make enquiries, as the Government have an interest in this since it was part of their commitment to Northern Ireland.
I will mention another thing in passing, before coming on to something else more substantive. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, will be very interested in this given her passion for the Northern Ireland football team, the green and white army, which I am sure we all share—in Northern Ireland at least. In paragraph 29 of annexe A, the Government talk about fostering
“closer ties and better collaborative working across a range of sectors in the UK chiefly tourism, sport and culture. This will mean attracting a portfolio of national and international events, including through developing a proposed UK-Ireland bid for the 2030 FIFA world cup.”
I have asked for a meeting with the Government on this matter. I think that is still being organised. But I would be grateful if at some point the Government could let us know how that bid is progressing. My understanding is that they put some money towards the feasibility study. Again, it is a commitment in NDNA, and it is there as part of a commitment to Northern Ireland. This is something for the British Isles—the Irish Republic is also involved in it. It would be a very big boost for all parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Can the Minister look at that and come back to us at some point on that particular aspect of their commitments?
Again, very briefly, in relation to the substantive commitments made in annexe A, one of these was a commitment to the UK internal market. I will not rehearse the debate we had earlier on the protocol, but it is in NDNA, so when we talk about delivering all of it, we have to deliver the full restoration of Northern Ireland’s part and place in the UK internal market, which is ruptured by the protocol. If we are going to deliver on New Decade, New Approach as we get these reports coming through, we need to see urgent progress on that.
The other very important aspect is the commitment in paragraph 16 relating to legacy. I do not want to open up a debate on legacy issues because we would be here a long time—although it was extensively debated during Second Reading. I am intrigued, as there was a commitment to legislate within 100 days of the Stormont House agreement. I am not urging the Minister to go down that route, but it is interesting that the Government recognise in the last paragraph that
“any … UK Parliament legislation should have the consent of the NI Assembly”.
What is interesting about that is that the current proposals brought forward on legacy do not have the support—as I understand it—of any party in the Northern Ireland Assembly at all.
In NDNA, there is a lot of talk about Northern Ireland parties living up to their commitments. From time to time, the Northern Ireland parties—or the Executive—are rightly criticised for not living up to their commitments, but here is a very clear commitment to the principle that any UK legislation should have the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not think that you can get much clearer than that. When we come to that legislation in due course, whenever it comes forward, I would hope that it will have the support of parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Again, that is a very clear commitment that is set out in Annex A of New Decade, New Approach.
I have raised a number of issues and, as I say, I do not expect the Minister to reply to them all in detail, but I would certainly be interested in his views.
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.
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—
Not all of it.
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.
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?
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.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, mentioned a number of issues, some of which are really matters for the Northern Ireland Executive. We touched on the Bill of Rights at Second Reading. An ad hoc committee of the Assembly is in the process of being established to look at that issue, on which consensus has in the past been lacking among the parties.
The noble Baroness referred to language and culture. I repeat what I said at Second Reading: the Government are committed to bringing forward a balanced package around identity and language when parliamentary time allows.
Like my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn, I well remember the discussions around the confidence and supply agreement and the money allocated for the York Street interchange. I too read the report to which he refers. If he will allow me, I will go back and look into that issue further. Like many noble Lords in this Room, I have spent far too long sitting in a car waiting to get on to the Westlink, and that requires serious attention.
On the World Cup bid, in the spending review, the Chancellor announced, I think, £11 million to support the joint UK-Irish 2030 FIFA World Cup bid. Hopefully, that assures my noble friend that we are making progress on that issue.
If he will forgive me, I will try to resist getting involved in a long debate about legacy issues. All I will say is that I urge him and other noble Lords to look at the Government’s proposals when we finally publish the Bill, which I hope will be very soon.
The purpose of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is obviously to try to get a commitment out of the Government to produce more comprehensive updates and reports. It is worth pointing out that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place has scrutinised the implementation, and the Secretary of State has appeared before the Select Committee and responded to the NIAC report of July 2020.
I will say that, sensing the mood of the Committee and having taken on board a number of the comments and sentiments expressed, if the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment, I will commit to taking this issue away and exploring it further.
I am very grateful for the Minister’s response, particularly the last sentence or two. I think all noble Lords in the Committee today will be pleased with the response from the Minister and his commitment to do that; it would be very helpful and I thank him sincerely. The whole purpose of the amendment was clearly not to divide the House.
I am not as well versed as I used to be in issues with regard to Northern Ireland, Ireland, British-Irish relations and some of the broader issues, but I suspect—in fact I took a straw poll of the people around me—that much of what the Minister was saying was news to people, frankly, and a lot of it is really good news. As I keep saying, the constitutional debates will happen and are difficult, but some of the other matters are not as difficult. I was quite inspired by the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which, as I say, many people in this Room will have been privy to negotiating. It is an inspirational document, balancing all the different competing claims and narratives.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, but finish with this point. I noted that the Minister said that, so far, £700 million had been spent on the commitments in New Decade, New Approach and that £2 billion was the total commitment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Clause 6: Repeal of spent provisions
8A: Page 8, line 7, at end insert—
“(c) section 56A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and Schedule 6A to that Act.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This repeals the Protocol consent mechanisms which were made by regulation by the NI Secretary of State. These consent mechanisms expressly transport the Protocol into domestic law by ensuring the consent of the NI Assembly for its continuation requires only a majority vote (and expressly disapplies cross community consent protections of section 42 of the 1998 Act), rather than cross community consent protections applying pursuant to Strand One (5)(d) of the Belfast Agreement.
The Protocol requires (at least in respect Articles 5-10) that positive consent be given for its onward existence.
Amendment 8A stands in my name and is very short—
If I may, I enjoyed the debate earlier, but the convention is that you do not move it formally in Committee.
My Lords, I have in front of me, from the Public Bill Office, “If you wish to move your second amendment, you say, ‘My Lords, I beg to move manuscript Amendment 8A, standing in my name, which is as follows’, and read it out. You then make your speech.”
I think that was put down just in case something odd happened. The convention for right now is not to move it.
I am sorry; I am new. I do not know the conventions. Shall I go on to move it?
I do not think you want to move it. It was spoken to earlier.
This is a separate amendment.
I know, but it was grouped with Amendment 7A and was spoken to there.
That is fine, because it is very short and was simply going to repeal the Act, which would mean that we would not have the protocol consent principles.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clause 7 agreed.
Clause 8: Commencement
Amendment 9 not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.
Committee adjourned at 7.08 pm.