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Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) Regulations 2023

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 7 September 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) Regulations 2023.

My Lords, I beg to move that these draft regulations, which were laid before this House on 10 July, be approved. The Government are committed to the 1998 Belfast agreement and our priority, as always, is to see the return of locally elected, accountable and fully functioning devolved government, which is and will remain the right way for Northern Ireland to be governed. In the absence of devolved government, the UK Government are committed to acting in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland to ensure good governance until an Executive are restored.

In December last year, primary legislation was passed which, among other measures, addressed the need for urgent public appointments to be made to a number of bodies. The initial phase of appointments under that legislation, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022, gave provisions for the Secretary of State to appoint a commissioner for children and young people. It further gave provisions for the Lord Chancellor to make appointments to the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission.

The 2022 Act also included provision for the Secretary of State to add by way of regulations to the list further urgent and necessary appointments that may arise during the continuing absence of a functioning Executive. This statutory instrument therefore includes a further list of specified offices which have been identified by the Executive Office in Northern Ireland as urgent and critical. These were not originally provided for in the Act, as urgent action was not required at that time.

To prepare this instrument, my officials have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Civil Service departments, including the Executive Office, to identify the further critical appointments which have arisen, some of which have already faced difficulties and been unable to exercise their statutory duties and functions, due to the absence of Ministers, one example of this being the Tourism Northern Ireland Board.

This instrument therefore adds to the list in Section 6 of the Executive formation Act, thereby enabling the Secretary of State, as the relevant UK Minister, to exercise a Northern Ireland Minister’s appointments function in relation to the offices listed in Regulation 2(2) of this statutory instrument. These are important offices and the exercise of appointments functions in the coming months is critical for the continuing good governance of Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

I thank the Minister for his introduction and obviously wholly support him in what he is required to do. I have just a couple of issues to raise. We were having an informal discussion about one of them, but it would be useful if the Minister could put on the record just what the process is for the confirmation.

Secondly, there is rather a paucity of people present for this debate, including representatives from Northern Ireland, and that is the nub of our problem. The reality is that Ministers, including the noble Lord, should not have to be doing this. It is a total betrayal of the proper interests of the people of Northern Ireland that this is not being decided by their democratically elected politicians. The Minister even hinted at the fact that it is creating problems. There are vacancies which have not easily been filled and that is affecting the functions.

I wonder how many more times we can go through this process before this Government, or another Government, will have to initiate a change. To my mind—I will say this explicitly—the Democratic Unionist Party may be unionist but it is certainly not democratic, because the reality is that it is not representing the people of Northern Ireland and not even representing the people who voted for it. But it is denying the majority of the people of Northern Ireland effective governance and that is causing real hardship, real difficulty and real suffering.

Finally, the argument put forward is that they are not going to go back until their seven tests are met, yet those tests are entirely irreconcilable. They are not achievable. They are not actually possible. On that basis, we are left asking, “Is there any intention of them returning or any circumstances under which they will?” I know that the Minister has many conversations and dialogues, but I do not know whether he feels that we have any chance of getting the Executive and the Assembly back. We cannot go on doing this year in, year out, without addressing the problem and doing something about it. I know that that is not the subject of this debate—I absolutely support what the Minister is trying to do—but I would be grateful if he could briefly tell us about the process for appointments.

My Lords, I, too, start by echoing those sentiments. Obviously, the solution is to get the Stormont Government and the Assembly up and running. In yesterday’s Oral Questions in the other place, this issue was specifically addressed. The Minister there responded to my right honourable friend Hilary Benn, who asked what plans there are and what conversations are being had, by saying that conversations with the DUP are constantly ongoing and that some progress is apparently being made. I hope that the Minister here can echo that positive side of things because the solution rests with getting the democratic institutions back up and running.

I turn to the specifics of the SI. I am sure that it is good practice and an ongoing practice for all relevant departments to do this but, certainly when we see that the specific urgent appointments include the Agricultural Wages Board and the Labour Relations Agency, I just want to be reassured that the practice of consulting properly with stakeholders, in particular with the trade unions concerned in Northern Ireland, is taking place.

With those few comments, I will leave it to the Minister to respond.

I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Bruce of Bennachie and Lord Collins of Highbury, for their contributions to this SI debate, which is definitely a record, it being the shortest I have had to deal with since becoming a Northern Ireland Office Minister. I am sorry that some colleagues from Northern Ireland could not be present today.

On the couple of points that were made, I echo entirely both noble Lords’ comments in respect of getting Stormont back up and running at the earliest opportunity. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is right that the current situation is not sustainable and that the arrangements for governing Northern Ireland are not right for the long term. We need to return to a proper, stable, functioning devolved Government, as set out in the 1998 agreement.

As far as progress is concerned, I can say that, yes, progress is being made. We all know the reasons why the Democratic Unionist Party withdrew its Ministers last year. We are working hard. Obviously, we achieved the Windsor Framework in February this year; we are now working hard to clarify and address any outstanding concerns. As my right honourable friend made clear in the other place yesterday, conversations are taking place constantly and are ongoing. I myself held a round of discussions with each of the Northern Ireland political parties shortly before the Summer Recess. The Secretary of State is continuing with that. Obviously, conversations with the Irish Government took place last week at the British-Irish Association conference. We are continuing the dialogue. Naturally, I cannot put a timetable on this, but it is pressing and we need a return as quickly as possible; we are working flat out towards that end.

On the process for making these appointments, the devolved Northern Ireland government departments will continue to run the recruitment processes in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments for Northern Ireland code of practice. In direct response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that enables consultation with a wide range of partners, but ultimately it is for the department to run the process. We are not interfering in or taking over in that sense. The role of the Secretary of State is simply to substitute for what would normally be done by a Minister in charge of the relevant Northern Ireland department. The process will run in exactly the same way it would if devolution were up and running. The only difference is that the sign-off will not be a Northern Ireland Minister but—unfortunately, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves—the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

It is interesting that a number of the appointments identified in this SI were dealt with by the UK Government four years ago when Sinn Féin was keeping the institutions of the Assembly down between 2017 and 2020. A number of those appointments were made at the time, and they have run their four-year course. We unfortunately find ourselves having to repeat the same exercise. Like the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Collins, I sincerely hope that we do not have to do this again and that we can achieve a situation in which the institutions are fully functioning and up and running, and the Belfast agreement, which we all strongly support, is implemented in full for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.