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New Clause 2 — Petitions of concern

– in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 18th November 2013.

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‘(1) In section 42 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Petitions of concern), omit subsection (3) and insert—

“(3) When a petition of concern is lodged against a measure, proposal or a decision by a Minister, Department or the Executive (“the matter”), the Assembly shall appoint a special committee to examine and report on whether the matter is in conformity with equality and human rights requirements, including the European Convention on Human Rights and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

(4) Consistent with paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 (Strand 1) of the Belfast Agreement, a committee as provided for under subsection (3) may also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.

(5) A committee appointed under this section—

(a) shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration; and

(b) shall take evidence from the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.

(6) The Assembly shall consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.

(7) Standing Orders shall provide for—

(a) decisions on the size, timescale and terms of reference for such a committee; and

(b) procedure(s) to allow for subsection (8).

(8) In relation to any specific petition of concern or request under subsection (4), the Assembly may decide, with cross-community support, that the procedure in subsections (3) and (5) shall not apply.”.’.

This Clause would amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to reflect the terms and intent of paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of strand 1 of the Belfast Agreement. It would qualify the exercise of veto powers, via petitions of concern in the Assembly, through the consideration of possible equality or human rights implications.

(Mark Durkan.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 3, page 6, line 37 [Clause 6], at end add—

7B The alteration of the number of members of the Assembly required to express their concern about a matter which is to be voted on by the Assembly, such concern requiring that the vote on that matter shall require cross-community support. This paragraph does not include the alteration of that number to a number exceeding 30.”.’.

Amendment 4, page 16, line 3 [Clause 22], at end insert—

‘(1) After subsection (2) of the section 75 (Statutory duty on public authorities) of that Act insert—

(2A) A public authority shall not interpret its obligations under subsection (2) in a way that is incompatible with measures taken on the basis of objective need.”

(1B) In subsection (5) of section 75 of that Act insert ““good relations” shall be interpreted in line with international obligations and, in particular, with regard to—

(a) tackling prejudice, and

(b) promoting understanding.”.’.

This amendment would apply to Northern Ireland, the clarification provided in the Equality Act 2010 to restrict the good relation duty being cited against fulfilling equality obligations based on objective need.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The new clause and amendments are intended to return the position to what was intended in the Good Friday, or Belfast, agreement of 1998. New clause 2 seeks to reflect properly what was in paragraphs 11,

12 and 13 of the strand 1 paper, which provide for a petition of concern in respect of a measure or a proposal in the Assembly. Those paragraphs make clear that the petition of concern was not meant to be used as an open veto to be played like a joker at any time.

The position relating to the petition is qualified in the agreement, but unfortunately that was not reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In the initial Bill, there was no reflection whatsoever of the true provisions of paragraphs 11 to 13. When some of us pointed that out, the Northern Ireland Office “scrambled in” a measure stating that the Assembly’s Standing Orders should make provision for the procedures outlined in those paragraphs, but unfortunately the Standing Orders never did make that provision. They ended up providing for a petition of concern which could be signed by 30 Members, and that automatically became a dead-end veto: end of story.

This new clause seeks to remind people that the Good Friday agreement said that those issuing a petition of concern would have the opportunity to prove they have a legitimate concern on grounds either of equality or human rights and that those grounds would be tested by a special committee that would be established in the Assembly to report on the matter. We worked that out very painstakingly during the negotiations because people were concerned that a petition of concern might simply become a drive-by veto, as it were, on any issue going forward or even being tabled, which could lead to gridlock with tit-for-tat vetoes and petitions of concern. The then leader of the Alliance party, now Lord Alderdice, spoke very strongly in the negotiations about his concern that we should not have just an open-ended free-for-all system of vetoes.

The notion of having petitions of concern is rightly in the agreement, not least because having protections around decision-making mechanisms was a key part of the rules in the negotiations that led to the agreement, and, therefore, if it was essential in the rules that led to the agreement, it would be essential in the agreement itself. The particular model of protections had to be carefully balanced and calibrated, however.

The balance we came up with was that there could be a petition of concern, but it would not of itself be a veto. Unfortunately, the system as it is now practised does turn the petition of concern into a veto. That has meant that many matters in Northern Ireland end up not progressing, and some are not even tabled at the Executive or in the Assembly because the veto is now also used as a predictive veto, to prevent issues being tabled and to hold things up in discussion within the bowels of government somewhere.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying and his interpretation of the Belfast agreement, and if I have the opportunity to speak I will deal with that in more detail, but it is an interpretation. As we had the agreement of his party, which was the main nationalist party at the time, and the agreement of the Ulster Unionist party, which was the main Unionist party at that time, and the wholehearted agreement of the then Government led by Tony Blair and the wholehearted support of the then Opposition in this House, how did this major issue that the hon. Gentleman is so exercised about not get translated into legislation? How did that happen?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

It happened precisely for the reasons I have suggested. First, the NIO draftspeople who drafted the Bill neglected to deal with that part of the agreement, and there were a few other provisions like that as well, which just goes to prove that, contrary to what we read in a lot of memoirs, the agreement was not drafted by the British Government, the Irish Government or the American Government; instead, it was broadly drafted by the Northern Ireland politicians.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

It is not good enough to blame the draftsmen and say, “Oh, the draftsmen left it out.” Surely in all the hours of consideration in this House and in Committee and the massive debates that took place at home, here and everywhere else on the legislation that became the Northern Ireland Act 1998, someone—not least the hon. Gentleman himself—could have prompted a Member of the House to say, “An amendment might be in order. This is such a glaring gap that it needs to be filled”? Why was that not done?

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I actually think an amendment may well have been tabled because, although I was not a Member of this House, I remember drafting an amendment —but I am not sure whether it was subsequently tabled.

I should stress that when we pointed out that this was not provided for in the agreement, the NIO response was to provide for it by way of a stipulation that the Assembly Standing Orders would provide for that procedure. That turned out not to be robust enough. The right hon. Gentleman might say, “Well, did we not address that in Assembly Standing Orders?” He will find that the record of the Assembly shows, in the very first Standing Orders report, that I did address the fact that it was not there. The then Presiding Officer, Lord Alderdice, acknowledged my attention to detail, in so far as he could without being drawn into the debate; that obviously went very much back to his own participation in the negotiations.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a more cynical interpretation of why those concerned neglected to deal with this at that stage is that the UUP and the SDLP were then the largest parties, and they were hoping that they might be able to use the veto? Perhaps the reason for the concern now about the petition of concern is that the SDLP is not in a position to use it—as was originally intended, which is the reason why the legislation did not reflect what he is now saying that he wants.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman might have some basis for saying that if there was any truth in it, which, of course, there is not, not least because we deliberately set the petition of concern threshold at 30 because at that time we thought there was no chance of a party reaching the 30s. That was one of the reasons why the 30 threshold was there; there were concerns about how freely this could be used and that it might block things up.

The need for the petition of concern to be significant was emphasised not just by the threshold but by the special committee procedure to show whether there was a prima facie case on either equality or human rights grounds. The petition of concern was not to be used just for the convenience of a party that wanted to stop something. The fact is, however, that petitions of concern have been used to veto Bills that addressed the question of dual mandates between local government and the Assembly, which is a completely undue use. A petition of concern was also used to veto any question of a binding or significant vote in relation to censure of a Minister; it was never meant to be used in that sort of way.

The fact of a petition of concern being used, or being threatened to be used, by different parties prevents issues from being tabled. The whole point of the petition of concern was not to stop things being tabled, but to ensure that when they were tabled they were duly frisked and tested in respect of sensitive considerations such as human rights and equality. New clause 2 simply tries to get the Assembly out of the rut it is currently in, where vetoes are used far too often in a way that not only negates outcomes but prevents debate.

Amendment 4 seeks to ensure consistency with what was intended and envisaged in the Good Friday agreement and in the provisions that became section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which provides for equality duties and duties of public bodies in respect of good relations. On a number of occasions in recent years there has been a move to say that the good relations duty could sometimes trump the equality duty, so that a public body might not come through with a measure on equality grounds based on objective need because somebody else might feel it would upset good relations. We have seen that arise in relation to the Irish language, and there have been suggestions of its arising in relation to the provision and siting of social housing as well. The amendment seeks to clarify the balance and relationship between the good relations duty and the equality duty.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance, Belfast East

But surely what the amendment does is not clarify the balance between the two, but in fact give one supremacy over the other? The reality is that in a divided society where there are competing rights and tensions in respect of those rights it is essential to strike a balance. Instead of simply giving equality the upper hand on all occasions, we must ensure that equality and good relations are balanced in decision-making processes.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

That is why the amendment seeks to translate into Northern Ireland legislation something that the House legislated on for Great Britain in the Equality Act 2010, by specifying the relationship between good relations and equality based on objective need. We cannot use the question of good relations to justify a decision that fails to exercise an equality duty based on objective need.

When we discussed this matter upstairs in the Bill Committee, I pointed out that my proposal would not have the converse effect that a public body could not introduce a measure with an eye to good relations unless it also met the requirement of equality based on objective need. The new clause would not, for example, prevent the sort of thing that happened in my constituency in relation to the Fountain estate. There was widespread support for creating a new school there, even though it would not have fulfilled any of the criteria on the Department of Education’s lists relating to qualifying for capital spending on a new school. Similar issues arose there over school transport. Because of the particular circumstances of the estate and the community, however, and because of the ambition to uphold the ethos of a shared city, it was agreed that it should happen for reasons of good relations and community support, even though the proposals did not fulfil any of the Department’s investment criteria relating to need.

The new clause would not prevent such a project from going ahead in the future. It would, however, prevent someone from using concerns about good relations or agitating to advertise tensions in relations as a way of preventing a measure from going forward on the basis of equality based on objective need, whether in relation to language or to any other public programme or investment, such as in social housing.

I am simply trying to correct the confusion that is now building up, and to remove the undue tension that is being created by the two important aspects represented in section 75 and that relate to the commitments in the Good Friday agreement. On that basis, I commend new clause 2 and amendment 4 to the House.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

Thank you for calling me to speak in this short debate on new clause 2, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should also like to speak to amendment 3, which stands in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

In new clause 2, Mark Durkan is proposing to introduce new provisions relating to petitions of concern. I understand that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee is dealing with this matter, among others, and I believe that that is the right and proper place for the issue to be decided on. It is for the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to agree or disagree to such matters relating to petitions of concern. I understand that 40% of the petitions of concern tabled in the Northern Ireland Assembly have been tabled by the nationalist parties, so this is not a question of one party tabling petitions in a way that abuses the process. This has happened right across the board.

New clause 2 could create the potential for gridlock in the Assembly. Let us remember that a petition of concern is lodged after a matter has been debated in the Assembly and is about to be voted on. Let us imagine how it would play out in this Chamber if such a process had to be undergone after a debate and before a vote could be taken. Under the new clause, a committee would have to be set up. As soon as we hear the word “committee”, we know that we are not going to be in for a quick decision-making process—certainly not in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The new clause goes on to propose that a committee appointed for this purpose

“shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration”.

Not only that, but it “shall take evidence”—that would not be discretionary— from

“the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.”

This would no doubt have to happen when diaries had been sorted out and all the necessary people had been brought in to be cross-examined and to give their evidence. Then, after the committee had listened to all the evidence, sifted it and debated it, voted on it and produced a report—in addition to all the other committee and legislative work that those Assembly Members do—the Assembly would have to

“consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.”

Only then could the Assembly have its vote.

I respectfully suggest that that is not a recipe for quick governance or quick decision making. The Northern Ireland Assembly is already criticised in relation to processing matters quickly and efficiently, and I submit that the new clause would add greatly to the problems.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as a petition of concern is likely to have been issued because there is concern and a lack of cross-community support, the requirement in subsection (6) could never be met? If the reason for lodging the petition of concern in the first place was a lack of cross-community support, how could a report from a committee ever get through the Assembly to allow a vote to take place?

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those of us who have served in the Northern Ireland Assembly know that that is exactly what would happen. The new clause is misconceived. It would simply bung up the works of the Assembly and make no advances in getting things done.

In an intervention, I asked the hon. Member for Foyle why the provisions in his new clause had not been in the original Northern Ireland Act. First, he blamed the draftsmen. I then asked whether no one in the then Government or Opposition or in any of the Northern Ireland parties was in any way culpable for not having spotted this massive gap in the legislation. I asked whether an amendment had been tabled to rectify the omission. I have no doubt that, if it had been part of the Belfast agreement, the then Government would happily have acceded to the change.

The only opposition that was coming in from any quarter came from those of us in the DUP and allied Unionists who pointed out that we could not found an agreement without support for the police, the courts and the rule of law in Northern Ireland. I am glad that we finally managed to achieve that objective at the St Andrew’s agreement and elsewhere. That is why we now have stable devolution. I do not want to go into that debate now, however. The point is that the hon. Gentleman said that he thought he might have drafted an amendment, but he did not know whether it had even been tabled.

I want to try to explain why this matter might have been left out of the original legislation. I have looked at paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the Belfast agreement, and I submit that the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of them is open to question. The provisions relating to petitions of concern were set out in paragraph 5(d) of strand 1 of the agreement. That agreement was drafted by his party as well as the other parties that agreed with its terms. That provision contains no qualifications whatever: there is no reference to equality or to the circumstances in which petitions of concern may be lodged.

The section of the agreement that deals with “Operation of the Assembly” covers Chairs and Deputy Chairs of the Assembly, and the role of the Committees and Standing Committees. Then we get to paragraph 11, which states:

The Assembly may appoint a special Committee to examine and report on whether a measure or proposal for legislation is in conformity with equality requirements, including the ECHR/Bill of Rights. The Committee shall have the power to call people and papers to assist in its consideration of the matter.”

Paragraph 12 states:

“The above special procedure shall be followed when requested by the Executive Committee, or by the relevant Departmental Committee, voting on a cross-community basis.”

Paragraph 13 then refers to “a petition of concern” in relation to whether or not that special procedure is involved. But the special procedure—the committee that is set up—is about an investigation at the behest of a departmental Committee or the Executive into a measure or legislation which they consider worthy of consideration under those terms. It is not about whether or not we have a petition of concern.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury) 7:30 pm, 18th November 2013

Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I was there negotiating the agreement and I know what was understood and agreed. Clearly, those paragraphs provide for a committee to be appointed not only in response to a petition of concern, but at the request of the Executive or departmental Committee, because we were saying that a petition of concern should not be the only way of triggering the establishment of a special committee. That was to reflect the fact that there may be concerns about human rights and about equality.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

But the agreement certainly does not talk about setting up the procedure that the hon. Gentleman has alluded to today relating to petitions of concern. Saying, “I was there, so I know what it was about” is not going to wash. We have to deal with the written text—what is there. Saying, “I was there and I know what it meant, and we should legislate on that basis” is not a good way forward.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The right hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks failed to address the fact that I had made it clear that whenever the omission in the earlier Bill was pointed out, Northern Ireland Office Ministers moved to deal with that omission by putting a provision in the Bill. The provision relies on Standing Orders, but it actually says that the Assembly’s Standing Orders shall provide for the procedure provided for in paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the Good Friday agreement.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I have absolutely no difficulty with the Assembly’s Standing Orders providing for that, because I have already referred to my interpretation of what those paragraphs relate to. All I am saying is that the massively cumbersome, clumsy, convoluted, time-consuming, time-wasting process set out in new clause 2 on petitions of concern will be a disaster for the Northern Ireland Assembly if this House is ever so unwise as to pass it.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

May I take the liberty of trying to summarise what the right hon. Gentleman has said? I understand that he and his colleagues disagree vehemently with the content and detail of new clause 2, but am

I right in understanding that they support the Assembly parties looking at the excessive use of petitions of concern? Does he accept that they are used excessively in the Assembly, that we have stalemate on too many occasions and that it is simply left for the Assembly to deal with this issue?

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I do not accept that. I do not accept that we have an excessive use of petitions of concern. I would need to look at all the evidence and, as I have said, 40% of the petitions are put down by nationalists. I do not subscribe to any gridlock being entirely down to these petitions, but the new clause would add to the problems if it were passed. Let us consider the example of welfare reform, which is currently held up in the Assembly. The Minister’s predecessor, Mike Penning, who has now moved on, was in Northern Ireland the other day warning about the consequences of welfare reform delays for the block grant. That has nothing to do with petitions of concern; that is a political hold-up because Sinn Fein will not grasp and deal with the issue, and it is going to cost the entire Northern Ireland electorate, ratepayers and taxpayers a lot of money if it does not. So I do not think that petitions of concern are primarily the issue here.

What seems to be at the root of the proposal by the hon. Member for Foyle is that some kind of abuse is happening. He spoke about when petitions of concern should be used and so on, although that is not qualified in the Belfast agreement. What happens when we consider other elements, for instance, the cross-community voting? He has not in any way sought to amend that—indeed, no party has. If proposals were to be made about that, they should be discussed within the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and the parties in Northern Ireland should come up with their own suggestions, solutions and proposals.

I recall a famous day when I was in the Assembly and those processes of cross-community voting were abused—a horse and carriage was driven through the powers of designation. The Alliance party previously had been designated as “other”—neither Unionist nor nationalist—and has remained “other” for every other vote and occasion since. However, on this occasion it was persuaded to become, in the words of its now leader,

“the back end of a pantomime horse”— that is how he described it—by designating the party as “Unionist”. Why was that done? It was done to ensure that then deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the hon. Gentleman’s party, could remain as Deputy First Minister when he had actually resigned. The proposal was introduced whereby the Assembly had to accept the resignation for it to become valid. There was a total abuse of the rules and of the purposes for which they were introduced. This has never been done since because people were appalled by it, yet reference is never made to it.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

Is it not strange that, yet again, we are hearing from the revisionists? Whenever 40% is republican, we are told, “No, there is no abuse of petitions of concern.” But, then, when the Unionists use 60%, we are told, “Yes, that is abuse.” So, once again, we have, “Unionists at fault. Nationalists and republicans not at all.” My right hon. Friend mentioned that Seamus Mallon resigned and then did not resign. Well, Bobby Ewing came out of the shower and he was dead—and then he was not dead, after all.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks.

In conclusion, new clause 2 is a misconceived proposal, but I commend amendment 3. It is a technical amendment saying that if we are giving the power to the Northern Ireland Assembly to reduce the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly—as we are proposing to do in this Bill, because that is right and proper, and that should be a matter for the Assembly—the Assembly should also have the power to consider the number of people required for a petition of concern to be valid. For it to remain at 30 would be completely wrong, as that number was regarded as proportionate for 108 MLAs. If the Assembly were reduced to 90 MLAs or fewer, as would be my preference, it would clearly be right, proper and sensible to reduce the number required to sign a petition of concern. Amendment 3 is a technical and sensible amendment, and I hope the Government will take it on board.

Photo of Andrew Robathan Andrew Robathan The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

We are considering two issues of vital importance to the political settlement in Northern Ireland that are embodied in the Belfast agreement of 1998, a copy of which we have seen on the other side of the Chamber. Petitions of concern are intended to ensure that on sensitive issues, the views of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland must be taken into account. That is fundamental to the power-sharing arrangements that now exist in Stormont. The requirement that 30 MLAs sign a petition was part of the Belfast agreement and it has not been amended since that time. I believe that petitions of concern have been used 61 times since 1998, but there have been many more cases when the possibility of such a petition being used has led to policies being rejected or amended before reaching that stage.

At times, that has resulted in deadlock and important decisions being delayed. A failure to take into account the views of both communities would be far more damaging and could affect the stability of the settlement as a whole. As has been made clear, not all parties are content with how petitions are used at present, and I have some sympathy with the points made by Mark Durkan and Mr Dodds.

Given the concern in Northern Ireland about the way in which the petitions are used, greater scrutiny of the impact of such decisions would seem appropriate, but there is already provision in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for scrutiny of the kind the hon. Member for Foyle has proposed. The question is whether it would be appropriate for the UK Government to dictate to the Northern Ireland Assembly that such scrutiny must take place. I do not believe it appropriate for us so to do.

Turning to the amendment moved by the right hon. Gentleman, it is a valid question whether the number of Members needed to trigger a petition of concern should remain the same if the Assembly is reduced substantially in size. However, as my hon. Friend Mike Penning made clear in Committee, amending the threshold of support required for a petition of concern would require cross-community support before the Government could back it. Cross-community support is particularly important for this measure, which is a fundamental building block of the 1998 agreement and is specifically intended to protect minority interests. We have heard today of the different views that exist on the use of petitions of concern, and let me be clear to the House that no consensus currently exists on the matter. If such consensus emerged—for example, from the review process under way in the Northern Ireland Assembly—the Government would certainly be ready to consider giving effect to the conclusions when a legislative vehicle was assembled. However, I fear we are not yet at that point.

Turning to the amendment to clause 22, proposed by the hon. Member for Foyle, I know that the debate about objective need and equality is a live one in Northern Ireland and is a subject the new Minister should engage with delicately. I appreciate the force of and feeling behind what the hon. Gentleman said, and his comments will of course be noted in Northern Ireland. There are many who argue that the interpretation of “good relations” is the appropriate reading of section 75 as it stands. In its guidance for public authorities on promoting good relations, the Equality Commission Northern Ireland states:

“Equality of opportunity and good relations are inextricably linked and interdependent, and both must be addressed by designated public authorities. A failure to achieve one impacts on the ability to achieve the other.”

It adds:

“Promoting equality of opportunity sometimes requires the use of positive action measures in order to address existing inequalities with a view to achieving a level playing field for all. In such circumstances, public authorities must have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations both within and between communities, on the grounds of race, religious belief and political opinion, and consider what steps need to be taken to gain the confidence, trust and acceptance of all parts of the community. Communication of the reasons for the positive action is essential in this situation.”

Even if the clarification in the amendment suggested by the hon. Member for Foyle is necessary, it is difficult territory for Parliament to enter into without prior consultation with the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland, which would try to find the broadest possible measure of agreement.

Much of equality law is devolved, and it would be wrong for us to legislate unilaterally here. The Executive have announced their strategy document on a shared future, entitled “Together: Building a United Community”, which proposes changes in the law, including the establishment of an equality and good relations commission. It seems that that is the context in which such steps should be considered. We would prefer, therefore, that the amendment be not pressed in the House, but I am sure the debate will go on and on. For the moment, I ask the hon. Member for Foyle and the right hon. Member for Belfast North to withdraw the new clause and the amendments.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I assure the House that I stand fully by both amendments and the case for them, but that will not run to the extent of troubling the House with a Division on them, not least out of respect to other business both on the Bill and on other matters yet to come.

As I have already said, I can refute all the arguments that have been made against both of my new clauses. I can also correct the mistaken reference to the Alliance redesignating to help elect Seamus Mallon as Deputy First Minister. At the time the Alliance redesignated, it was to elect David Trimble and me as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. As I understood it, the whole point about Seamus Mallon being deemed not to have resigned was precisely to avoid a vote. I want to correct that in case anybody thinks that I have been economical with the truth as it relates to me. At the time, I made it very clear to the then Secretary of State, John Reid, that I would have preferred an Assembly election than to be elected on that basis and on those terms. That clear view was expressed to both the Secretary of State and to Downing street at the time.

Mr Dodds claimed that the procedures proposed would lead to indefinite delay. They would not, because any Committee would be subject to a time scale; Standing Order 35 of the Assembly partially provides for that, albeit, again, not correctly. This is about properly joining up provisions to form the agreement. We have real delay and ongoing gridlock in Northern Ireland when a petition of concern is exercised as an open-ended veto—it ends matters so that nothing goes forward. The new clause would create a procedure whereby people had to put up or shut up on an equality or human rights issue, otherwise the measure concerned would proceed. To that extent, it would be an aid to better governance and a more responsible use of petitions of concern as well.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader 7:45 pm, 18th November 2013

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking for his other crimes and misdemeanours to be taken into account, which were actually worse than I remembered—they were to get him elected.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes his own defence. He says that it was not him and that he had argued for an election. Nevertheless, he benefited. I am grateful to him for that clarification, although it does not aid his cause.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the role of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, of which we are apprised. If the threshold for petitions of concern is not addressed, it is bound to have an effect on the thinking of parties and their desire to implement change with regard to the numbers in the Assembly. The matter has to be addressed at some point, but given what the Minister has said, and in deference to other business, I will not press our amendment to a vote tonight.