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Northern Ireland

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:12 pm on 7th October 2019.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Scotland Office) (jointly with the Northern Ireland Office) 8:12 pm, 7th October 2019

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has been forthright in pressing for this to be brought forward. I am glad we are able to do so today. He says that he is looking forward rather than backward. I want to set out some context in my opening remarks, so he will have to excuse me if I look briefly backward before focusing on what the statutory instrument achieves.

The Government are committed to the Belfast agreement. At its heart is a devolved power-sharing Executive Government, and restoring that Executive remains our priority. Northern Ireland needs the fully functioning political institutions of the Belfast agreement and its successors. That being said, in the absence of devolved Government, the UK Government continue to have a responsibility to ensure good governance and that public confidence is maintained in Northern Ireland.

In November of last year, primary legislation was brought forward, which among other measures addressed the need for urgent appointments to be made to a number of bodies. The initial phase of appointments under the Act enabled: the reconstitution of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which continues to fulfil its important functions, including the recent recruitment of a new chief constable; the replacement of the outgoing chair and board members of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland; and the appointment of a new police ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

Under the 2018 Act, the Secretary of State also gave a commitment to make further appointments that may arise in the absence of an Executive. A statutory instrument was subsequently approved by the House in February 2019, which added six additional offices to the 2018 Act. As a result of that piece of legislation, critical public appointments were made in Northern Ireland, including that of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland and appointments to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The Government maintain that it is important, while prioritising the restoration of the Executive, to ensure the maintenance of good governance and public confidence in Northern Ireland. The appointments made to date under the provisions of the 2018 Act have contributed to that.

This new statutory instrument specifies further critical offices to be added to the Act, allowing for appointments to be made that will continue to safeguard the quality and delivery of public services in Northern Ireland. In preparing this instrument, my officials have worked closely with the Northern Ireland civil service to identify those critical appointments that will arise between now and the end of the year. The instrument would add to the list in section 5 of the Act, thereby enabling the Secretary of State, as the relevant UK Minister, to exercise Northern Ireland Ministers’ appointment functions in relation to the following offices: the board of the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment; the board of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland; the board of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, or Translink as it is formally known; the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland; the Agricultural Wages Board for Northern Ireland; the board of National Museums Northern Ireland; the Northern Ireland Historic Buildings Council; and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Those are the bodies that the Northern Ireland civil service has put forward as the most critical at this time.

As has been raised, the instrument would enable the Lord Chancellor to make Queen’s Counsel appointments, a matter whose urgency has been raised a number of times in this House by Gavin Robinson, Lady Hermon and Emma Little Pengelly. These are important offices for which the exercise of appointment functions in the coming months is vital for the continued good governance of Northern Ireland. I commend the regulations to the House.