Committee

Part of Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 11th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office) 4:15 pm, 11th March 2009

I am grateful to all noble Lords for their support and for the actions that they have taken in support of the family of Constable Carroll in Northern Ireland.

I recognise that noble Lords have concerns about how the Bill provides for the appointment and removal of the justice Minister under this new model, and I have heard the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis. I must stress that I do not agree with his assertion that the Bill is all about a deal. It is not. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, quite rightly said, it reflects an agreement between the democratically elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, as set out in the agreement that was announced by the First and Deputy First Ministers in November and built on by the cross-party Assembly and Executive Review Committee. The report of that committee was approved, as the noble Lord said, by the Assembly on a cross-community basis on 20 January. The Government believe that it is right and proper that they should take their lead from this agreement.

Amendments 1A, 1B and 1C would remove the possibility of a nomination for the justice Minister being made by any Member of the Assembly. Instead, the nomination would have to be made either by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly, by at least eight Members of the Assembly, or by at least one Member of each of the four largest parties in the Assembly. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee did not seek to restrict who could nominate the justice Minister, and for that reason we have not done so in the Bill.

Another of the models provided for by the 1998 Act in Section 21A(3) already provides for a single elected Minister nominated by the First and Deputy First Ministers, which replicates the effect of Amendment 1A. But, in any case, the key test that needs to be applied is whether the nomination commands cross-community consensus, as expressed through a cross-community vote in the Assembly. That is what the Bill provides; therefore, there is no need to impose the additional hurdles within the nomination process which would be created by Amendments 1B and 1C.

The noble Lord also asserted that having a single Member of the Assembly nominate the justice Minister saves the DUP or Sinn Fein from having to lose face by doing so. I do not accept that these provisions let anyone off the hook. It is simply a way to ensure that any Member of the Assembly can nominate a justice Minister and that there should be no restriction on that right. The nomination still requires cross-community support to be carried.

Amendment 2A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, would prevent the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister from being nominated to hold the office of justice Minister. It is a feature of all existing ministerial models for the department of justice and the other executive ministerial offices that neither the First Minister nor the Deputy First Minister is precluded from holding these offices. Members of the Committee may recall that the honourable Member for Foyle simultaneously held the office of Deputy First Minister and that of finance Minister under a previous Assembly mandate. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for giving the example of her noble friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in Scotland.

To amend the Bill in the way proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, would create an inconsistency between the model set out here and the arrangements that Parliament has already put in place for existing models. I would draw the noble Lord's attention to Section 18(7) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and to paragraphs 3(7), 7(7), 11(7) and 11F(1) of Schedule 4A to that Act. It is important that the Assembly should have no less flexibility to appoint a justice Minister under this model than under any of the others. In response to the noble Lord's suggestion that, if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were to be nominated as justice Minister they would have a veto over their own removal, that is not necessarily the case. On current Assembly arithmetic, the DUP or Sinn Fein would be required to carry a cross-community vote. However, that arithmetic would not always be the same. Given that the DUP and Sinn Fein have committed to not nominating the justice Minister until after 2012, the Government believe that the noble Lord's concerns are misplaced. I therefore ask him not to press his amendment.

Amendment 4A would make it possible for the Assembly to remove the justice Minister on a straight majority vote, dispensing with the need for cross-community support. The requirement of cross-community support for the removal of the justice Minister was recommendation 11 of the AERC report, approved by the Assembly on 20 January. Not only would I advise caution to the Committee before unpicking arrangements which already have support across the Assembly and will fall to them to implement, but this amendment goes beyond the spirit of the Belfast agreement. The agreement sets out the principle of taking key decisions within the Assembly on a cross-community basis which it defined as either parallel consent, as is provided by the Bill, or a weighted majority; namely, 60 per cent of members present and voting, including at least 40 per cent of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting. It would be hard to argue that the removal of a justice Minister could not be construed as a key decision of the Assembly. For those reasons, the Government do not agree with this amendment.

Amendment 5A would remove the roles of the First and Deputy First Minister in removing the justice Minister. This would mean that removal could be brought about only by a Motion supported by a minimum of 30 MLAs, which would then need to be passed by the Assembly on a cross-community basis. The provisions included in the Bill for the removal of the justice Minister replicate the arrangements put in place and approved by Parliament in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for the exclusion of a Minister under Section 35. Given that the arrangements are suitable in that scenario, the Government consider that they should also be suitable here. Again, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.