Moved by Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick
25: Clause 6, page 12, line 1, at end insert—“(4A) Where a Northern Ireland Minister or Northern Ireland department does not perform their identity and language functions, the Secretary of State must act if no progress has made in regard to those functions.(4B) Where the First Minister and deputy First Minister do not act jointly to appoint an Irish Language Commissioner in accordance with section 78J(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 within the period of 30 days of that section coming into force or a vacancy arising, the Secretary of State must act to appoint an Irish Language Commissioner within a further period of 30 days.(4C) Where the First Minister and deputy First Minister do not act jointly to approve best practice standards in accordance with section 78L(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 within the period of 30 days of best practice standards being submitted to them, the Secretary of State must within a further period of 30 days approve the best practice standards with or without modifications.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would provide a timescale for the Secretary of State to step in if there is no Northern Ireland Executive in place in order to execute the functions of the legislation.
My Lords, Amendments 25 and 27 in this group are in my name, and they address the powers of the Secretary of State. It is a matter of regret that this legislation is not being dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, and that it has to be dealt by this House, because all of the issues are a matter of devolution. They impinge on those issues within the devolution settlement in relation to Irish language and Ulster Scots and the culture and heritage thereof. Political circumstances mean that we do not have a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, and so therefore, of necessity, the UK Parliament has to deal with this particular legislation, bringing it forward in both Houses and ensuring its implementation.
Amendment 25 will provide a timescale for the Secretary of State to step in if there is no Northern Ireland Executive in place to execute the functions of the legislation. History dictates that this has been—and is currently—the case, and noble Lords addressed this particular issue at Committee. The legislation contains new powers under Clause 6 for the Secretary of State to step in where there is no Executive or Executive Office to exercise the functions of the legislation, or if one member of the Executive decides to block progress on any aspects of the legislation that requires their approval.
Given that we do not have an Executive at present, and in a situation where even if we did we may not have political agreement from within the Executive Office on the legislation—and I can say that having previously been a Minister, there is precedent for the First and Deputy First Ministers not finding agreement, even though both officers are joint officers—the appointment of a commissioner, or an approval of best practice standards, is a problem.
These step-in powers for the Secretary of State include a timescale in which a decision must be taken by him or her. As per the amendment, the Secretary of State must act within 30 days of progress being restrained, and that 30-day period will commence only after an initial 30-day window for the First and Deputy First Minister to agree progress. This leaves the Executive Office with an opportunity to act, albeit that window will now be time-bound to ensure focused action and attention. This will ensure that the functions of the legislation are implemented within that limited timeframe.
This Amendment 25 is in keeping with the fundamental principles of NDNA. The amendment also faces political reality, rather sadly, and seeks to avoid further political stalemate on this long-overdue legislation. I cast my mind back to 2006. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, was at St Andrews then and, from memory, I think there was a deal on the Irish language. It was one of the side deals that was included in the announcement given by Prime Minister Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the conclusion of discussions on the Friday afternoon.
In respect of that, I ask the Minister to reflect further on Amendments 25 and 27, which make provision in the legislation to include an Irish language strategy as a function of complying with the requirements of NDNA. Paragraph 5.21.3 of that document states that
In that vein, I would very much like it if the Minister could indicate his acceptance of these amendments today or, following a period of reflection, ensure that those amendments are brought forward by his ministerial colleague in Committee in the Commons, with an indication that this would be done on Second Reading. Therefore, adherence to NDNA commitments and protection of the Irish language and Ulster Scots would be provided. I beg to move Amendment 25.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Ritchie’s amendments. Furthermore, I ask the Minister to consider that committees and other organisations around the strategy should have equal numbers of men and women, and of various religions and others, so that this truly bears out the Good Friday agreement and the Bill. This would be a great move, and I know the Minister could see to this. Perhaps it could also be debated fully in the other House. I raised this on Second Reading.
My Lords, I speak in support of Amendments 28, 29 and 36 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord Empey, but I will first deal with Amendment 25 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie.
I understand where the noble Baroness is coming from with this amendment, which we also discussed in Committee. Part of the reason for it is to allow decisions to be made if there is no Northern Ireland Executive in place, but from my reading of it—I stand to be corrected—if it were to be agreed, these powers to act after 30 days would apply whether there were a Northern Ireland Executive or not. In other words, even if the Assembly and the Executive are in place but a period of 30 days elapses between the trigger point and a decision being made, it is open to the Secretary of State to intervene. That seems a quite draconian suggestion. I have been in the Northern Ireland Executive, like the noble Baroness and others, and many decisions take longer than 30 days, for all sorts of good reasons and considerations of all sorts of circumstances. It seems an amazing proposition that the Secretary of State would be compelled to act if the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister could not agree something within 30 days. I can think of nothing more designed to undermine the principle of devolution than that. From my reading of the amendment, it clearly would apply not just to the circumstances where there was no Executive but even if the Executive were in place.
The other thing I point out is that the amendment would apply only to the appointment of the Irish language commissioner, so there is no compulsion for the Secretary of State to act if there is a failure to appoint the Ulster Scots/Ulster-British commissioner. It seems one-sided in that approach. Nor indeed would it apply to appointments relating to the office of identity and cultural expression. It seems to be very much overstepping the mark. It would not fulfil the purposes it purports to and would create a one-sided approach in relation to appointments. For those reasons, I trust that the Government will maintain their position from Committee and not support the amendment.
Amendments 28, 29 and 36 in the names of my noble friend Lord Morrow and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, would remove the override powers from the Bill. In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, made the very important point that the Bill is designed to stick as closely as possible to the NDNA agreement. That is what we are about. On a number of occasions, the Minister cited in support of his arguments in knocking down some amendments that we must reflect the NDNA agreement and that those provisions were not in it. It is certainly not in the NDNA agreement that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would be given override powers, as the Minister admitted in Committee.
If it had been suggested that this would be part of the agreement, I do not think there would have been an agreement. If we had set up a series of checks and balances, and requirements for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to agree, and then said, “If they can’t agree, don’t agree, or it appears to the Secretary of State to be appropriate then he can intervene and take on all the powers of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in this respect”, which is a devolved matter, there would not have been an agreement. It so undermines the NDNA agreement and devolution itself that I find it hard to see how the Minister can justify it. He cannot do so on the basis that it is a faithful replication of the agreement, or on the grounds that it faithfully adheres to the devolution arrangements throughout the United Kingdom. It is clearly in breach of the Sewel convention and it acts as a clear disincentive to find agreement.
This is one of the many areas where the First and Deputy First Minister—and, indeed, the Executive—are required to reach agreement without the fallback that if they do not then the Secretary of State will intervene. That forces agreement to be made in the vast bulk of cases. If it is clear to some people that the Secretary of State will intervene if they simply dig in their heels and do not agree, then that is likely what will happen. I think this is a very misconceived part of the Bill. I understand that the argument may well be that it is a difficult area and we need contingency powers, as the Minister set out in Committee, but, again, contingency powers to avoid this problem arising were not part of the NDNA.
I come back to the basic principle. This Bill is about implementing that agreement. We are all agreed on that. These clauses were not part of the agreement. They are unilateral actions on the part of the Government to reserve unto themselves powers to override the Executive. We have seen this in a number of areas recently and I have raised with the Secretary of State and with others within government that we are going down a very dangerous path with this selective overriding of the devolved settlement. We have seen it in relation to the abortion issue, in relation to this issue and in relation to the protocol issue, where the voting mechanism of the Assembly, which is meant to be cross-community and cross-party agreement—there has to be a majority of unionists, nationalists and an overall majority—has been set aside arbitrarily.
Where does this end? What criteria do the Government apply for where they respect devolution and where they set it aside? Can the Minister tell us what are the overall considerations as to when powers are taken by the Secretary of State to override devolution, the Belfast agreement or the NDNA agreement? Is it on a case-by-case basis? What is it? I think it raises very serious questions.
I hope that when this matter is dealt with in the other place, the Government will reconsider this approach because, as I say, it is not a faithful replication of the NDNA agreement.
My Lords, I must say that the final debate of this evening has been fascinating. There are times where I am glad I am not the Minister, and this is one of them. There are quite convincing and interesting arguments on both sides. I remember that the late Lord Cledwyn Hughes, when he chaired the Parliamentary Labour Party, would start his deliberation as chairman by saying: “There are pros and cons for and there are pros and cons against.” That is the case here.
It is about protection. My noble friends Lady Ritchie and Lady Goudie were talking about protecting this legislation, protecting the agreement that has produced the legislation so that something which in the past, as we all know, brought down the Assembly for three years ought not to happen again. Of course, we have to ensure that the legislation is balanced for both nationalists and unionists and, indeed, other members of the community in Northern Ireland. I quite understand the need for reassurance but then there is the other protection: the protection for devolution. It would be much easier, by the way, if the Assembly and the Executive were functioning because the argument would be much more effective but, of course, they are not and that is one of the problems. Because there is no real, effective Assembly or Government in Northern Ireland, it is very difficult to ensure that there is certainty about this legislation when they are not there. I can understand that too.
As I said in Committee, when I was the Secretary of State I felt deeply uncomfortable about making decisions for people in Northern Ireland when I was a Member for a Welsh valley constituency. It was for the people of Northern Ireland to decide what they had to do. On schools, education, language, culture or whatever it might be, it is for those people in Northern Ireland who were elected by the people of Northern Ireland to make the decisions. They have elected them and, frankly, it is about time they got into government. I understand all the issues that underlie why that is not happening.
I urge one thing on what I assume will be a sort of new Government over the next couple of weeks, perhaps even days: for heaven’s sake, start negotiating and talking. Start getting around the table with the political parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government and whoever is involved to try to resolve all these issues. Half the difficulties we have had, whether with the Northern Ireland protocol, this or anything else, are because people are not trying to resolve it by having decent negotiations. That has to happen.
We are uncomfortable with this; we do not like it. I know the Minister has given us a concession in the amendment I moved in Committee, which was that if the Secretary of State takes these powers there will be an opportunity in both Houses to debate the decision that he or she has taken. Without pre-empting what the Minister is going to say, I note that there will be two Statements a year indicating what has happened. I ask only that if the Statement is due in July and there is a crisis in March, the Secretary of State comes along to Parliament and gives the Statement then—not automatically at certain times of the year, irrespective of what happens in Northern Ireland.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. It is a difficult dilemma, respecting devolution on the one hand but ensuring the protection of this legislation on the other.
My Lords, I am incredibly grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this Report stage for their contributions. I single out my noble friend Lord Lexden, who appears to be the only Conservative who has sat through the entire Report stage. Given that there might be one or two things happening outside the Chamber of interest to members of my party and beyond, that is commendable.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, echoing some of the comments made by a number of noble Lords at the outset. If this debate has highlighted anything, it is precisely why it should be taking place in the Northern Ireland Assembly, not in this Parliament. It touches on very local, devolved matters that would be much better dealt with in the Assembly by local politicians, accountable to their local electorates. I hope we can reach such a situation. I very much take on board the sensible and wise comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, about the need to discuss and negotiate. I hope we can resolve that very quickly, whatever the immediate future might hold for some of us.
The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, seeks to place further obligations on the Secretary of State in relation to the appointment of the Irish language commissioner and Irish language best practice standards after a certain threshold is met. As I made clear in Committee—I appreciate that the noble Baroness was unable to be present, although I am reliably informed that she could watch proceedings from her bedroom while recovering—I sympathise with the intention of wanting to ensure that the provisions of the Bill are not stymied by inaction on the part of the Executive.
I also appreciate the noble Baroness’s desire for the Secretary of State to move quickly if such inaction were to present itself. I have had conversations with Irish language groups, in particular Conradh na Gaeilge, on that point. However, my starting point is, as I have said throughout the passage of the Bill, that the Government would not wish to intervene routinely in devolved matters and that the use of any powers in the Bill would require careful consideration.
The powers in the Bill have been carefully drafted to allow the Secretary of State to use his or her discretion and to consider the political circumstances at the time. I fear that introducing a timeframe within which he or she had to act would detract from that flexibility. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a senior Minister during the Good Friday agreement negotiations, so he will appreciate that sometimes the Secretary of State needs a degree of flexibility in exercising his or her judgment.
As I laid out before the Committee, in our view the stipulated timeframe of 30 days set out in the amendment would be wholly impractical, particularly in respect of public appointments, which need to be conducted with rigour and, quite rightly, need a longer timeframe to complete, as my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn made clear in his comments. Such a timeframe would almost certainly preclude important public appointment procedures from taking place, which I suspect is not the noble Baroness’s intention.
I also suspect that the consequences of the Secretary of State’s intervention being compelled would set us further back from securing the public’s long-term confidence in the measures set out in this legislation. Lastly, as my noble friend Lord Dodds pointed out, the proposed amendment applies in this case only in respect of the Irish language provisions of the Bill, not those pertaining to the Ulster Scots and Ulster-British tradition or the new office established by it.
The noble Baroness’s Amendment 27 seeks to give a further area where step-in powers could be exercised—namely, in relation to strategies relating to the Irish language and Ulster Scots as set out by Section 28D of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. As I said earlier today and in Committee, this is a separate undertaking from the legislative commitments on identity and language set out in New Decade, New Approach. For that reason, we have decided not to include such a provision in this legislation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, who I welcome to her place here, talked about appointments. At the risk of repeating what I said in Committee, there are well-established appointment procedures in Northern Ireland but these would essentially be matters for the Northern Ireland Executive to take forward rather than Her Majesty’s Government.
I turn to Amendments 28, 29 and 36 in the names of my noble friends Lord Morrow and Lord Empey and spoken to by my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn. In Committee, I set out at length the Secretary of State’s step-in powers more broadly. I realise that these are difficult areas. Throughout the Committee debates, I stressed that the Government would not wish to intervene routinely and that the use of these powers would require careful consideration, and that remains the case.
I have a good deal of sympathy with the comments of my noble friend Lord Dodds of Duncairn and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, in respect of these powers. The only reason they are there is to ensure that a key element of New Decade, New Approach is capable of being delivered—something that, regrettably, was not happening after the Assembly was restored in January 2020. Agreeing again with the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, I think I said in Committee that one does not always have to be totally comfortable with something to regard it as necessary, and I believe that the powers are proportionate and necessary.
However, as the noble Lord alluded to, the need for appropriate scrutiny of these powers and the importance of accountability before this House are paramount. I therefore make a commitment to noble Lords today on the step-in powers, following my promise in Committee to look further at these issues. Having reflected, I can commit that the Northern Ireland Office will make Written Statements to both Houses every six months from commencement to provide updates on the Bill’s implementation. Those statements will include details on any use of the step-in powers within the relevant six-month period and will enable the Government to keep both Houses informed of the delivery of NDNA commitments more broadly. I will also reflect further on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, about timings.
I hope that this commitment, from the Dispatch Box, will provide some reassurance to noble Lords and go some way—probably not all the way—to allaying their concerns. The Government remain of the view that these powers are required in the Bill, however uncomfortable some may be. On this basis, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who participated in this short debate. It was very interesting and different views were offered. I was trying to ensure the protection of the legislation and, obviously, the protection of devolution. I would still urge the Minister to give consideration to the content of both amendments. If he could meet Conradh na Gaeilge in the coming months, in advance of the Bill coming to the other place, to discuss these particular issues, I would be extremely grateful. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 25.
Amendment 25 withdrawn.