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Assembly Business

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 12:15 pm, 24th February 2009

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Before the debate on the Alliance Party’s motion, I wish to raise a point of order to which I do not expect to receive an instant answer because of its complexity. However, it is an issue that the Speaker, the Business Office and Members must consider, at least in future.

Every Minister in the Executive operates on the basis of his or her legal authority. Part of the decision-making process in which any Minister is involved requires him or her to carry out certain duties that relate to that decision. If they do not carry out those duties properly, their decisions can be judicially reviewed.

Nowhere is that more important than in the office held by the Minister of the Environment, particularly when the decisions are on planning matters. The Minister responsible for the Department of the Environment is required by law to consider matters, including the call for a public inquiry, under certain criteria. However, the resolution to which the Alliance Party asks the Assembly to agree would impose a duty on the Minister to obey.

It would be all right if it were a local council calling on the Minister to look at a matter, but when the Assembly calls on a Minister to do that, the Assembly itself has power, in that under the Pledge of Office, which is now part of our ministerial code, a Minister is compelled by law — the Pledge of Office has statutory authority — to act in accordance with the Assembly’s decision. Therefore, if the motion were to be passed, the Minister would be compelled by the Assembly’s decision to act — not because of the legal requirements that he must take into account, but because of the Assembly’s decision to call for a public inquiry.

Therefore, two competing legal obligations are placed on the Minister: the normal legal obligations — laid down in planning law — that he must consider when calling a public inquiry, and the Pledge of Office/ministerial code requirement, which may require a decision in a different direction to be taken. The Minister can be punished if he does not obey.

Those conflicting matters put the Minister of the Environment in an impossible situation. The Assembly does, on this occasion, have a way out, because the DUP has tabled an amendment that does not do violence to the Alliance Party’s overall ambition but expresses a view for the Minister to take into consideration. That is very different from requiring him to take a decision.

I draw that point to the attention of the House. We are all on a learning curve — officials included — but I am not sure whether the wording of the motion should have been allowed to appear in the Order Paper, taking into account the legal obligations that are placed on a Minister.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I will refer that point of order to the Speaker for resolution.