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Royal Prerogative

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP 2:00 pm, 7th November 2016

1. Mrs Dobson asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister who provided the advice that the royal prerogative could be used to appoint the new Executive press secretary. (AQO 567/16-21)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

We were advised by the head of the Civil Service that we could use the prerogative powers conferred on us by section 23(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to make an order that would enable us to make such an appointment. He took advice from his Civil Service legal advisers before informing us. The appointment was then made under the provisions of that order. Therefore, the prerogative was not used to directly appoint the Executive press secretary; he was appointed under an enabling provision lawfully made using the prerogative power.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

I thank the First Minister for her answer. Given that the now-in-post Executive press secretary is undertaking cross-departmental engagement with the media, especially on behalf of the Department of Health, can the First Minister give an indication of the financial savings that Departments will realise as a result of the new appointment?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Of course, we are looking at the Executive information service (EIS). Indeed, following the director's retirement, a structural review is ongoing. The role of the press secretary is to do what the Member outlined: to work right across government so that we have a cohesive approach to the media; and to ensure that, instead of the sometimes glib and trite understanding of what is going on up here, there is a more in-depth understanding of the challenges that face the Executive and how we intend to deal with them. Yes, the press secretary was very much involved in the launch of the Bengoa report and the action plan from the Minister of Health. He will be involved in many other initiatives as well. I am sure that there will be cost savings, but, of course, that was not the main reason why this gentleman was appointed. He was appointed to create a more in-depth understanding among the general public of what the Executive are doing in their policies. The role of the press secretary is very clear. It has been set out in the many answers that we have given about his job title and job specification, and he will work to that specification and that job title.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the First Minister for her answers so far. Last week's High Court decision was significant in that it disallowed the use of the prerogative power to rush through the triggering of article 50. Considering such developments, what is the Executive parties' plan should there be a vote in Westminster on triggering article 50?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Last week's court ruling was that article 50 had to go back to Parliament, but, as the Prime Minister has made very clear, Brexit will still continue because that was the expressed will of the British people in the referendum on 23 June. Whilst the mechanisms may change, she is very clear that Brexit means Brexit. We are very focused on our engagement, and the deputy First Minister and I will be in London this Wednesday, along with our colleagues from Scotland and Wales, to meet David Davis. We have a Joint Ministerial Committee to deal with those European matters and very much look forward to that positive engagement.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the First Minister for her answers thus far. Can she confirm that no one has sought to legally challenge her use of the royal prerogative? Can she further confirm that the first post-1998 use of this power was by Ulster Unionist and SDLP Ministers?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Thus far, no one has taken me to court for the use of the royal prerogative. I suppose that there is always time. Of course, the Member is right to say that this is not the first time that the royal prerogative power has been used; it is the fourth time since devolution returned to Northern Ireland. The first time it was used was by the then First Minister, David Trimble, and deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon. As I said, it was used by us for the first time since I became First Minister when we appointed the press secretary.

There is no mystery in the use of the power: it was given to us under the Northern Ireland Act, as I indicated, and is there for all to see.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Why was the opinion of the Attorney General not sought before the decision was taken to exercise the royal prerogative? Would it not have been most appropriate to get the benefit of his opinion?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I suppose that we could have asked the Attorney General for his opinion. At the time, we thought that we would ask the head of the Civil Service whether we could use the power. He checked with his legal advisers and came back with the answer that it was available for us to use. We could easily have asked the Attorney General; there is no mystery in any of this.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Given that one of the implications of the High Court ruling in London on the use of the royal prerogative to trigger article 50 was that the Government in London do not have the right to legislate where legislation already exists, does the First Minister have concerns over the legality of the decision to use the royal prerogative in Northern Ireland in relation to the press secretary?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

No, I do not have any concerns. We took advice from the head of the Civil Service, who took legal advice. This use of the royal prerogative is under an enabling power set out in section 23(3) of the Northern Ireland Act. So, there is legislative cover, if he wants to go down the line of the court case in England. I have no difficulty in saying that we used the prerogative in the appropriate way.