Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:30 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 1:30 pm, 7th December 2020

I call the Minister of Justice, Mrs Naomi Long, to move the Bill.

Not moved.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is with regret and disappointment that I beg not to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill today.

Members will be aware that good progress was being made through the amendments proposed to the Bill as a result of ongoing and constructive engagement with the Justice Committee to approve a number of provisions in the Bill. As a result of our collective and collaborative efforts, I had intended to bring forward a number of positive amendments to the Bill today. Those amendments would have further strengthened how offences would operate as well as further detail on potential regulations for the safeguards and protections to be afforded to victims of domestic abuse, including through new domestic abuse protection notices and orders, on which I launched a consultation today.

Unfortunately, however, I now have no choice but to postpone the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill . I asked the Chair of the Committee not to move amendment No. 15, but he refused to give me that assurance this morning. There are potentially significant financial ramifications for the Executive from the amendments on legal aid. At the end of last week, I was made aware that the Treasury's Budget guidance would put the entire cost of doing something that has repercussive implications for other parts of the UK on to the Northern Ireland block grant. Those issues would normally be examined and addressed during policy development and economic appraisal processes for any new policy. However, due to the way in which the legal aid provisions were added into the Bill — via a Member amendment at Consideration Stage — that due diligence was not able to be completed, and, without it, it is not clear whether the legal aid provisions in the Bill, and the further amendments that were to be tabled at Further Consideration Stage — in particular, amendment No 15, which would prevent commencement of the Bill without the legal aid issues — would have financial repercussions on other legal aid schemes. If they were to do so, the impact on the Executive's Budget would be potentially catastrophic. It would be RHI on steroids. It is imperative, therefore, that we do not proceed unless either amendment No 15 is withdrawn or we have time to investigate this important issue.

Many in the House and outside, including myself, key stakeholders and those affected by domestic abuse, will be disappointed by these developments and our inability to complete the Final Stage of the Bill before the end of this year, as I had intended. However, given the risks posed by the legal aid provisions in the Bill at clause 27 and some of the further proposed amendments, particularly amendment No 15, which was to be tabled today, I consider it vital that further time is taken to more fully ascertain the consequences and the best way forward. As has been the case to date, I wish to continue to work with the Committee on a resolution of the matter to ensure that this important legislation can be put on the statute books as soon as possible. I beg not to move.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Thank you, Minister. The Further Consideration Stage of the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill has not been moved. Therefore, we will move on to the next item of business. I have given some latitude, but I understand that the Committee is of the same view as it was last weekend, so there will be no movement in that regard.

Given that the next item of business is Question Time, I propose to suspend —.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a shameful course of action by the Justice Minister. What she is doing today in respect of this issue is a disgrace. This was a Committee amendment, not a Paul Givan amendment. It is not my position to act unilaterally when the Committee has reached a decision. This is an abuse of the democratic process, and caught in the middle are victims of domestic abuse. That is what makes it all the more despicable. The Minister should be moving the Further Consideration Stage. It is for the Assembly to decide whether it votes for amendments that are tabled. The actions of the Minister today do not bode well for the way in which she has conducted herself in respect of this legislation.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

As I said earlier, I gave latitude to the Minister, so, in deference to the work that has been ongoing, I gave latitude to the Chair of the Committee.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I will take a point of order, but I am not going to continue this discussion any longer.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Mr Speaker, will you confirm that the Minister has the right to withdraw and beg not to move, and that there is nothing disorderly or disrespectful in what I have been forced to do today in respect of the Bill?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Of course the Member, as the Minister, is in order not to move. The Minister did not move, so we are not progressing through the debate.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

As I said, Mr Frew, I am not taking any further points of order on the matter, because I am going to close it. I allowed quite a bit of latitude to the Minister, in the circumstances, and likewise to the Chair of the Committee, who encapsulated the Committee's thinking on the matter. It is unfortunate that we have reached this moment — this predicament — that we are in, but we are in it. I commend all Members for their hard work throughout this complex Bill, as was testified to last week by Members from every party. I hope that, in due course, that due diligence will return to the debate and that we can try to proceed with this important Bill in a fair and respectful manner. The matter is closed. The Bill has not been moved today. The next item of business is Question Time.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I am not taking a point of order on this matter.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

It is not on this matter. It is on a different matter.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Let me finish this. The next item of business is Question Time, which will commence at 2.00 pm. I, therefore, propose, by leave of the Assembly, after Mr Allister's point of order, to suspend the sitting until then.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Last week, I asked the Business Committee to list, for this afternoon's business, the Further Consideration Stage of my private Member's Bill. The Committee refused to do so. Yet now, we arrive at a point where, after Question Time, there is no business for the House.

Why did the Business Committee not, as a precaution, list a second piece of business, so that that Bill could have been progressed? Now, neither Bill is to be progressed. What sort of management is that?

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I do not know whether that is a point of order. The fact is, Mr Allister, that you have been around the Assembly long enough to know that the Business Committee, respectfully, schedules the business for the Assembly. You are well aware of that, and recently it has had to accommodate sittings that lasted well into the night and into the early hours of the morning. It has been trying to juggle Members' time and the orderly business of the Assembly. I take no issue with the Business Committee's decisions thus far whatsoever, and I have every confidence in its ability to continue managing business well.

The circumstances today are unexpected. As I said, I regret that they have arrived and the way in which they have done. Let us hope that we can get back to this Bill in a respectful manner that resolves the outstanding issues, so that victims of domestic abuse and violence will be safer in the future.

The sitting was suspended at 1.41 pm and resumed at 2.00 pm.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)