Clause 10 - Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:55 am on 16th July 2013.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

With this it will be convenient to consider the following:

Clause 11 stand part.

Clause 12 stand part.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We took clauses 1 to 9 on the Floor of the House, and we had quite an extensive debate on them. As we move into this stage of Committee proceedings, we get more involved in technical matters. Clauses 10 to 12 amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to move functions relating to certain arm’s length bodies in Northern Ireland from the excepted matters in schedule 2 to a list of reserved matters in schedule 3.

Section 4 of the Act defines the legislative matters in Northern Ireland that may be excepted, reserved or transferred. Clause 10 will not change the current procedure for appointments to the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland—commissioners will continue to be appointed by the Crown—but it will make a minor amendment to the Act to provide legislative scope for the change to be made in future, should the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Government agree.

Similarly, clause 11 moves certain functions relating to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission from exempted to reserved. Clause 12 makes similar provision in respect of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner for Northern Ireland; hon. Members will be aware that those areas are set out slightly differently from how they are in the rest of the United Kingdom. This change will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to rationalise the way in which local government electoral areas are set, subject to the consent of the Secretary of State.

In clauses 10 to 12, we are really trying to bring Northern Ireland as close as we can to the rest of the United Kingdom in regard to these measures. We are not completely there, but they allow us to have matters in hand, so that we can get on and make progress when the time is right. They move us closer to normalisation in Northern Ireland, which is something that I am sure the whole House would like to do.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Hollobone. Clauses 10 to 12, as the Minister said, will take a number of matters listed as excepted in the ’98 legislation into the reserved category, essentially bringing them further into the devolved sphere, subject to an approval power held by the Secretary of State. As an enthusiastic devolutionist, I always want to see more powers and functions being devolved. As someone who has an eye  to good standards of probity, due merit in appointments, and inclusion, I think that we have to put on record some reservations about the character and quality of some of the appointments being made in the devolved sphere, and about the fairness and equity of some of the decisions made there.

Clause 10 deals with the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland, who have an important role that, thankfully, has not been controversial too often, though it has been decisive. At times, the commissioners have been decisive in making sure that senior appointments in the civil service were opened up to more public competition. They were obviously decisive in presiding over such appointments and bringing forward recommendations.

In my time as Deputy First Minister, there was the question of the appointment of the new head of the civil service. The then First Minister decided that he did not like anybody in the Northern Ireland civil service, and decided to take it entirely upon himself to march into Downing street and ask for the assistance of the Cabinet Office in finding a suitable civil servant in London who would take the job. There was no consultation with me, as Deputy First Minister, and no consultation whatever with any of the civil servants in Northern Ireland or his office. He was, of course, duly assisted by Downing street and Jonathan Powell, and was given a meeting with the head of the civil service here, who said that they would trawl for names and approach likely candidates.

We need to make sure that when we put anything in the devolved sphere, there are sufficient checks and balances to achieve the sort of norms and assurances that we would want. We also want to be assured that where powers are reserved to the British Government, they are actively exercised in a judicious way, and not on a whoever-comes-to-them, whatever-you’re-having-yourself basis. That is hugely important.

We got the matter of the civil service head sorted. When I confronted the First Minister, and when civil servants protested about the legal question mark that would have been created if he had got his way and the appointment had been made in that way, he complained to me that it was an awful pity that he could not have a private conversation in London any more. There could have been quite a number of challenges from eligible candidates for the post if there had been such a high-handed dismissal of their eligibility.

The Civil Service Commissioners, who presided over that appointment, have a sensitive position. It is important that people have a sense that they are not working simply on the basis of to whom they owe their appointment; they should not feel that they owe their appointment to the First and Deputy First Minister, or to the parties in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Similarly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has an important role that should not be seen to be, and should not be, purely partisan. Unfortunately, over a number of years, many people have seen appointments to the Human Rights Commission, even by the Secretary of State, as being essentially on party lines, and along the lines of who will shore up whose confidence in the Human Rights Commission. That in itself would be an eligible consideration where there are doubts about the role of the Human Rights Commission, but when some  of those people come on to the commission and appear to oppose its role, or question its fundamental purpose, more questions are raised about the nature of the appointments.

Again, if we see appointments in the devolved sphere as falling to the First and Deputy First Minister, we will have problems, because other parties will feel excluded, and many non-party interests will feel excluded or used, so we need to make sure that standards are being upheld as far as devolved appointments are concerned. That is certainly something that we should be at pains to establish on each occasion, with regard to the reserved powers of the Secretary of State.

When we negotiated the Good Friday agreement and established the institutions, many of the appointments were made on the basis that parties were consulted and allowed to nominate. Non-party interests and non-party nominations were sought as well. Under the management of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party, that has been less and less the case. For bodies that are fundamental to the agreement, such as those north-south bodies that have boards—the north-south implementation bodies—originally it was the case that all parties were allowed to nominate and were offered nominations, but that is no longer the case. Sinn Fein and the DUP do the nominations. Nobody else is consulted, invited or involved. It is just their show now.

People who served well on some of the bodies and would have been in a position to step forward to chair them, given their experience, found themselves completely discarded and replaced by others who came in with no real sense or knowledge of, or care for, the agenda of those bodies or work groups. We need to be very clear that we cannot simply say, “We trust you with all those appointments; just do what you want.” If this is going into the devolved sphere, we want to encourage it to be done on as inclusive and transparent a basis as possible.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation that he is outlining, in a way that may be somewhat partisan, is fully open to rigorous scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Assembly? The entire process has been subjected to that scrutiny in the past, and I am sure it will continue to be subjected to it.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

It actually was not subject to that sort of scrutiny, because when people asked questions, they were told that the issue of appointments was protected as a confidential matter. They were not allowed to see who else was considered. The process has not been transparent, not least when it came to north-south bodies and suchlike. Those of us who tried to get some account of that were not in a position to do so, and found it hard to force the issue.

There is, of course, an additional consideration, given recent controversies about donations to parties and commercial influences that may have motivated decisions that Ministers made about contracts and the conduct of the affairs of public bodies. Those questions also pertain to the issue of public appointments. There have been controversies about public appointments; it has turned out that some of the people appointed were donors. People had not appreciated before the appointment that those people were donors to a particular political party.

There was a controversy with the Maze panel over the role of Terence Brannigan. Sinn Fein said that it did not know, when it agreed to a DUP nominee being chair of the panel, that it was someone who had become a significant donor to the DUP. We cannot wait for these things to spill out by accident. Again, it was hard to force that issue, because people were told, “Well, it’s a small enough place; it’s very hard to appoint people who are not donors, and you can’t only appoint non-donors.” I accept that we cannot appoint only non-donors, but there needs to be full transparency. Whenever that issue has been established, people have been able to absorb it and take it in, which proves that there was no need to avoid transparency in the first place.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he agree that there is a world of difference between someone who is a member of a political party being appointed to chair a panel, and appointing someone who is a significant donor? I am sure that he understands the distinction I am making.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

There can be a world of difference, but there can also be a dubious blur of a difference, particularly when we do not have transparency in relation to donations. It is one thing to be on a definite path, and to know that at a particular point in the calendar, transparency will be there and will apply all around; the problem is that people are left in a twilight zone where it is hard to know the difference, or even whether there is a difference. With many of these things, it is like the old advert for soup: the difference is in the thickness. I accept that, but the point is that when there are doubts or concerns, it is an issue that we should not completely disregard as we deal with the three clauses before us.

Local government boundaries are already a transferred matter, and the Bill proposes to transfer more issues in the domain of how local government boundaries are composed into district electoral areas. DEAs are groupings of wards that, in effect, become the contested electoral area for councillors. A decision will be made on whether there will be three, four, five or six wards in a particular DEA. Obviously, the higher the number of wards in a DEA, the higher the number of councillors, because there is one councillor per ward. Furthermore, the higher the number of wards in a DEA, the greater the spread afforded to parties in terms of proportional representation. The lower the number of wards, the lower the spread, which is why the whole issue of boundaries, not least for Dáil Éireann, becomes quite contested. Many parties take issue when the Government there opt for three-seat and four-seat constituencies; they see it as an attempt to reduce things for other parties. Again, it becomes a sensitive issue. If the decision on the composition of boundaries becomes more and more a devolved matter, we must ensure that there are protections, so that there is not abuse to serve partisan interests.

Again, we have form on this, in this phase of devolution. When the devolved power relating to local government boundaries was being exercised a few years ago, the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill was introduced in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which appointed a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. The Bill  actually set the boundaries; it did not leave it to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to come up with boundaries, look at councils and say what would be a natural composition, what was a natural hinterland, and so on. It actually fixed the boundaries, so Sinn Fein and the DUP fixed the boundaries for 11 councils. They picked the number 11 between themselves.

Under the current dispensation, the proportion of the population that lives under a council that has a nationalist majority, and the proportion that lives under a council with a Unionist majority, are on a par with the Unionist and nationalist share of the population as a whole. Uncannily, the boundaries seem to reflect the population split in Northern Ireland. Of course, the new boundaries do not do that; they will take 100,000 people out of councils that are under overall nationalist control and put them into councils that are under overall Unionist control.

One might wonder, “Why would Sinn Fein go along with the sort of gerrymandering that puts more people under Unionist control and takes people from nationalist control, with absolutely none going in the other way?” It is simply because Sinn Fein wanted to fix the boundaries in the two main cities as best suited it, so that is what it did. It was an entirely expedient exercise of the power relating to local government boundaries.

With that experience, it is difficult to assure people that we do not have to worry about decisions regarding the district electoral areas. We need to ensure that the Secretary of State is alert to those sensitivities and is aware of what has happened in the past. I do not know whether she has listened to any of the points made on this subject in earlier stages of the Bill. However, if we are to take seriously the decision that we are making about moving these powers, it is important that we hear from the Government that the Secretary of State and the Minister—and their successors, in so far as the Minister can commit them—will be alert to such issues and sensitivities, and will seek due assurance at all times when the powers are exercised.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:15 am, 16th July 2013

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising some important issues, even if we did debate some of them on the Floor of the House. One of the reasons why the Government continue to keep reserved powers in this area is so that we can do exactly what he suggests: keep a close eye on what is going on. We are committed to consulting extensively on when these matters can eventually be devolved to the Assembly. At the moment, as we know, all three bodies will remain under the reserved powers of the Secretary of State. She will keep a close eye on the issue, with my assistance, as will whoever replaces us, should that ever happen.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 11 and 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.