Examination of Witnesses

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 29th June 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Alex Maskey, Lesley Hogg and Dr Gareth McGrath gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 4:02 pm, 29th June 2021

In our last session this afternoon we will hear from Alex Maskey, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly; Lesley Hogg, the Clerk of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and Dr Gareth McGrath, the director of parliamentary services at the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is just to prove that I can read what is in front of me. I have introduced our three witnesses, but would you expand on your jobs, please?

Alex Maskey:

My name is Alex Maskey. I am the Speaker of the Assembly. I was elected to this position in January 2020, when the Assembly was reconstituted on the basis of the NDNA agreement.

Lesley Hogg:

I am Lesley Hogg, Clerk and chief executive of the Assembly. I took up post in 2016.

Dr McGrath:

I am Gareth McGrath, director of parliamentary services. I took up my post with the Assembly in 2008.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Thank you for your time this afternoon. Which colleague would like to ask the first question? I call Mr Stephen Farry.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Q Thank you, Chair. I welcome my former colleagues from the Northern Ireland Assembly—it is great to see you all again. To facilitate the conversation, I will start with you, Mr Speaker. I am conscious that you have written to MPs setting out some particular concerns about micro-details on how some of the governance aspects of NDNA may impact the day-to-day working of the Assembly. Perhaps it would be useful if you set those out for the Committee.

Alex Maskey:

Thanks, Stephen—it is good to talk to you again. You have been missed in the Assembly for a while, let me tell you. Thanks to you, Chair, and to the Committee, for allowing me and my two colleagues Lesley and Gareth to appear today. Obviously, we want to make a number of points on the procedures and potential unintended consequences, given the slight difference between the scenarios that exist within Westminster and what exists and is pertinent to ourselves in the Assembly.

As Speaker and as officials, we have no view on the substance of the NDNA, or indeed the content or intentions of any of the aspects of it, but we are obviously very much aware of the fact that this Assembly was reconstituted on the basis of that particular agreement being reached by the parties and the Governments involved in those discussions at the time. I would have been involved in some of those conversations myself but, as you all know, once I take up the role of Speaker, as is the case for all Speakers, we immediately adopt a position of impartiality and independence and take no opinion on any of these matters. I am dealing with this, and my colleagues are going to deal with this, on an exclusively procedural basis.

We had a number of concerns. They may well be on a little bit of a cautious basis, but we thought that we would draw them to the attention of the NIO in the first instance. That is why we wrote to them, and eventually met them as well, to discuss this matter. A number of the issues of concern that we had were around the procedural and technical aspects of it, as I have said. It is about supporting the day-to-day operation of the Assembly, so our concerns are exclusively about making sure that any changes that occur through the Bill are clear and can be delivered practically.

I will just touch on a couple of the issues that you have referred to, Stephen. For example, the Bill includes triggering a consideration period of 14 days when a petition of concern is presented by 30 Members. As currently drafted, it would appear that this period of 14 days cannot be shortened in any way, which could present a significant issue when a vote on a matter that is the subject of a petition is time-sensitive—for example, a statutory rule, a legislative consent motion or some other types of regulation. In a more malign sense, it could also be used to stymie business: if people want to upset some of those time-sensitive matters, they could put in a petition of concern.

That might seem outlandish or unreasonable, given the way that the petition of concern has been dealt with in the past couple of years, but nevertheless we thought we would draw attention to the fact that this 14-day period might actually lead to an issue. In fact, any shortened period or any number of days set beyond where we are at the minute could lead to some of these unintended consequences, so we just want to draw them to the attention of the Committee, as we did to the NIO.

People also need to understand that the Bill requires that the Assembly Standing Orders provide for the implementation of the new arrangements for the petition of concern, which include a 14-day consideration period. It is not yet clear if or when the Standing Orders required would be agreed by the Assembly, and consequently the existing Standing Orders would continue to apply. We already have an example of this. We had a Bill passed some time ago, and there was not the political agreement within the Assembly on a cross-community basis to put that into the Standing Orders. That was the John McCallister Opposition Bill, so these things can actually happen in reality.

Moving on to the proposal that outgoing Ministers would continue to be in office for an extended period following an election or since an Executive was in place, the only comment to note is that the Standing Orders of the Assembly are clear that Committees are not established after an election until all ministerial offices have been filled. Therefore, if Ministers remain in office, there is the proposal for Ministers to exercise some level of function without the normal accompanying Committee scrutiny.

Finally, I want to comment on the proposal to prohibit the Speaker and Deputy Speakers from signing a petition of concern throughout all of the mandate. In relation to the Speaker, Stephen, you will of course know that this simply puts existing practice into law, but in relation to the three Deputy Speakers, the position is different. As currently drafted, by prohibiting a Deputy Speaker from signing a petition of concern even if they would not be chairing that item in that capacity, there is the potential to deter Members from serving actively as a Deputy Speaker, and occasionally parties may be reluctant to allow one of their Members to serve as a Deputy Speaker if they cannot sign a petition of concern throughout the mandate.

Intentionally or unintentionally, that could impact on the inclusivity of the team of Deputy Speakers who work with the Speaker, on the basis that if Members cannot sign a petition of concern throughout the whole of the mandate, as I say, some individual Members may have some particular issues of interest on which they would wish to reserve the right to do that. It may put them off, or indeed it may put the parties off, given that we need 30 Members now to sign a petition of concern. No party at the moment can deliver those 30 signatures on its own.

Parties may be a bit reluctant to allow their Members to sign petitions of concern, which could affect the inclusive nature of having Deputy Speakers from across the current main parties. We were just trying to set out to the Committee and the Northern Ireland Office that we want to avoid situations where the Speaker and officials would have to resolve any ambiguity or deficiency in any of these provisions.

We are happy enough to come back in if there are any other issues that we have left out. Maybe I will ask Gareth, in the first instance, if he wants to add anything.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Q Gareth might be able to elaborate on this. Essentially, Mr Speaker, you are outlining three broad issues. One is the removal of the bar on Deputy Speakers with regard to a petition of concern. The second is the ability to establish Committees if there is a long period after an Assembly election in which Ministers are still in place on a caretaker basis. Perhaps we could ask Gareth to elaborate on the third point, which is around the potential lowering of the 14-day threshold in very limited circumstances. Maybe he could give us an idea of how that could be achieved in primary legislation—there are some enabling issue—and in Standing Orders. There may well be issues around those circumstances are defined.

Dr McGrath:

Mr Farry will recall from many discussions of petitions of concern over many years that the devil in these matters is in the detail. It is almost impossible to envisage all the scenarios that could be captured in relation to the 14-day period. As Mr Speaker mentioned, a number of matters would be obvious to us, such as statutory rules, prayers of annulment and legislative consent motions, but there may be a plethora of other statutory motions, as I would call them, in primary legislation throughout the statute book. It is quite difficult to say, “If it isn’t 14 days, is it 10 days or seven days? What is it?” From that perspective, some sort of mechanism that could take into account when a statutory deadline will impact on the 14-day period would be helpful. It would be almost impossible for me to get into defining that in more detail.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Q I thank the witnesses for joining us. Mr Speaker, are you concerned that the limits of the power of Ministers during the caretaker period are not set out?

Alex Maskey:

What we would be concerned about is that under our rules, once we have an election, we would appoint the Speaker and Deputy Speakers before anyone else. Then we would appoint Ministers and Committees. First, we need agreement on a cross-community basis in order to elect our Speakers. Secondly, if we were not to have new Ministers, and outgoing Ministers were caretakers, you could have a situation where there would be little scrutiny or accountability of the work that they were doing, albeit that they would still be operating on a caretaker basis. That would be a concern for us.

We would also have an issue on the question of sufficient representation, which we would like better clarified. I do not want to have to navigate undefined or ill-defined conditions, such as “sufficient representation”. The NIO is suggesting it would want flexibility in that case, which I can fully understand, but we are drawing attention to the fact that that could give us the issue of trying to navigate something that is not very well defined.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Q In the Bill, it is not clear how the ministerial code will be enforceable. Do you think that will make it hard for Members of the Legislative Assembly to hold Ministers to account?

Alex Maskey:

I would not necessarily say so, to be truthful with you. That is always a work in progress, I suppose. I would not necessarily say that that would create any further difficulties than we already have.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Q Do you think it would be wiser for the definition of “cross-community confidence” to be outlined in clause 213 in relation to a caretaker Executive?

Alex Maskey:

For me, as Speaker and as someone who will remain impartial on this, I am trying to draw out, as are our officials, what areas are not as clear as we might like, but we support the legislation, and we will support what the Assembly decides. At the end of the day, it is not for us to make specific proposals. We are certainly very happy for our officials to continue to liaise with the NIO on some of these matters, but for us, in our role, to put specific proposals probably would not help, and would be inadvisable.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

Q A previous speaker addressed some my questions around the code of conduct. By the way, it is very good to see you all, if only virtually. On the provisions on enforcement of the code of conduct, do you think the Bill needs to specify who should be the arbiter of those provisions?

Alex Maskey:

Again, Claire, it would not be for me to put a proposal on the table on that, because as you know, people guard very jealously—I certainly do—the professional requirement to be independent and impartial. While I fully accept and appreciate that our Assembly is predicated and reconstituted on the basis of New Decade, New Approach and all its contents, I want to see them all delivered as a matter of integrity and public confidence-building. By the same token, the substance of each of those provisions is really a matter for all the parties and the Governments to work out, and we will service those diligently.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

Q Lesley or Gareth, would you have any suggestions on that? Should there perhaps be more power, or more definition of the scope of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commissioner for Standards?

Lesley Hogg:

Obviously, the ministerial code will now be monitored, and complaints against the ministerial code will be taken up by the Commissioner for Standards, but I think that is really as far as I would like to comment at this stage. As the Speaker says, we will obviously implement whatever decisions are taken. The code of conduct is embedded in the ministerial code and would therefore come under the remit of the Commissioner for Standards.

Dr McGrath:

It has always been the case that the Speaker has no role in the code of conduct for Ministers.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

Q I want to pick up on an issue that has been discussed today by a number of witnesses: the processes that were envisaged originally regarding the use of the petition of concern, but that have not been regularly used, such as this Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements. I remember, from my time in the Assembly, a previous committee being in place for the POCs on welfare reform. What has been the thinking around those? There was a difference in opinion on whether they were required or discretionary. What is your analysis?

Again, I suppose this is relatively moot in your term, Alex, because the POC has not been deployed while you have been in post, but what is your understanding of the requirement for those Committees to be established under the current framework?

Alex Maskey:

You know that as part of the Good Friday agreement, that framework was agreed, but it was never, if you like, replicated in the Assembly. Speaking as someone involved in the Good Friday agreement, that was one of key areas people were focusing on to make sure we built the new instructions on a proper framework. However, it is a statement of fact that they are not there, not used and not in place at the moment. I spend every other week in the Chamber, busily telling people, “I have no role over that,” in terms of the code of conduct, for example.

On what you are requesting, Claire, I would have liked the provisions in the Good Friday agreement to have been faithfully implemented across the board, and that would have applied to these provisions as well. The fact they are not means that I have to deal with what is in place within the framework, the Northern Ireland Act, and our own Standing Orders, and I will faithfully deliver on those.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Q Good afternoon to all three of you. Alex, you mentioned that you did not want to engage in suggesting solutions, or do not see that as your role. You highlighted the issue of the 14-day consideration period for a petition of concern. Those are really issues that may arise in extreme circumstances where there is a legislative deadline, or there is some urgency to matters proceeding. From what you say, the frailty in the legislation is that there is no indication that the petition can be rescinded if a resolution is found, say, two, three, four, five or 13 days into that 14-day period. Would that option to withdraw the petition satisfy the concerns that have been raised either through your officials or the Office of the Legislative Counsel?

Alex Maskey:

On one level, it could possibly help, because it would remove the issue. If you were to remove it, then you do not need to deal with any consequences. Gareth said earlier that we have identified a number of issues that could be impacted, such as the LCMs, but there are others we may not have detected yet. I suppose it could go some way towards solving it.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Q May I ask Lesley or Gareth if those are discussions that you have had with the NIO? Or as Mr Speaker says, are you highlighting the problems as you see them and looking to the NIO to bring solutions?

Lesley Hogg:

We have really highlighted the problems; these are political solutions that are you are trying to identify. Many of these have been ongoing for a number of years. We have highlighted that there is an issue. There is no easy solution, but we are happy to continue to work with officials to see if we can come up with anything.

Dr McGrath:

Mr Robinson, I would just add that former Speaker Hay wrote in 2009 that the tabling of a petition of concern is a serious and important procedural step that has the effect of raising the bar. From an Assembly perspective, you hope to avoid the law of unintended consequences with all of these. For example, you could imagine that making it easier for Members to withdraw a petition of concern could potentially increase the number tabled. Given that 116 petitions of concern were tabled in the 2011 to 2016 mandate, one in the 2016 to 2021 mandate and none in the last 18 months, the Committee will want to consider the law of unintended consequences.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Q Alex, I hope you do not mind, but the hon. Member for Belfast South asked you about the petition of concern and some of the equality and human rights aspects. Leaving aside the petition of concern, if legislation was passing through the Assembly, and somebody raised an issue to do with the declaration that it is compatible with human rights and equality legislation, how would you deal with that, procedurally? If someone raises the concern that the declaration on the face of the Bill is erroneous, do you have a process that you can use, or can the Office of the Legislative Counsel look at it?

Alex Maskey:

First of all, as you know, the Speaker has the role of verifying or confirming whether a Bill is competent in the first instance, before it is introduced. Once it is introduced, I would refer that to the Human Rights Commission. The Assembly also has the right, which was exercised recently, to vote to make sure we do refer something; it is a bit of an additional belt-and-braces provision. The Assembly can vote to refer a Bill or a measure to the Human Rights Commission at the outset, so it would always be referred in the first instance to the legal team, who would look at it from a perspective of rights, as well as considering all other matters of competence. Of course, additionally, we then refer it to the Human Rights Commission. The provisions are there, and they are acted on in each and every case.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q It is good to see you and your team again, Mr Speaker. As Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, you will be better placed than most to appreciate the importance of having the Assembly up and running and legislating again after three years of absence. In your opinion, overall, does the Bill safeguard the institutions in Northern Ireland, and support them in working collectively for the benefit of the people whom they are there to represent?

Alex Maskey:

I certainly hope that anything that we do would lead to that outcome. As I said at our meeting, Minister, with the political will, we can resolve most of the matters, if not all of them. Unfortunately, occasionally we have not been able to resolve matters, including, as I said, when it came to an Opposition Bill passed a number of years ago; it was put forward by John McCallister. There was no cross-community agreement to enact a Standing Order to apply that. That might seem odd or unusual, and it probably is, but the fact of the matter is that we did not get an agreement.

At our meeting and in correspondence, we addressed the fact that the first item of business of an Assembly is electing the Speakers. With the six-week ruling, and the six-week period of delay envisaged in the Bill, theoretically, the Assembly could meet after six weeks, and if it could not be formed at that time or could not fill the offices, then it could close down for the next six weeks, but if we do not get a Speaker in place—if we do not have that agreement—we cannot even move to that point. With political agreement and common sense, you would imagine we could resolve these matters. We have only drawn attention to these matters on a cautionary basis because of our experiences; in the past, we have not even been able to pass a number of important matters on the basis of cross-community support.

Since taking up my post, I have routinely been on record reminding Members that we have a very important job to do, as guardians of the legislature, in holding the Executive to account. However, it is also by way of being our business to secure and try to maintain public confidence in the institutions. If we can do anything to maintain the sustainability of the institutions on the basis of the integrity of NDNA and previous agreements reached, I think we will be doing a good job. Anything that helps us to perform our duties in a way that maintains and builds public confidence, we need to embrace.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q I wholly agree. Are you not concerned, though, that if we were to try to deal with matters relating to the Standing Orders of the Assembly in Westminster legislation, that would risk overriding some of the provisions made in the Good Friday agreement for Standing Orders to be agreed on a cross-community basis? I appreciate that there have been times when it has not been possible to agree Standing Orders, but is it not better for any changes required to be agreed within the committees of the Assembly, so that it shows that maturity and control over its own processes?

Alex Maskey:

That is the conundrum that we have to face. I am absolutely certain that the very best way of conducting our business is by doing it ourselves and by the Assembly performing its duties on a mature basis. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, that has not been able to happen on the basis that we would have liked, but that is politics. As you know, there are many issues that are quite divisive and polarising in our politics at times. I still would say that I have been very pleased, notwithstanding the very challenging difficulties that we have had to face in the past year and more, that the Assembly, for the most part, has performed its duties well and professionally and the level of debate and so on has been mature enough. There have been one or two breaches of good order and all the rest of that, but I think that, for the most part, the Assembly has come through the difficulties and trials pretty well. We have still a lot of work to do. Yes, I agree with that entirely, and I certainly want to work through the rest of this mandate on the basis that the Assembly parties are fully understanding of the need to build confidence among the general public by doing our work professionally and maturely.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q On the issue of the Deputy Speakers, the NDNA deal states clearly:

“The Speaker and the three Deputy Speakers shall not sign a Petition.”

How do you interpret that? You expressed concern about being able to recruit Deputy Speakers. Can you give the Committee any further evidence as to that? Has that been a challenge? To what extent has the willingness of parties to put forward their Members as a Deputy Speaker been a challenge to date?

Alex Maskey:

As I have said, no party at this moment in time can trigger a POC itself, because it does not have the 30 Members. Therefore, parties may be reluctant and there would be some little amount of chit-chat around the corridors—not that I have heard it recently. But when I was in the business of being involved in chit-chat around the corridors as a party activist—I do not operate on that basis now, of course—there would have been people thinking, “God, would you want to lose a Member”—people would describe it in those terms—“by putting them in as a Speaker if they are not able to sign a POC?” You also have some Members who would feel very passionate about particular issues and who might want to support a POC if one were to be deployed at some point in the future.

We are merely drawing attention to the fact that the Deputy Speakers in our Assembly function differently from how the Speakers in Westminster, for example, do, as I understand it. Our Deputy Speakers function as a Deputy Speaker when they are chairing a session; for the rest of the time, they actually operate as party political activists. It is only the Speaker in this case—in the Assembly—who would be prohibited, throughout the entire mandate, from signing any petition of concern; and that is as it should be, of course. I am just drawing that to your attention and that of the Committee today. It is just because we do not want to cause chill factors; we want to make sure we can draw on as wide a range of Members across the Assembly as possible, to make sure we have inclusive arrangements made, from the Speaker through to the Principal Deputy Speaker and the two Deputy Speakers.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q Thank you. May I turn to Gareth McGrath and the contents of clause 5? The Bill will require petitions of concern to be signed and confirmed by at least 30 MLAs from two or more political parties. Do you agree that this will better ensure that the mechanism is used on a cross-party basis, reflecting concerns across the community?

Dr McGrath:

I think that that self-evidently would be the case. It is also the case that uniquely in this mandate, and partially because of the reduction in the number of Members, no political party has the number of signatures required to table a petition of concern, so by definition, at the moment, a party requires the support of either independent Members or Members from another party to do that. It is the practice now—there have been no petitions of concern in the current mandate. I am not saying that the two are related, but I am saying that it is more difficult to see a scenario in future—obviously, without trying to forecast electoral outcomes—in which a party would have the required number of Members.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q We have heard some evidence today from witnesses that the 14-day consideration period is welcomed in terms of the opportunities it could provide for people to rethink a petition of concern or find other ways of resolving concern. To come back to the issue of how we ensure that it is not in any way misused, do you think that is something that could be resolved through changes to Standing Orders in the Assembly?

Dr McGrath:

To revert to the issue that was originally raised by the Speaker, clearly the intention of the consideration period, as I understand it, is to allow a cooling-off period and room for manoeuvre among the political parties. It may well start off with that intention. However, there would be scenarios in which it could evidently be used to stymie progress on issues for which the petition of concern was not intended.

It is one thing to have the provision in the Act, but trying to implement it in Standing Orders is a different matter. Standing Orders have to be passed on a cross-community basis so there is no guarantee that just because this Bill requires Standing Orders to make provision for that, it will happen. That is a statement of fact on the basis of legislation, as Mr Speaker said previously, that the Assembly has passed requiring Standing Orders to make provision for, and that has not happened. In that situation, the Speaker will be required to rule on whatever is referred to as interim procedures. That will inevitably put the Speaker in a difficult position.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Q I am certainly happy for our officials to follow up with you on this and continue this conversation. It is important that we get the detail of this right. I am very grateful to all three of you for your input.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Q Are there any other questions from colleagues? If there are no other questions, do our witnesses want to make any final comments?

Alex Maskey:

I just want to say thank you on behalf of the Assembly for giving us this opportunity. As I and my colleagues have said, we do not want to be over-cautious, but we feel obliged to draw attention to some of those issues that may lack a bit of clarity. That may help on one level, but if we do not have the political will then that could cause us some difficulties, purely from a procedural implications perspective.

We are not looking to see those situations arise again, but we want to make sure we have drawn some of these issues to your attention, given that we have experienced a number of these in the past and we do not want to have those matters resolved to create another unintended consequence or problem.

Other than that, we wish you well in your deliberations. As a Speaker and as officials, we will professionally and diligently put in place whatever comes our way as a result of the legislation, according to the will of the Assembly. Thank you.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

On behalf of the Committee, I would like to thank our three witnesses very much indeed for the time they have spent with us. We are very grateful.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Scott Mann.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 6 July at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

NIB01 Centre for the Administration of Justice