Clause 4 - Ministerial Code of Conduct

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 6th July 2021.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 9:30 am, 6th July 2021

Before I call Claire Hanna, just to be helpful, once you have proposed the amendment, I will call members of the Committee, the Minister will then reply and then you can have a chance to respond. Please indicate to me and to the Committee whether you wish to withdraw or push the amendment to a vote.

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

I beg to move amendment 13, in clause 4, page 5, line 22, after

“be accountable to the Assembly” insert “users of services,”.

This amendment would ensure that Ministers and Departments are accountable and responsible to users of services, as well as to the Assembly and the public.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 14, in clause 4, page 5, line 25, at end insert—

“(ba) ensure all reasonable requests for information from the Assembly, users of services and individual citizens are complied with; and that Departments and their staff conduct their dealings with the public in an open and responsible way;”.

This amendment would ensure that the principles of transparency and openness, as well as a duty to comply with requests for information, as outlined in Strand One, Annex A of the Good Friday Agreement, are maintained within the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

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

Thank you very much, Mr Stringer. I appreciate your guidance. We welcome the strengthening of parts of the ministerial code, which we think will protect, enhance or potentially and eventually deliver good governance in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we think it could have wider purchase. Amendments 13 and 14 refer to our concern that parts of the ministerial code that were in the Good Friday agreement in the 1998 Act have been diluted or omitted here, purposefully or otherwise, and our amendments seek to restore those.

Amendment 13 specifically mentions accountability to users of services. That is topical, as there is much discussion at the moment about the awarding of contracts for the processing of social security payments and the potential processing of the victims’ payment. Amendment 13 would restore the accountability of Ministers for the services they deliver, including the services their Departments may be delivering through a third party.

Amendment 14 refers to transparency and, specifically, the removal of a line on freedom of information and transparency—a tool that has been much needed by campaigners, journalists and other elected representatives. Regrettably, the Executive—specifically the First Minister’s office—do not have a particularly good record on transparency. There is a perception that issues may go into that office and not emerge. FOI has been used to good effect, but it may be thwarted if there is not adherence to that guidance and if legislation on it is not available.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:45 am, 6th July 2021

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her presentation of the amendments. We are legislating to update the ministerial code of conduct in accordance with a request made by the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister, following agreement of the revised code by the Executive Committee. The changes have not come from the UK Government; they come directly from the Executive themselves.

It is important to note that the ministerial code of conduct will continue to require that Ministers uphold the seven principles of public life, known as the Nolan principles. Some of the changes to the code that we are making will make that a little more explicit. The principles include selflessness, integrity, objectivity and—crucial to the amendment—accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

The changes strengthen the code of conduct, as we heard from witnesses last week. We are legislating to strengthen the code to reflect the request that we received from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, agreed by the Executive. That forms part of the wider package outlined in NDNA, which the Executive were committed to, but it will strengthen the codes governing ministerial accountability and conduct.

I gently propose that it is not for us here as Members of Parliament in Westminster to suggest amendments to a ministerial code of conduct that affects Members of a separate legislature. I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment. I assure her that the principles of openness and accountability are reflected in the original code and are strengthened in the changes we are making to the ministerial code here.

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

I thank the Minister. We appreciate that this flows from NDNA, but I am unclear whether there was a specific request for those particular provisions to be withdrawn. They existed before the New Decade, New Approach deal. Other aspects have been enhanced, and this one has been diluted. It is not clear to me why that would be the case—why it would have been weakened.

I will keep my powder dry, in order to perhaps push subsequent amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I beg to move amendment 4, in clause 4, page 5, line 23, at end insert

“in accordance with the current Programme for Government drawn up in accordance with section 20(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and paragraph 20 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement,”.

This amendment requires Ministers to pay regard to the statutory duty under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement for the Executive Committee to seek to agree each year, and review as necessary, a programme incorporating an agreed budget linked to policies and programmes, subject to approval by the Assembly, after scrutiny in Assembly Committees, on a cross-community basis.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 17, in clause 4, page 5, line 25, at end insert—

“(ba) seek in utmost good faith and by using their best endeavours to implement in full the Programme for Government in “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” as regards the transparency, accountability and the functioning of the Executive;”.

This amendment requires Ministers to implement the Programme for Government agreed in January 2020, as it relates to transparency, accountability and functioning of the Executive.

Amendment 18, in clause 4, page 5, line 25, at end insert—

“(ba) seek in utmost good faith and by using their best endeavours to implement in full any future deal on the operation of devolved government between the parties to “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” which may be approved by the Assembly;”.

This amendment requires Ministers to implement any future deal on the operation of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Amendment 19, in clause 4, page 5, line 26, at end insert—

“(ca) abide by and implement in every respect Annex A to Part 2 of “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” as regards the transparency, accountability and the functioning of the Executive;”.

This amendment requires Ministers to strengthen and enforce the Ministerial Code and other codes including the Special Adviser Code of Conduct.

Amendment 6, in clause 4, page 5, line 28, at end insert—

“(da) comply with paragraph 2.11 of the Northern Ireland Executive Ministerial Code in relation to the inclusion of ministerial proposals on the agenda for the Northern Ireland Executive, with areas for resolution to be recorded in the list of “Executive papers in circulation” against those papers still outstanding after the third meeting, in accordance with paragraph 62(c) of Section F of the Fresh Start Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan;”.

This amendment implements a commitment further to the Fresh Start Agreement providing that an item may not be blocked for more than three meetings of the Executive through lack of agreement on the agenda.

Amendment 3, in clause 4, page 6, line 8, at end insert—

“(1A) ‘Key performance targets and objects’ include commitments made in the Belfast Agreement (1998), the Hillsborough Agreement (2010), the Stormont House Agreement (2014), the Stormont House Fresh Start Agreement (2015) and the New Decade, New Approach Deal (2020).”

This amendment makes it a requirement of the Ministerial Code of Conduct that Ministers are accountable to the Assembly and the public for fulfilling the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and subsequent Agreements.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I shall speak to amendments 4 and 3, and in support of amendments 17, 18 and 19 that appear in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South.

Amendment 4 seeks to address an issue that was discussed in the earlier debate—an issue that we see with the current absence of a programme for government. As hon. Members know, the programme for government is drawn up in accordance with section 20(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and paragraph 20 of strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It provides Ministers and the public with a clear mandate and agenda and a basis for decision making. As we have discussed, any issue that a party in the Executive deems significant or controversial that is outside the programme for government can be referred for approval by the full Executive. Since New Decade, New Approach, that mechanism has been used on at least six occasions.

Despite the draft programme for government having been published in New Decade, New Approach, no programme has been adopted in the current mandate. The amendment would make Ministers accountable under the code of conduct for agreeing a programme for government, providing an additional layer of accountability. It would also be important for sustainability. In the absence of the powers of a caretaker Executive being codified in the Bill, the Committee is being asked to rely, in essence, on a programme for government to limit those caretaker ministerial powers. The amendment is therefore an additional safety mechanism, requiring Ministers to agree a programme for government. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why he chooses not to accept it, if indeed he does not.

I will allow my colleague to speak on amendments 17, 18 and 19 more comprehensively, but the broad thrust of them is absolutely right and we wholeheartedly support them. Agreements made must be honoured, and too often elements of agreements made in the past—from the Belfast agreement through to the St Andrews agreement and, indeed, too much of New Decade, New Approach—have not been honoured. That has damaged trust in the operation of the Assembly and the perception of its ability to effect change. The amendments in the names of the hon. Members for Foyle and for Belfast South simply codify agreements that have already been reached. For that reason, we are very happy to support them.

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

To respond to amendment 4, the Committee will know that clause 4 substitutes a revised ministerial code of conduct, setting out expectations on the behaviour of Ministers, including provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland civil service, public appointments and the use of official resources and information management. We are legislating to update the ministerial code of conduct in accordance with the requests made by the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister following agreement to revise the code by the Executive Committee. The changes, as I said, have not come from the UK Government but from the Executive themselves, to reflect what the parties agreed in the NDNA deal.

We do not think that the amendments are, in any event, necessary, as the pledge of office already requires Ministers to participate with colleagues in the preparation of the programme for government, and to operate within the framework agreed within ExCo and endorsed by the Assembly. We therefore feel that amendment 4 is not necessary, and I ask the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley to withdraw it.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to the Minister for placing it on the record that the provisions in the pledge of office will constrain Ministers. I am therefore happy to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

There was no debate on amendments 17, 18, 19, 6 and 3. I probably should have explained this at the beginning. We were debating amendment 4. I said at the beginning that it would be convenient to debate the other amendments at the same time. I think the hon. Member for Belfast South probably did not understand that. With the Committee’s indulgence, I will listen to the points that she wishes to make.

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

Once again, Mr Stringer, I appreciate your indulgence. I promise that we will be expert going forward, and I will be very brief about amendments 17, 18 and 19.

As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley outlined, the amendments are about compelling and encouraging Ministers to implement the programme for government. Notwithstanding the fact that one is not currently agreed, a programme of work has been laid out. Amendment 18 is a pre-emptive amendment that is designed with the sustainability of the Executive in mind. It would require Ministers to implement future programmes for government. By my count we are, since 1998, yet to make it through a full mandate without at least one period of crisis talks and a refreshing of the programme for government, so it would appear to make sense to have that future-proofing amendment.

Amendment 19 would require a strengthening of the code of conduct. We have some concerns around enforceability. Members who were at the evidence sessions the other day may recall that the Speaker and staff of the Assembly were not particularly expansive in terms of how they thought that enforcement should take place. We have emerged from a period of explicit poor governance in the Assembly, with the likes of the renewable heat incentive debacle, where the ministerial code was perhaps not sufficiently powerful to curb the powers of Ministers. Amendment 19 is designed to strengthen it.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I call Colum Eastwood. [Interruption.] I am sorry, I was looking at the names of the proposers and not around the room. I call Stephen Farry.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

Thank you very much, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I take no offence at the mis-association of me with the hon. Member for Foyle—I have been called far worse, so I will take it on the chin.

I will speak briefly to amendment 6, which appears in my name. It relates to the ministerial code and the insertion into law of what is known in Northern Ireland as the three-meeting rule, which was agreed by the Northern Ireland political parties as recently as the Fresh Start agreement in 2015. At the moment, my understanding is that it is in essence guidance and not part of law, and we see partial implementation of the rule in the Executive. Sometimes papers can be blocked for considerable periods, causing considerable frustration for Ministers. In recent weeks, for example, the Northern Ireland Health Minister has had a Bill on organ donation blocked. My party colleague, the Justice Minister, has had a Bill blocked for a considerable time.

There has been a lot of talk about the petition of concern and vetoes in discussion of the Assembly, but a lot less attention has been paid to what happens inside the Executive where, in essence, there are two vetoes. The first is in the way in which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have almost full control over the Executive agenda. It takes almost a double sign-off from both for a matter even to get on to the agenda for debate. Secondly, a cross-community veto can be deployed by three Ministers to block a decision. My amendment addresses the former issue of the agenda, so that there is at least scope for a discussion and a vote to take place on any Executive paper. No Minister puts a paper to the Executive that is without merit, and they all deserve discussion.

The purpose of amendment 6, in essence, is to put into the ministerial code something that has already been agreed by the Northern Ireland political parties in the Fresh Start agreement of 2015.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I promised myself this morning that I would not get into the mould of opposing every amendment that has been proposed by my colleagues from Northern Ireland, but I have a couple of points to make about SDLP amendments 17, 18 and 19, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast South. The danger is that we seek to legislate too much on such issues. I understand entirely the thrust of her argument and, indeed, the way in which the amendments have been structured is to talk of best endeavours and the relationships that we want to see in our political situation. In truth, however, they bring with them no legislative consequence should we not see best endeavours. How I would frame it is that if we need to rely on such provisions being in legislation, the system is not working as it should in any event. Without a consequence, and given the positive but loose nature of the amendments, I do not think that the proposals would add significantly to the Bill or to the agreement reached in New Decade, New Approach.

I also understand why the hon. Member for North Down has advanced amendment 6. He served in the Executive when I was a special adviser in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. He will understand not only that the nature of that joint office brings political challenges with it, but that there is still an importance of that office’s chairing and maintaining the efficiency of the business brought before the Executive. He and I will both remember times when things were much more terse around that table, but to reflect on his time as a Minister, whenever he brought forward papers for the Department for Employment and Learning, we engaged in discussions prior to any difficulty emerging around an agenda. His special adviser and I used to spend a lot of time problem solving before issues were brought formally to the agenda.

My fear is that amendment 6 would lead to more confrontation. Without having a discussion around the politics of a particular proposal, and without trying to seek a resolution at an early stage to avoid difficulties, the amendment is about forcing confrontation—“I’ve put it on, I want it on, and whether the Executive agree on a cross-community basis or not, and whether we can build political consensus or not, I will rush my proposal through.” I do not think that that is helpful to the political dynamic in Northern Ireland, and I would like to see much less of this confrontation, and much more consensus building.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 10:00 am, 6th July 2021

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in this discussion of the amendments. The hon. Member for Belfast East brings important experience from his time working with the Executive. I also recognise that the hon. Member for North Down represents an important strand of opinion in that respect and, indeed, has great experience.

Turning to amendment 17, although the parties made a commitment in New Decade, New Approach that the Executive should bring forward a programme for government, Westminster cannot compel them to deliver a particular programme for government, and nor should we. The programme is for the Executive and Assembly to determine and agree, as is set out in paragraph 20 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement:

“The Executive Committee will seek to agree each year, and review as necessary, a programme incorporating an agreed budget linked to policies and programmes, subject to approval by the Assembly, after scrutiny in Assembly Committees, on a cross-community basis.”

That is implemented in law by section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We therefore ask that amendment 17 be withdrawn.

Turning to amendment 18, the purpose of the Bill is to implement reforms to the institutions of Northern Ireland agreed in the New Decade, New Approach deal, not to use the ministerial code of conduct as a means to instruct Ministers to implement future deals. I appreciate the optimism of the hon. Member for Belfast South in seeking to legislate for future potential deals—or perhaps pessimism that they might be required—but I do not think that it would be appropriate to use the ministerial code of conduct. Should we need to revisit the code in the future, we should do so then. I therefore ask that amendment 18 be withdrawn.

Turning to amendment 19, although we acknowledge the importance of the Executive producing strengthened drafts of their relevant codes, as is set out in annex A to part 2 of the NDNA deal, that is an action for the Executive. We therefore do not think that it is appropriate at this moment for Westminster to legislate on it. It is for the Executive to agree to the amendments to relevant codes and, where appropriate, they must be agreed by the Assembly. It is not for this Parliament to make those changes. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Assembly has recently legislated in respect of some of these matters in the Functioning of Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) 2021. That is the appropriate forum for such provision to be made.

Turning to amendment 6, as I have mentioned we are here to amend the ministerial code of conduct in line with requests received from the Executive and approved by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I acknowledge the concerns that the hon. Member for North Down raised about the process to secure Executive discussions on specific issues, and the points that the hon. Member for Belfast East made about the importance of having discussions behind the scenes about them. Ultimately, though, parties did not agree to address that as part of the NDNA deal, and it is not for Westminster to try to go beyond the carefully agreed package of reforms in the Bill.

The Bill is not, of course, the only or final means through which reform to the governance of the institutions of Northern Ireland can be delivered, but we will be guided by the needs and requests of the Executive. Should there be further consensus from the parties that they would like to revise the issue of alternative vetoes, we stand ready to support that, but I say to the hon. Member for North Down that that is not part of the deal that we are in the process of implementing. I therefore urge him to withdraw amendment 6.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I ask Claire Hanna whether she wishes to press amendments 17, 18 or 19.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

As the Opposition do not wish to press amendments 4 or 3, I call Louise Haigh to withdraw amendment 4.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

We can now go back to the correct order.

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

I beg to move amendment 15, in clause 4, page 6, line 11, at end insert—

“(3) If an investigation by the Commissioner for Standards finds that a Minister has breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct by engaging in harassment, bullying or inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour, then the Minister shall be deemed to have resigned their ministerial post at midnight on the day of the report’s official publication, unless they have resigned before this time.”

This amendment would ensure that if the Commissioner for Standards found that a Minister had engaged in harassment, bullying or inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour, in breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, then the Minister would be deemed to have resigned.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 16, in clause 4, page 6, line 11, at end insert—

“(3) Ministers shall cooperate with any relevant investigation by the Commissioner for Standards, give due respect to the findings of any report by the Commissioner in respect of themselves

This amendment would ensure that Ministers cooperate with any investigation and give due regard to existing standards including reports from the Commissioner for Standards.

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

These amendments are part of the same package. Essentially, amendment 15 would ensure that if the Commissioner for Standards found that a Minister had engaged in harassment, bullying or inappropriate or discriminatory behaviour—

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. May I ask the hon. Lady to take off her mask?

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

Certainly, Mr Stringer. In that case, the Minister would be deemed to have resigned. Amendment 16 would ensure that Ministers co-operated with any investigation and gave due regard to existing standards, including reports from the Commissioner for Standards. The Minister has made an argument, about legislating for the ministerial code of conduct within the Assembly, that I think has the broad support of this Committee, so I will be happy to withdraw the amendment.

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

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s indication that she is prepared to withdraw the amendment. I will just offer a little further explanation. I understand the intent behind the amendment and agree that there should be a fair system of checks and balances through which to hold Ministers accountable. Provision for that already exists in section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998: if the Assembly resolves that a Minister or junior Minister no longer enjoys the confidence of the Assembly, or the Secretary of State is of the opinion that such a resolution should be considered, the Minister can be excluded from holding office for a period of not less than three months and not more than 12 months. As that provision already exists, I ask the hon. Lady, in addition to making the points that she has made, to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.