If appropriate, I will also address the other amendments in my name to this clause in relation to the petition of concern. The petition of concern is something that my party and, indeed, many others have been—
I apologise, Mr Stringer. I will focus exclusively on amendment 7. My party has been very keen to see the petition of concern amended. Our views and, indeed, those of many others on this issue are very clear. In some senses, it would be almost logical for us to try to make the signing of a petition of concern as difficult as possible. However, I was very struck by evidence that we received orally last week and also in writing from the Speaker of the Assembly. Concern was expressed that if the proposal for Deputy Speakers not to be able to sign a petition of concern were put into law, that might well deter people from coming forward to become a Deputy Speaker in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is worth referencing the fact that the way Deputy Speakers operate there is somewhat different from the practice at Westminster, in that they continue to have a political role.
I should say that my party does not have at present a Member of the Assembly who is a Deputy Speaker, and nor do we intend to seek any of those offices in the future, so I may be speaking from a position of a certain objectivity in this regard. I do think it is worth the Committee’s considering whether what was a sincere commitment made in New Decade, New Approach—I accept that it is in black and white in that document—may have, in the cold light of day, some unintended consequence and therefore that there may be some scope for reconsideration. I would be happy to hear the views of other Members in that regard.
I just want to give my reflections on the evidence that we heard from the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not agree that there is a chilling effect associated with the agreement reached––New Decade, New Approach–that would have a material impact on parties’ willingness to provide a Deputy Speaker for the Assembly. I would go further and say that our Deputy Speakers are not the same as Deputy Speakers here. Neither is our Speaker. Our Speaker in Northern Ireland does not resign from their political party. When they seek re-election, they do so as a member of a political party.
The element that I do not think the Speaker reflected on appropriately in his evidence last week is that, as each of the four parties provides a Speaker and three Deputy Speakers—one from each of the four parties—the consequence of assuming that office and so being unable to sign a petition of concern applies to the four largest parties. Each is supplying somebody and each takes the consequence. In that sense, what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach is fairer than one party losing a signatory from a petition of concern because they assume the position of Speaker, so I take quite a different view from that of the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and I do not believe that the fears that he outlined are merited.
The New Decade, New Approach deal was explicit that the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers shall not sign a petition. I therefore question why we would seek to amend the deal, which delivers on a key concern of the party of the hon. Member for North Down during the negotiations: that a petition of concern should be used only in rare situations.
I acknowledge the concerns that were raised by the Speaker, but as we have just heard, there are different views on their strength and there is the fact that four out of the five major parties in the Assembly are represented in the speakership or deputy speakership. There is a balance in its impact in that regard. I have offered a follow-up conversation between officials at the Northern Ireland Office and the Speaker’s officials to look into the matter further, but I cannot at this moment support an amendment because we are not aware of how real a risk this poses. We have heard divergent views on that. The Government are willing to return to the issue after further engagement with the Speaker, but for the time being I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
‘(5A) When a petition of concern is lodged and confirmed against a measure, proposal or a decision by a Minister, Department or the Executive (“the matter”), the Assembly shall appoint a special committee to examine and report on whether the matter is in conformity with equality and human rights requirements, including the European Convention on Human Rights and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
(5B) Consistent with paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement, a committee as provided for under Section 13(3) may also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.
(5C) A committee appointed under this section—
(a) shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration; and
(b) shall take evidence from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
(5D) A committee appointed under this section shall—
(a) report in terms that reflect evidence regarding human rights and equality assessments relating to the matter; and
(b) identify relevant clarification, adjustments and amendments (in the case of legislation) and/or other assurances which would address the stated concerns.
(5E) The Assembly shall consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.
(5F) In relation to any specific petition of concern or request under subsection (5B), the Assembly may decide, with cross-community support, that the procedure in subsections (5A) and (5C) shall not apply.”
This amendment provides for a petition of concern to lead to a special procedure, described in paragraphs 11-13 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement, whereby a special committee shall consider the stated concern(s) relating to equality requirements and/or human rights. Such a special committee could also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.
“(ca) specify the size, timescale and terms of reference for such a committee;
(cb) specify procedure(s) to allow for subsection (5E).”
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 11 and would further clarify how standing orders should make due provision for the working terms for the sort of special committee/procedure in respect of stated human rights or equality concerns as outlined in paragraphs 11-13 of Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement.
While we welcome minor amendments to the petition of concern to make it a little more difficult to table one, that does not improve how the POC works or restore it to its intended purposes. Amendments 11 and 12 seek to do that by restoring some of the Belfast agreement’s factory settings, as it were, and reinserting the special procedure described in paragraphs 11 to 13 of strand one, whereby a special committee should examine the rationale and viability of a petition of concern so that it is used as a mechanism to protect minority rights and not, as has been practised during the previous mandate, to thwart them. Amendment 11 would restore that original intent, which has not been adequately used. Amendment 12 enables that by specifying how such a committee could be established at the request of either the Assembly Executive Committee, a Minister or a relevant Committee.
I am not doing very well on my commitment at the start. I want to push back politely on the notion of factory reset, and that we are getting back to the original intent of the provision. That is not agreed. Going through last week’s evidence, it is fair to say that there are those who were involved in the process in 1998 who are now trying to retrofit and read into the 1998 agreement what they hoped to attain or achieve at that stage, and did not.
It was clear from the evidence that we received last week that in the 20 years between 1998 and 2018 there was no discussion of the original intent, because it was an unfettered and unrestricted provision to ensure cross-community consensus. At no time during the passage of the 1998 Act in this place, or subsequently, was any concern or issue raised, or strictures or parameters put around the petition of concern in the frame of the original intent.
While there was disagreement last week and different interpretations of the reading of paragraphs 11 to 15, this amendment puts strictures on and revisits the finely balanced agreement of 1998 in a way that skews the narrative in one way. In that sense, Mr Stringer, I ask members of the Committee not to agree to this amendment. It goes beyond what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach. It touches on an area that is contested and for which there is no agreement, and, in my view, it would be foolish to proceed with such an amendment.
I was very interested to hear the hon. Member for Belfast South use the term “restore factory settings”. It is a good technological phrase with which we are all familiar. The issue is that the factory settings lie under what is there and are available to return to at all times. In this case, there is already such a provision for a committee in section 13(3)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Bill requires the Assembly to implement Standing Orders to make provisions for referral to that committee, in the same terms as exist in section 42 of the Northern Ireland 1998.
This is a matter for the Assembly’s Procedure Committee to implement through changes to Standing Orders. The parties did not reach agreement on this in New Decade, New Approach; the hon. Member for Belfast East made that point as well. I urge the hon. Member for Belfast South to understand that her party colleagues in the Assembly can take forward the issue of those changes to Standing Orders, but on the basis that the provision that she is calling for already exists in law, I ask that she withdraw the amendment and consequential amendments.
I acknowledge that they exist, but they are not enacted and, when I questioned the Speaker at the evidence session last week, it was not clear why they have not been established. While I understand where the hon. Member for Belfast East is coming from, there is a creeping narrative that the attempt to thwart the vetoholic nature of some Ministers is somehow pulling up a ladder as demographic change happens in Northern Ireland and in the Assembly. That is not the case. It is due to public concerns about the use of that veto on issues that have nothing to do with the in-built traditional divisions, for example around equality for lesbian and gay people, which is the most prominent use of that provision.
I acknowledge the Minister’s comments about the provisions already being there, but they are not being used. I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast East when he said that if these provisions have to be used it is because power sharing is not working, but I would argue that unfortunately the last few years would indicate that in many cases that is not working.
Sir Jonathan Stephens told us last week that no amount of regulation will push parties to power share if that is not what they want to do. Until we have parties that share power appropriately and use power in the interest of everybody, because they think it is in everybody’s interest and not because the law tells them to do so, then unfortunately we need these amendments. On the basis that the Committee is in agreement with the Minister in terms of the Assembly’s legislative ability, then I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Clause 5 reforms the petition of concern mechanism to reduce its use and return it to its intended purpose, as set out under the Good Friday agreement, as a safeguard to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully in the operation of the Northern Ireland institutions, that all sections of the community are protected when the Assembly legislates, and to prevent one party from blocking measures or business. The Government have tabled two technical amendments to correct an unintended consequence in drafting.
The Bill, as introduced, required that Standing Orders should specify a minimum period between when a vote is due to take place and when the petition in connection with it must be tabled: at least a day would be required. That was not the intention. Currently, the Standing Orders enable the Speaker to waive notice of the petition in exceptional circumstances. The amendment will enable Standing Orders to continue to include such provision, if that is what the Assembly agrees. The amendments ensure that there need not be any change to the timings for tabling a petition of concern.
While the Government have committed to reforming the petition of concern mechanism to return it to its intended purposes, we are not trying to legislate beyond what was agreed in the NDNA agreement. I can therefore reassure the Committee that the changes are purely technical and aim to ensure that we do not inadvertently alter things from what was agreed between the parties.
I want to refer to my amendment in this grouping that probably goes beyond what the Government are trying to rectify with their technical amendments. It goes back to some of the evidence we received from the Speaker of the Assembly. The New Decade, New Approach agreement talks about a 14-day timeframe in relation to the processing of petitions of concern. I welcome that and want to see that become normal practice in what I hope will be the very rare event of a petition of concern being tabled.
It is also important that we are conscious that there may well be some extreme situations in which the 14-day window becomes somewhat of a straitjacket. It may be in relation to some sort of statutory instrument or legal deadline or some other emergency in trying to take something forward. In parallel with that, there is probably a need for petitioners to have the right to withdraw a petition of concern rather than its sitting on the books for 14 days, particularly in the event that they are convinced there is no need for the petition to continue or they have changed their mind. It is essentially a means of trying to ensure there is some flexibility. That is best addressed by giving the Assembly the scope within its own Standing Orders to address the issue.
I am not minded to press my amendment today. I can see the Minister is nodding at some of the comments I am making and I welcome that occasionally. Can the Government give an assurance that they recognise that there is a genuine issue here? The Government might wish to reflect on what I have said today and, indeed, more importantly what the Speaker of the Assembly has said and come back with a Government amendment on Report.
I am grateful to the hon. Member, particularly for the way he has presented this. I recognise the concerns, but it is important to recognise that we heard a number of positive comments about the 14-day cooling-off period envisaged in the legislation. I draw his attention to the fact that what we have tried to do with the Government amendments is return to what was specifically agreed in the NDNA agreement. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comment that this is something the Assembly should be able to address through Standing Orders, and we encourage them to do so. We do not think it is necessary to put in the Bill what should be in the Standing Orders of the Assembly, but I see no reason, if the petitioners who have signed the petition of concern agree to its being withdrawn, that it cannot be made possible to withdraw it at any stage during the 14-day period. That is an eminently sensible approach for them to take. Our view is that this is not the place to deal with it because that should rightly be for the Assembly and its Committee on Procedures to agree on.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and also for his comments. For the purpose of the record, can he assure me that there is nothing in the Bill today that would inhibit the Northern Ireland Assembly through Standing Orders from making its own decisions in relation to how it would manage a petition of concern around timeframes?
I think this is a constructive proposal. We have to be mindful of the concern that was raised last week in evidence: that Assembly authorities might be slow to consent or assent to such a restriction on the 14-day timescale should it not be elucidated very clearly—not just here, but on Report and so on. If we cannot find a form of words that is acceptable on Report, the exchange that has just been had needs to be expanded on and very clearly delivered on Report in Hansard. There should be no doubt or equivocation among the Assembly authorities that, should petitioners decide that the 14 days are no longer required, or that the issue is of such urgency or significance that it needs to be resolved within that timeframe, that flexibility is permissible.
I absolutely take note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and agree with his intent. I am happy to come back to that issue on Report, as appropriate.
“(e) make provision to allow petitioners to withdraw a petition of concern at any stage in the process.”
The amendment relates to the wider package of comments I made earlier. I will not press it to a vote today. I just flag it up as part of that wider discussion and hope that the Government reflect on it and, indeed, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, speak further to this general issue on Report.
When you see the physiology of that amendment, it is clean; it does exactly what we have described. We may have to consider whether it is appropriate for us to do this through the Bill or whether it can be reflected through the Standing Orders of the Assembly, but it is exactly what the intent behind amendment 8 was; amendment 9 does it very cleanly. I am positive about the spirit and the text of the amendment, but it may not be pressed to a vote this morning.
I am grateful for the brief discussion we have had on this. As the Committee will know, the Bill makes provision for a 14-day consideration period after a petition has been presented by 30 Members. The 14-day consideration period was part of the NDNA deal on the basis of which the five parties entered into the Executive. The consideration period provides MLAs with a vital opportunity to lobby those who are petitioning their item of business, persuade them of its merits and prevent it from going to a cross-party vote.
The question here is where this is most appropriately dealt with. We all broadly agree with the principle that petitions of concern should be able to be withdrawn. However, putting that on the face of the Bill and making it explicit could—we were warned about this in evidence—have the effect of actually making petitions of concern more common. I think Gareth McGrath commented to that effect. We think this would be better dealt with through the Standing Orders of the Assembly, and I am very happy to reiterate the commitment I made on the previous item—to discuss this further on Report if necessary.
I thank the Committee for the detail in which it has scrutinised this measure. As I said before, the purpose of this clause is to reform petitions of concern and return them to their intended purpose.
The UK Government are not seeking to legislate beyond what was agreed in the NDNA deal. That is exemplified by the amendments I have introduced today, which correct a technical error relating to the time period in which the petition of concern may be tabled. The Bill requires that petitions be signed and confirmed 14 days later by at least 30 MLAs from two or more political parties to prevent one party from being able to block measures or business that would otherwise have cross-community consensus. The changes and commitments from the Northern Ireland parties aim to reduce the use of the mechanism to only the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, having exhausted every other available mechanism.