MLAs overwhelmingly vote through controversial bill to give ministers more power

The Assembly has overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to amend a bill which would give more powers to Stormont ministers, paving the way for it to become law within days.

By Sam McBride
Monday, 27th July 2020, 2:52 pm
Neither Arlene Foster nor Michelle O'Neill showed up for the crucial debate
Neither Arlene Foster nor Michelle O'Neill showed up for the crucial debate

The Executive Committee (Functions) Bill, which Mrs Foster and Michelle O’Neill are ramming through the Assembly at speed and with minimal scrutiny, is now likely to be nodded through its final stage by MLAs tomorrow, leaving it to only require Royal Assent before becoming law.
Mrs Foster has faced withering criticism on the issue from her former senior special adviser Richard Bullick, who has warned that the bill is constitutionally “dangerous” and goes against long-standing DUP policy designed to curtail the unilateral power of Sinn Féin ministers.

Neither the First Minister nor deputy First Minister – who proposed the legislation – even showed up for the debate in the Assembly today.

Instead, junior ministers Gordon Lyons and Declan Kearney represented them for the debate on further consideration stage – the final point at which the far-reaching change could have been amended.

UUP MLA Doug Beattie urged MLAs to have "moral courage"

Amendments tabled by UUP MLA Doug Beattie would have significantly curtailed the bill, meaning that it would have only conferred unlimited power on the Infrastructure Minister to take planning decisions without recourse to the Executive – and not given additional powers to every other minister.

But, after a forthright debate lasting two and a half hours, the votes of four Executive parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance – comfortably defeated the attempt to alter the bill, voting it down by 73 votes to 10.

Mr Beattie, an Upper Bann MLA and former soldier, appealed to MLAs to have “moral courage” in thinking for themselves, telling them: “Physical courage is easy; moral courage is something that is extremely difficult”.

Mr Beattie said that the bill was “in conflict with the Belfast Agreement”, undermining what the framers of that 1998 deal had envisioned about ministers bringing issues to the Executive as a whole rather than simply doing as they pleased within their departments.

But he also said that another aspect of the bill was in conflict with the St Andrews Agreement. Referring to Mr Bullick’s repeated warnings about the bill, he told MLAs: “If we’re an Assembly where we cannot stop and reassess...we’re lame ducks”.

Urging MLAs to back his amendments so they could take more time to consider the issue, he said: “It’s the right thing to do, it’s the morally courageous thing to do”.

Highlighting that he is not a lawyer and left school at 16, Mr Beattie said that the bill was “so complex, so far-reaching” that it needs more scrutiny and said he accepted he had been wrong when three weeks ago he voted for the bill to be sped through the legislature by accelerated passage.

DUP MLAs Christopher Stalford and Mervyn Storey pressed Mr Beattie to say whether UUP minister Robin Swann had agreed to the amendments. Mr Beattie said that Mr Swann did support the party’s amendments to the bill.

Referring to the concerns of Mr Bullick, a barrister, Mr Storey said there was “a dilemma that not for the first time among lawyers...now we have a litany of legislation that has been pored over by legal counsel and I think lay people, like most of us in this house, are wondering on what side of the legal argument is the practical outworkings of this piece of legislation”.

He added: “It’s not a moral dilemma for me; it’s more an issue of what is the legal advice that gives me and the members of my party protection that no minister is going to run rogue and do things that none of us want.”

Former DUP MLA Jim Wells interjected to say that it was right to say that there were conflicting legal opinions on the bill, but that “the crucial legal advice comes from one of the architects of the St Andrews Agreement, Richard Bullick”.

He said that the obvious solution was to postpone consideration of the bill to allow for that conflict to be resolved and went on to say: “I know that there’s deep concern on the DUP back benches about this legislation...but I’m also aware of how the system works...they will be frogmarched or stampeded to vote in the lobbies for something they know in their heart of hearts they can’t support”.

But – despite the scrutiny committee on which he sits just considering the bill for 11 minutes before nodding it through – Mr Stalford said it was “frankly insulting to other MLAs” to “suggest we just ignored this or let it slip”.

Mr Stalford insisted that a decision such as the abolition of the Eleven Plus by Martin McGuinness in 2002 would not be made possible again after the passage of the bill.

He said: “Any suggestion this bill would diminish this [Executive constraint on ministers] is a fundamental misunderstanding...it is inaccurate of those who have tried to suggest otherwise”.

Alluding to Mr Bullick’s article in this newspaper last week in which he dissected the flaws in the bill, Mr Stalford said there had been “confusion on social media and in newspapers”.

He said that initially there had been no controversy about the bill but “then an article appears in a newspaper and then suddenly this has grave constitutional implications and we should all be concerned about it”.

Referring to his former colleagues in the DUP, Mr Wells said: “The reason why backbenchers are rolling their eyes is not because they can’t understand your speech or don’t agree with it but because they’ve been whipped to within an inch of their lives to vote for something that many of them are extremely unhappy with - but they have been told to vote for it.”

He asked Mr Stalford if he accepted that Mr Bullick was central to the DUP and “one of the finest legal minds in Northern Ireland”.
The DUP MLA said Mr Bullick was “a dear friend” but that Stormont Castle had received legal advice from several lawyers including former Attorney General John Larkin in support of its position.

The South Belfast MLA insisted that the bill “enhances the concept of collective responsibility”. But Mr Wells claimed that Mr Stalford was reading a speech which “he had been given to read by one of the special advisers”, something which the DUP MLA did not deny. 

Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan – whose party has always sought to have more power for individual ministers – said that it was a “sensible” bill which his party fully supported.

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, the chairman of the Assembly committee charged with scrutinising the bill, said he was comfortable that it had been sufficiently interrogated.

He said that the bill would help the smaller parties by clarifying what had to go to the Executive, which is dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

He said the bill would “unlock key planning decisions that will get the economy moving again”.

Mr Wells interjected to say that nothing in Mr Beattie’s amendments would impact on the part of the bill which gives more powers to the planning minister.

Alliance’s Andrew Muir said that claims the amendments were necessary to avoid ministerial solo runs “are in my opinion over-played” and his party endorsed the bill as it stood.

He said that in the absence of the bill there would be a significant lack of clarity on what decisions could be taken by ministers, making it urgent to resolve.

Speaking on behalf of the Executive, Mr Lyons said he could assure MLAs that they had been “rigorous” in their consideration of the issue.

He said that the test for cross-cutting was being given a statutory definition to clarify it and insisted it would “not open the flood gates” in allowing ministers to go on solo runs.

The junior minister said that passing Mr Beattie’s amendment would mean that almost every health decision would have to come to the Executive.

The East Antrim MLA said it was “never common practice” for issues such as planning decisions to be brought to the Assembly and would make for an “unsustainable” situation with the Executive.

However, Mr Bullick has argued this misses the point and just because each decision did not come to the Executive did not mean that the DUP did not value having the power to pull in any significant decision.

Extraordinarily, during the debate Mr Storey repeated the First Minister’s erroneous claim that any three ministers can call any ministerial decision into the Executive where it could be blocked – something which has been debunked by Mr Bullick over the last fortnight.

Mr Beattie pointed out that no such power exists – something which Mr Storey then did not challenge.

Green MLA Rachel Woods, whose party has consistently opposed the bill, said that it appeared to be a far more significant piece of legislation than the Assembly had been told by ministers who presented it as a technical bill to regularise the rules in response to a court judgment.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, who similarly has consistently opposed the bill, said that the Executive was acting in a “cavalier” way and simply brushed off concerns.

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