Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Peers call for Assembly opposition

A call has been made to introduce an official opposition at the Northern Ireland assembly.

Peers today called for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be given the power to introduce an official opposition.

Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Empey said the move would be "one small step on the road" to more normal political arrangements.

Government spokeswoman Baroness Randerson agreed to "reflect" on the demand before returning it at a later date.

But she insisted that nothing would be "imposed" on the Assembly from outside without its agreement.

In committee stage debate on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, Lord Empey said the Act implementing the Belfast Agreement had introduced a "rather complicated form of mandatory coalition government".

He supported that and did not want to alter those devolved arrangements but the "missing link" was that nobody who was not in the Executive had any "status in terms of the Assembly's proceedings".

Lord Empey said his amendment would give the Assembly the option, if it wished, to apply to the Northern Ireland Secretary for an opposition with speaking rights, supply day debates and chairmanship of the public accounts committee.

"This would be one small step on the road to a more normal political set of arrangements.

"I don't believe the time is right or appropriate for any significant change in how the Executive is constructed.

"But I do think we can make one small step to give those who do not occupy positions in government, the opportunity to hold that government to account," Lord Empey told the Lords.

The move won cross party backing. But Labour's Lord McAvoy said his party could not support the amendment, insisting: "Devolution is devolution. It can and should be dealt with at Stormont."

Lady Randerson acknowledged that an effective and responsible opposition performed a valuable role in keeping a government "on its toes" and exposing abuses.

The Government had consulted on having an opposition in 2012 but concluded "there wasn't sufficiently broad support among the parties to justify proceeding with legislation that would in any way change the legislative structure" deriving from the agreement.

But she added: "The Government will reflect on what has been said and return to this on report (stage of the Bill's proceedings)."

Lady Randerson said: "This is really a decision that must be taken within the Assembly.

"But it's also the case that the UK Government can ... facilitate and encourage. Certainly the Government wouldn't in any way seek to impose anything from outside.

"The principle of power-sharing is absolutely fundamental. Any arrangements must be made with cross community support ..."

In the light of Lady Randerson's comments and offer to listen to the views of interested parties, Lord Empey agreed to withdraw his amendment.

The Bill introduces a range of reforms including a limited increase in the transparency of donations to political parties, and preventing ''double jobbing'' by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly also sitting as MPs.

Lord Empey later led calls for laws to enshrine the principle of open and fair competition for civil service jobs in Northern Ireland before responsibility for appointing civil service commissioners was devolved to the province.

The Bill gives ministers the power to devolve the function, but Lord Empey said safeguards were needed before it was used.

Under 2010 laws the principles of impartiality and meritocratic appointments were given a statutory basis for the rest of the UK's civil service.

Lord Empey said the Northern Ireland Civil Service Commission wanted the same provisions.

"I think they are very anxious that devolution of this function (the appointment of commissioners) should not take place until that is achieved," he said.

"I believe it is important that we take any and every measure we can to ensure that that impartiality is guaranteed and is in statute and there is no ambiguity and no political influence can subsequently be brought to bear if attempts were made to interfere with who is appointed to what posts."

Former cabinet secretary and head of the home civil service Lord Butler of Brockwell said it was a "straightforward" issue and could not see what objection there could be to it.

The independent crossbench peer said it had taken 150 years for the principle of civil service impartiality to be included in statute for the rest of the UK.

"It seems to me that the same thing should be done in Northern Ireland and it should be done before a question of devolving this function takes place," he said.

Tory former foreign secretary Lord Hurd of Westwell said the move was "hugely important for the future of the province".

Liberal Democrat Lord Alderdice, a former speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, told peers: "I have an anxiety that members of Government on both sides in Northern Ireland might well be tempted to influence the appointment of some senior civil servants in a way that would not ultimately be in the interests of any of us in Northern Ireland."

For the opposition, Baroness Smith of Basildon supported the principle of Lord Empey's amendment.

"Before responsibility is devolved there should be something in legislation that enshrines that impartiality," she said.

Lady Randerson told peers: "The Government is fully supportive of the principle. The Government intends to ensure that there are safeguards put in place, but the Government believes that first of all there should be public consultation in order to ensure those safeguards are as full and as detailed as is necessary."

Lord Empey withdrew his amendment but said he might return to the issue at a later stage unless there were further guarantees from ministers.

Former government spokesman on Northern Ireland and Liberal Democrat Lord Shutt of Greetland urged the re-establishment of the civic forum, which was set up under the Belfast Agreement but suspended in 2002.

Lord Shutt said the forum would "bring people together" in the civil and voluntary sector, ensuring a "shared future" for all in Northern Ireland.

But Lady Randerson said the onus was on the parties at Stormont to agree on the way forward for the forum, adding that this was currently "some way off, if on the horizon at all".

Later, Tory Lord Lexden branded the Executive's failure to implement the Defamation Act 2013 in Northern Ireland a "story of evasion and irresponsible delay".

Lord Lexden said the Act was a "liberalising, modernising law, which will confer lasting benefits throughout society".

It was "wholly unjustifiable that the people of Northern Ireland should be excluded from the benefits and protections" of this law.

He said the province's exclusion from the Act put thousands of publishing jobs at risk and warned that a "dual system" of defamation law would create "doubt and confusion" in an area where clarity was essential.

Independent crossbencher Lord Bew, a professor of politics, warned about the impact on academic freedom of having "antediluvian" libel laws - putting the Northern Ireland judiciary in an "almost intolerable" position.

Tory Lord Black of Brentwood, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, also criticised the Northern Ireland Assembly for failing to implement the legislation.

"There's certainly no doubt in my mind that this quixotic decision will cost jobs, put off the vital investment that is needed to create a sustainable economy ... and expose ordinary people in Northern Ireland to the intense dangers of costly legal actions that can destroy lives," he said.

Lady Randerson sympathised with the frustration felt by peers but said it was essential that they respected the devolution process.

"Part of that process is that you have different laws in different parts of the country."

She added: "I am not suggesting that I regard it as a good thing that Northern Ireland hasn't updated its defamation law. I do not regard it as a good thing at all that Northern Ireland is in this position. But it is important that we respect devolution."

Lady Randerson said the Government had been active in encouraging the Executive to consider the need for a change in the law but could not impose the change on them.

The committee stage was completed.

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