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MLAs reject bid to delay bill which ‘undermines constraint on ministers’ powers’

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie tabled an amendment in the Assembly on Monday for a delay to allow further scrutiny.

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Stormont ministers (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Stormont ministers (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Stormont ministers (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Stormont MLAs have rejected an amendment to delay a bill which, it has been claimed, will undermine a constraint on ministers’ powers.

Richard Bullick, who served as special adviser to former first minister Peter Robinson, warned that the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill will reduce areas in which ministers’ power is constrained by the Executive as a whole.

He used Twitter last week to voice his concerns that a policy, which he says the DUP negotiated in the 2006 St Andrew’s talks, would be lost.

Mr Bullick has argued that MLAs are “sleepwalking into making profound constitutional amendments”.

Currently any three ministers can call in any major issue to the Executive.

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford insisted the protection will remain.

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie tabled an amendment in the Assembly on Monday for a delay to allow further scrutiny.

He said that at the time the bill was introduced, attention was focused elsewhere, and said scrutiny of the bill at the Executive Committee lasted 11 minutes.

“We were focused on Covid-19, and I genuinely believe because of that many of us, and I am admitting fault here, including me, missed this, I made a mistake,” he told MLAs.

“There’s others who didn’t make mistakes, the Green Party certainly raised that issue, People Before Profit certainly raised that issue.”

Mr Beattie described the bill as “extremely complex” with “far-reaching issues”, and said it should be paused.

“The reality is, it needs more scrutiny,” he said. “This bill intends to give ministers more power, and that can be abused.

“I don’t want to see any minister abusing their power, and the way to stop them either deliberating or accidentally abusing their power is to have a scrutiny mechanism which is in the Executive already.”

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford responded to Mr Beattie, saying he disagreed “with about 95%” of what he had said.

He dismissed the suggestion that the bill would allow so-called solo runs, such as the move by the late Martin McGuinness as education minister to scrap the 11-plus in 2002.

“Let me be very clear, under St Andrews and under this bill today, such a decision could not be made by a minister on a solo run. It is simply not true to say that it could,” he said.

“We pushed hard to have this issue addressed at St Andrews and we will fully maintain the protections which prevent government ministers from doing such things without the agreement of Executive colleagues.

“Any suggestion that this bill would diminish this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the bill which we have been considering.”

Mr Beattie’s amendment was defeated by 73 votes to 10.

PA