Official Report: Monday 27 July 2020

The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Mr O'Dowd: I beg to move

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 27 July 2020.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Order 20(1) be suspended for 27 July 2020.

Executive Committee Business

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I call the junior Minister Gordon Lyons to formally move the Bill.

Moved. — [Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office).]

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group of amendments, amendment Nos 1 to 3, which deal with ministerial decisions, and we will debate the amendments in that group. Once the debate on the group is completed, any further amendments will be formally moved. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 (Amendment of section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998)

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 and 3. Members should note that amendment No 1 is a paving amendment to amendment Nos 2 and 3. In the interests of clarity, as this type of amendment is not often encountered, I remind Members that this means that amendment No 1 is consequential to the other two amendments, but the Question on it will be put before we consider the other two amendments. Members will wish to take that into consideration when deciding on whether amendment No 1 is made or not. Members will note that amendment No 3 is consequential to amendment No 2.

Mr Beattie: I beg to move amendment No 1:

In page 1, line 11, leave out "subsections (6) to (9)" and insert "subsections (6) and (7)".

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 1, leave out lines 20 to line 2 on page 2. — [Mr Beattie.]

No 3: In page 2, leave out lines 3 to 5. — [Mr Beattie.]

Mr Beattie: The Executive Committee (Functions) Bill is a very short but extremely complex Bill. Its main aim and tenet is to address what came out of the Buick judgement in regards to the Department for Infrastructure, yet the Bill also covers far-reaching issues. I am no lawyer and I do not have a team of lawyers standing behind me to give me advice. In fact, I left school at 16 and have no educational qualifications whatsoever. The reality is that the Bill needs more scrutiny because it so complex and so far-reaching and delves into how we govern Northern Ireland. If, at the end of the debate, we are thinking, "Well, that is wrong. I believe in this bit but not in that. Maybe this works", there is confusion in the Assembly and, therefore, it is fair to ask for that scrutiny.

I say this: we, as an Assembly, got it wrong when we gave the Bill accelerated passage. It could well be that the Bill is fine and that it would go through all the scrutiny mechanisms and come out with us all satisfied. However, because it has accelerated passage, we do not have the ability to do that. It is important that we scrutinise major changes to how we govern in Northern Ireland.

At the time of the Bill's introduction, we were all focused elsewhere. It was brought before the Committee for the Executive Office on 1 July. I was not there. I was laying a wreath at Belfast City Council's Somme remembrance. I was not there to question. However, I am not even sure whether I would have seen the issues that were in front of me then, because our eyes were turned elsewhere. On 1 July, our eyes were turned to Bobby Storey's funeral; an issue that we are still dealing with. We were focused on COVID-19. I genuinely believe that, because of that, many of us, including me, missed this. I admit fault. I made a mistake. I will be absolutely clear: there are others who did not make mistakes. The Green Party certainly raised the issue, as did People Before Profit.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind the Member that the debate is not about accelerated passage. It is about his amendments.

Mr Beattie: Absolutely, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am just trying to give the context. I stood there and did not vote against accelerated passage. I am laying out where we are in regards to that.

Let me be clear: to be really honest with you all and with the Assembly now, I think that the Bill should have been paused. I think that it should be paused, and we should put it back into the system and go through the full scrutiny process. That is what, I think, we should do. However, it has been moved, and we are moving forward. I do not want to see my amendments as being a wrecker to the Bill, because I think that there are things in the Bill that we need to deal with. The issues around the Department for Infrastructure are fair wind. I think that there is enough within the planning system that will give us scrutiny of the Department for Infrastructure. My proposed amendments therefore do not touch on those issues in any shape or form. They would allow the particular issues that address the Buick judgement for the Department for Infrastructure to go through, and that would then give MLAs time and space to look at the other aspects of the Bill: the other aspects that I am attempting to amend.

There are three amendments in total. The first amendment is a paving amendment. I am not going to address that, because it is purely about numbering in the Bill. Amendment No 3, which is about subsection (9), is consequential to amendment No 2, which is about subsection (8). I will read out subsection (8) to you:

"Nothing in subsection (3) requires a Minister to have recourse to the Executive Committee in relation to any matter unless that matter affects the exercise of the statutory responsibilities of one or more other Ministers more than incidentally."

"Subsection (3)" is a reference to section 20(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Paragraph 19 of strand one of the Belfast Agreement clearly states, however:

"The Executive Committee will provide a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers, for prioritising executive and legislative proposals and for recommending a common position where necessary".

This is about cross-cutting issues, not necessarily immediately but that may arise in future: six months on, a year on, two years on, five years on. In my mind, subsection (8) is therefore absolutely in conflict with sections 19 and 20 of strand one of the Belfast Agreement and subsection (3) of section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. You need only read the explanatory and financial memorandum to see that. I apologise to Members for shuffling papers, but there is an awful lot of complexity in the Bill. The tenet of what I am saying here today is that the Bill is so complex that we need time to scrutinise it.

Paragraph 10(i) of the explanatory and financial memorandum states:

"referral to the Executive Committee must take place where a matter is significant and controversial and (i) outside the scope of the Programme for Government approved by the Assembly and in force; and (ii) where no such Programme has been approved by the Assembly and in force."

Paragraph 10(iii) then states:

"a Minister is not required to have recourse to the Executive Committee in relation to any matter unless the matter affects the statutory responsibilities of one or more than one Ministers more than incidentally."

That is straight from the Bill itself.

If subsection (8) conflicts with the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act, it certainly conflicts with the ministerial code. As I said, subsection (8) states:

"Nothing in subsection (3) requires a Minister to have recourse to the Executive Committee in relation to any matter unless that matter affects the exercise of the statutory responsibilities of one or more other Ministers more than incidentally",

yet the ministerial code sets out a whole list of things that must be looked at. Some of them are not cross-cutting. Some of them are pretty bland:

"(ii) requires agreement on prioritisation;
(iii) requires the adoption of a common position;
(iv) has implications for the Programme for Government;
(v) is significant or controversial and is clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of Strand One" —.

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He mentioned the ministerial code, which obviously apply to Ministers. Given that this is Executive business, how does he feel that he is supporting his own Minister on the Executive by moving these amendments today, because his Minister would have had to give his assent in order for this business to be in front of us?

Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for his intervention. If he wants to play the man instead of the ball, he is more than welcome to do so, and I am happy to accept it. The reality is this, however: did he agree it? Did he agree to this legislation or did he agree that there should be legislation? That is a question for you, and you can raise it up the line. Did Ministers agree that there should be legislation or did they agree that it was to be this legislation?

We can contend one way or another, but it still takes me back to the start of what I said: if we, as an Assembly, cannot stop and reanalyse a decision that we have made, we are lame ducks.

12.15 pm

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beattie: Just a minute.

I have gone through my life looking at decisions that I have made, and, as the situation changed, I have had to change my decisions. It is the right thing to do. It is the morally courageous thing to do. It is what I am having to do here today.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I accept the point that he made with regard to his colleague, the Minister of Health. Are we to take it that his comments in the Chamber today are the stated and agreed comments of the Ulster Unionist Party and that they have been discussed with the Health Minister? Therefore, the Health Minister and the Ulster Unionist Party are in agreement with the comments that you are making?

Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for his intervention. It is a pointed question in the way that you have put it across. The answer is, very pointedly, yes. We are in agreement, because we have analysed it and have decided that we have gone in the wrong direction with regard to subsections (8) and (9). As a member of the Committee for the Executive Office, the fault lies with me for not making sure that my Members understood what is going on. To me, subsection (8) conflicts with section 28A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which outlines what the ministerial code should be. At the end of this, the ministerial code will have to be changed to meet this Bill, because they conflict. Some of the issues that have to be discussed at the Executive may not be cross-cutting today but might be in a year. They may not be controversial now but may be a little while down the road.

I am opening myself up to criticism. I do not mind, because we did not support all elements of the St Andrews Agreement, but this is a good element that we are now about to overturn. It is the main plank of the St Andrews Agreement, which was to stop Ministers, deliberately or not, going on solo runs and deciding for themselves what they would do. It has been well documented that the late Martin McGuinness got rid of the 11-plus, pretty much on the last day before the Assembly collapsed: that could be viewed as going on a solo run. This part of the St Andrews Agreement brokered by the DUP and Sinn Féin was a good piece of legislation, and we are looking for it to stay.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: I am grateful to the Member for praising the content of the St Andrews Agreement. He is absolutely right. How does that square with what his leader has consistently said about returning to the factory settings of 1998?

Mr Beattie: I have made it clear that I am opening myself up to criticisms, but everybody knows that the issue that we have with the St Andrews Agreement is how we elect our First and deputy First Ministers. That is the main issue. We can look at things and say. "That's good" or "That's not bad". It would be pretty awful of us or any political party to just say that every thing is bad. We all have the ability to look at things and say, "I could take that and that, but I don't want that". We do it when we are buying a car; I am sure that we can do it with legislation.

The Bill, we believe, dilutes the safeguards that we got in St Andrews. Others can disagree, and I get that. We will hear from others saying that they disagree, but I think that it dilutes it. Since 2007, there have been few solo runs. I think that there have been two. Both ended up in court, and both were brought back again because of what was agreed at St Andrews and is in legislation. It is awful thing that one Minister has to bring another Minister to court in order to get them to row back on a decision. If we put the Bill through, we will see more of that. What Minister would not look for any loophole to push forward what they need for their Ministry? It is natural to us all. However, what was agreed at St Andrews holds them back on that. It holds us all back on that. It is as much a safeguard for our society as it is for the Minister himself. Ministers are not infallible; they can make wrong decisions. However, if their decisions are scrutinised in the Executive, they can have a sanity check on their decisions. That is a positive. That is why we should get rid of subsections (8) and (9), which change that. They do change it, no matter which way you look at it.

There is also the question of collective responsibility. There are many contentious issues on which Ministers will have to take decisions. What has been really important is that our Executive have all stood together in making those decisions: collective responsibility. Now, however, we could go down a road where a Minister will be left on his own to make a decision. Even if he brings it to the Executive for discussion, other Ministers could say, "Yes, that is fine, but it has nothing to do with me. I don't support it. I can step out of this office and attack you every time you say something".

The Bill has raised the bar for cross-cutting issues. At a time when we need more scrutiny, it gives us less scrutiny. We are allowing the Bill through without proper scrutiny and with no idea of its effects in the next five years. At a time when the Executive need more scrutiny, we are putting a Bill through that reduces scrutiny. Scrutiny is a good thing. Some people say that, because of the system that we have now, our legislation is slow. That is a fair argument. We want to speed up legislation, but it has to be good legislation. There is no point in having speedy legislation if it is no good. If it is not future-proofed, it is not good legislation. Scrutiny helps to produce good legislation. The system that we have now is a good system to scrutinise Ministers and to prevent them going on solo runs.

Ministers have already been reported to the Commissioner for Standards over their behaviour. The Executive Office Committee has asked for legal advice about holding an inquiry into the behaviour of Ministers. People make mistakes, yet the Bill intends to give Ministers more power. That can be abused. I do not want to see it abused. I am not talking about one party or the other; I am talking about all Ministers. I do not want to see any Minister abusing their power, and the way to stop them abusing their power, either deliberately or accidentally, is to have a scrutiny mechanism that is already in the Executive and can be found in the St Andrews Agreement. It is utter madness.

What if I am wrong? As I stand here, I see people whose eyes might be glazing over because this is all very technical and pretty boring and they have already made their mind up anyway. That is fine, because maybe I am wrong. However, if I am wrong, what is the rush?

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beattie: Yes, of course.

Mr Wells: The Member has made a very important point. I assure you that many Members in here do not have glazed eyes because they are bored with what you are saying —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I ask the Member to get closer to a microphone in order that we all can clearly hear him and that it can be recorded in Hansard.

Mr Wells: Former DUP men do not need loudspeakers, Mr Deputy Speaker; I assure you [Laughter.]

The reason that Back-Benchers are rolling their eyes this afternoon is not that they cannot understand your speech or do not agree with it; it is because they have been whipped to within an inch of their life to vote for something that many of them are extremely unhappy with but have been told they have to vote for.

Does the Member agree that nowhere in the debate has there been the slightest justification for the rush? Nowhere have we been told that this must be agreed at the fag end of an Assembly term. No one has explained why it cannot wait until October to allow greater scrutiny, and no one has explained why I had to sit in the Chair last Tuesday as Temporary Speaker and advise Members that they had less than 24 hours to submit amendments. No one has explained any of that. You have raised a valid point, and it is incumbent on other Members — the ruthlessly whipped Members — to explain why there is a rush.

Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for his intervention. You have articulated very well the point that I was aiming to make. What is the rush? We have time to look at it. We have been dealing with the issue since January, and nobody felt the need to rush it through quickly in February, for example. We have let it go. All of a sudden, it is being rushed through, right in the middle of a pandemic and right in the middle of a crisis where our First Minister and deputy First Minister will not even give an interview together at the minute. We are rushing it through. I implore all Members of the Assembly — I look at Members and think that, when they do their business here, they act absolutely honourably — that you must have moral courage on the issue. Moral courage: the hardest piece of courage that you can have. Physical courage is easy; moral courage is extremely difficult. It is what you apply. It is about yourself. Apply moral courage. If, after all those Members have spoken, you have a doubt in the back of you mind, that doubt in the back of your mind should be saying to you, "Let's delay for more scrutiny".

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I just wish that he would be more consistent in his application of moral courage, given that he has supported in the House legislation that is immoral. I refer to the issue of the protection of the unborn child. We do not need lectures in the House about moral courage.

We have an issue, and that issue is simple. It is that we have, not for the first time, a dilemma amongst lawyers who, I have to say, are paid considerably more than Members of the House. We could fill the Chamber with lawyers who have been to the High Court and the Supreme Court and have had judgements made and judgements overturned. Now we have a litany of legislation that has been pored over by legal counsel, and laypeople, like most of us in the House, wonder on which side of the legal argument are the practical outworkings of the legislation. It is not a moral dilemma for me; it is more an issue of looking at the legal advice that gives me and members of my party the protection that no Minister will run rogue and do things that none of us wants. Of course, the party opposite is good at doing what it has done in the past, with its mischievous activities. I, for one, want to ensure that all Members in the House and all parties in the House abide and play by the rules, not only in the Executive. We saw their antics a few weeks ago, when they could not even behave themselves at a funeral, so why would you expect them to behave —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind the Member that interventions should be brief. He may wish to make a speech at some point.

Mr Storey: I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will conclude with this: will the Member consider the dilemma over the legal arguments about the Bill?

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beattie: Yes. I would be happy to give way.

Mr Wells: Mr Storey raises a valid point. There is a conflicting legal advice on this, but the crucial legal advice comes from one of the architects of the St Andrews Agreement: Richard Bullick.

If there is doubt, and there clearly is, between those who think that this will stop solo runs and those who think that it will facilitate them, the obvious thing to do is to postpone the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill to allow us all time to sit down with the conflicting legal advice to come to a conclusion. It is not to try to railroad through something as important as this at the end of an Assembly term and with 24 hours' notice to table amendments.

12.30 pm

Mr Beattie: I thank both Members. I accept a lot of what you are saying, Mr Storey, and the debate about abortion is, I guess, for another day, but I accept your point wholeheartedly, and I hold no malice about that. You are right: there is conflicting legal advice, and that is why I am saying that we need to delay this process so that we can scrutinise that conflicting legal advice. MLAs would have the ability to speak to experts and would get legal advice. They could question not just the intentions of Bill but its repercussions. We can all write a Bill that has a wonderful aim, but it may not necessarily always end up with that aim. That is why it is so important that this Bill is given the extra scrutiny. I will say this again: I am not trying to wreck the Bill. My amendments aim to take away those parts of it that give unfettered powers, which could be, at times, unfettered powers, to individual Ministers. I said earlier that I can accept that some people want to speed up legislation. That is absolutely worthy, and I agree with that, but those people who want to speed up legislation normally want to speed up legislation that they support, and the legislation that they do not support, they are happy to keep in the long grass. Scrutiny stops that. Scrutiny allows legislation to be viewed and to be put out, and when it is put out, it is done so with collective responsibility from an Executive — our Executive. Our Executive, which make rules.

Trust is important in government. At times, we do not have trust. I sense and feel it here. I have trust issues with many of the political parties here. I know that people look at me and have trust issues with me. Again, I accept that. Yet, these safeguards in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, as amended at St Andrews, help to create safeguards where trust was not there. Therefore, it is pretty simple. The substantive part of the Bill that deals with the Department for Infrastructure and the Minister for Infrastructure so that she can make decisions can go through. Although it has problems, planning has safeguards. All that I am saying is that the proposed new paragraph 8, which allows Ministers to make decisions without bringing them to the Executive, should not go through. It should be taken out, revisited and, if necessary, brought forward at a later stage when it can be given full scrutiny. It is a simple amendment. It cannot be a difficult amendment to support, unless there is an ulterior motive to force this through at short notice. I hope that there is not.

I apologise for rambling a bit and for the paper shuffling. This is a complex issue, and I do not have all the answers. I am not a lawyer, but I would like to look at this in far more detail than we have been able to so far. That is a fair ask. It is fair to ask the Assembly to scrutinise this further.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way before he —?

Mr Beattie: Sits down?

Mr Storey: Yes. I want to follow on from the point that the honourable Member Mr Wells made. The difficulty that I have with Richard Bullick's intervention — he is someone who I hold in the highest regard — is that he has been out of this place for some considerable time now. There are issues with where the gaps may be, given what has happened in that intervening period.

My other point is that the Assembly still has the 30-name petition for a recall, and three Ministers can still call any cross-cutting or controversial issue to the Executive. Therefore, I think that there is a sequence of events that still gives us protection, and I think that the junior Ministers will be able to either confirm or deny that that is the case, knowing that I am not always across the detail on some of these things. That is my understanding, and I do think that we need to take that. That is not a criticism of Mr Bullick, who I hold in the highest regard, but I think that he falls into that category of lawyers and people of a legal mind. When you have a group of lawyers in a room, you do not have agreement. In most cases, you probably have disagreement and a very large invoice.

Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for his intervention. You caught me just as I was finishing, but I will make a couple of points. I do not know and have never met Mr Bullick, but, if he is bringing up something that makes us look and stop and take check, it is worthwhile looking and stopping and taking check, regardless of whether he was here before or will be here after. In the same way, if Peter Robinson were to come out and say something, we would say that he is a man who knows the system and would listen to him. Let us not just discount people.

As for the three-person block, there is not one. That three-person mechanism is to force a vote in the Executive. That is what it does. It forces a vote in the Executive, but let us future-proof that. In five years, when unionists or the DUP do not have a majority, what happens? We have set in motion a chain of events that could be worse for us all. Let us not think one step or two steps ahead. We need to think three and four steps ahead. Let us not think that this is about one party abusing the system or about another party abusing the system. Let us not even say that it is a deliberate abuse of the system; sometimes it can be absolutely accidental where somebody brings in legislation or something that they do not know the repercussions of in the years to come. So, let us future-proof. For me, right now as I stand here, the St Andrews Agreement future-proofs how we operate in the Executive, and, if we are going to change that, we need to change that with more scrutiny than we have given it now. I commend my amendments.

Mr Stalford: Before I turn to my remarks, I thank those Members who were in touch because I was not well last week. That was very much appreciated.

I say to Mr Beattie that I hold him in no malice. I will always afford to any person who serves our country in uniform the highest respect and honour, but I have to politely disagree with about 95% of what he has just said. [Laughter.]

As I said, there is no particular malice. I think that it was big of the Member who is moving these amendments to say that he got it wrong. I think that he went too far when he said that the Executive Office Committee got it wrong. Mr Beattie, from his perspective, might have missed the pass, but, as a member of that Committee, I am satisfied that I exercised my scrutiny function of this legislation to the best of my ability, and I think that other members of that Committee would say likewise, including the Chairman.

It is important that we all try to provide as much clarity as possible, particularly and regrettably, due to some confusion in the discussion of this Bill on social media and in newspapers over the past few days. I think that we should examine the timeline of events, because it is not particularly difficult to join the dots and see how we got to this point. To be fair to Ms Woods, Mr Allister and People Before Profit, they opposed accelerated passage and voted against it. That is fine. I have no problem with that. I think that that is principled and consistent. What happened was that we had the Committee consideration, where the First Minister and deputy First Minister came in and briefed us and answered questions on the content of the Bill.

Mr Beattie: I thank the Member for giving way. Can we make sure that it is on the record that that scrutiny at the Committee lasted 11 minutes?

Mr Stalford: It is a three-clause Bill, I think one of which is the title. So we had the Committee meeting. Then, I think, we had the vote in the House. Then an article appeared in a newspaper. Then, suddenly, this had grave constitutional implications and we should all be panicking about it. Something appears on Twitter, and suddenly the Assembly is debating amendments to a Bill. I think that people can join the dots.

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr Stalford: Yes, I will be happy to.

Mr Wells: First of all, it was an in-depth article in a leading newspaper, which was then followed up by another in-depth article in a leading newspaper. The question is not the fact that it appeared on Twitter; it is the name of the person whose account it appeared on. Does the Member accept that Richard Bullick was absolutely instrumental in the St Andrews Agreement discussions? He was a leading adviser to the DUP for something like 17 years. He has one of the finest legal minds in Northern Ireland. Also, it was not just his legal opinion; Tughans solicitors also have grave concerns about this. All I think any reasonable person is saying is that there is a degree of doubt about this. Even the Member has seemed to indicate that he has some doubt. If there is any degree of doubt, surely the sensible thing to do — he has not addressed this issue — is to park this for several months. Where is the rush?

Mr Stalford: I know Richard Bullick. He is a dear friend of mine and was a guest at my wedding. I am never going to be tempted into publicly criticising a friend, and Richard is my friend. The Member is in danger of turning what is a legal argument into something of a psychodrama, and I do not think that that is helpful. My understanding is that the Executive Office has received legal advice from the Departmental Solicitor's Office, the former Attorney General and another source. I cannot recall the third source of legal advice. The Member knows himself that, wherever you get one or two lawyers together, they can argue that a black crow is white until the day is done. There is conflicting legal advice. As I say, Richard is my friend, and the Member will not tempt me into saying anything that could be construed in any way as criticism of a friend.

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: I would never want that. I am sure that nobody who has worked with Richard Bullick would say anything against his professional advice or legal integrity, but he has made the crucial comment. He has told the House that there is conflicting legal advice. Is the Member prepared to accept Back-Benchers being whipped to vote for something when there is that confusion, given the important of the issues involved? He still has not answered my question: why do we need to make a final decision on this today? Why can we not reflect on that conflicting advice and come back in October?

Mr Stalford: To be fair to the Member, I am about 50 words into my prepared comments, and I have given way to him, I think, three times — certainly twice. If the Member bears with me and is a bit more patient, I may persuade him of the benefits of this Bill, although, having known him since I was about 14, I doubt that I will persuade him when he has his mind made up on an issue. It is a value that he has passed on to me, and obviously I respect him for that.

The St Andrews Agreement marked a very significant achievement in addressing many of the deficiencies in the Belfast Agreement, particularly around the issues of accountability and the operation of the Executive Committee. Our party is proud of what we achieved in the St Andrews Agreement and the outworking of that agreement in enforcing an enhanced sense of collective responsibility within the Executive. Reference was made by Mr Beattie to the previous solo runs by Ministers before St Andrews, particularly the decision of the then Education Minister, the late Mr Martin McGuinness, in relation to the transfer test, widely known as the 11-plus. Let me be very clear: under St Andrews and under this Bill, such a decision could not be made by a Minister on a solo run. It is simply not true to say that it could. We pushed hard to have this issue addressed at St Andrews, and we will fully maintain the protections that prevent Ministers from doing such things without the agreement of Executive colleagues.

Any suggestion that the Bill would diminish that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bill that we are considering. It is inaccurate of those who have attempted to suggest otherwise.

12.45 pm

There is a certain irony that the amendments have been brought forward by a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, whose leader has stated numerous times that the party position is to reset to the factory settings of the Belfast Agreement. Does the Member realise that to do so would remove all the protections of St Andrews and would, in fact, facilitate precisely the type of solo runs, such as happened with the 11-plus? That is ironic and it demonstrates a remarkable lack of awareness by the Ulster Unionist Party.

The amendment today focuses on the cross-cutting test. All Ministers are required to bring matters that are significant, controversial or cross-cutting to the Executive Committee for consideration and agreement. That remains the case with this Bill. It was reported in the newspaper that the amendments before the Assembly today would remove the clause that would mean that significant or controversial matters would only be required to come to the Executive if they satisfy a test of being more than incidentally cross-cutting. That is an error and a misunderstanding of the Bill. The clause referenced in the amendments is nothing to do with the requirement to bring cross-cutting or significant matters to the Executive. Indeed, that test is strong and stands alone as a requirement upon Ministers.

Not only is that requirement maintained, it is enhanced by clarifying, in the legislation, that if there is no Programme for Government in place, all matters that are significant or controversial must still be referred to the Executive Committee. That definitively settles a matter that has been the subject of back and forth in the courts for many years. That supports and enhances the concept of collective Executive responsibility.

That brings me to the detail of the specific amendments that aim to remove the clarification in law as to what the term "cross-cutting" means. I find this, again, to be a rather bizarre move for a party that is part of the Executive. We heard previously that the clear and unambiguous advice from legal advisers to the Executive is that the implications arising from the Buick judgement would mean a fundamental change in relation to the range of issues required to come in front of the Executive Committee as cross-cutting issues. That would mean that the vast majority of departmental decisions, including in the Department of Health, would now need to come before the Executive. Any issues simply touching on a ministerial or departmental interest, even if they are just incidental, would now need to come before the Executive, rather than allowing a Minister to make the decision. Why bother appointing Ministers if we expect them to operate in that way? The only answer to this appears to be that Ministers individually, and the Executive collectively, should accept a very wide interpretation of the requirement, but just continue to ignore it, by custom and practice. What a bizarre legal principle that would be. One, in fact, that does not exist, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is nonsensical.

I refer Mr Beattie to the original Hansard exchanges during the passage of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. It specifically referred to the exchanges, and they were pre-notified by the then Member of Parliament for East Belfast, Mr Peter Robinson. What do those pre-notified questions and answers, delivered in the House of Commons, tell us? Well, first they tell us that the term "interests" is not referenced nor, by the way, is it the Belfast Agreement or the St Andrews Agreement. Rather, it is clear that, at all times, the reference is to responsibilities of Departments, rather than interests. It is made absolutely clear that if a matter is cross-cutting, significant or controversial, that the Minister does not have the authority to make such a decision. It must come to the Executive Committee for a decision. Therefore, the proposal to continue and just ignore the requirements —.

Mr Wells: I think that that is what the aim would always be.

Mr Stalford: Thanks very much. Therefore, the proposal to continue and just ignore the requirements to bring the matter to the Executive by custom and practice has no legal basis and would subject all such decisions to successful legal challenge.

Thirdly, it is recognised that there are matters that are de minimis or incidental on cross-cutting grounds that would not need to come to the Executive for consideration or agreement.

How do we find ourselves at this point today? There are a number of reasons. The response seeking clarity on what would be considered de minimis or incidental was not forthcoming, either in the ministerial response in the House of Commons or definitively in the ministerial code. That is, on the one hand, understandable. Any attempt to be overly prescriptive could well give rise to greater issues. We must still face that challenge in amending the ministerial code. However, the biggest challenge came from the language used in the original drafting. The terms were lifted from a negotiated political document. However, the word "cross-cutting" is not legislative language, which has given rise to the debate on this matter in the courts over the past 14 years since the St Andrews Agreement. What has happened, though, up to the point of Buick, is that the practical application of this test has been applied by the Executive and by Ministers. That balance aims to find a sensible solution to ensure that all important decisions come in front of the Executive Committee, without meaning that all departmental decisions must also be brought before the Executive. That will always be a judgement call, but we have heard clearly during the passage of the Bill that this amendment reflects, as best as possible, the approach consistently taken to this requirement.

Mr Wells: I thank the Member for giving way. I know that he is about to finish the text that he was given to read to the Assembly today by one of the special advisers. What he has not addressed, as he comes to the conclusion of his remarks, is why we have to make a final decision on this today and tomorrow. Why, given the doubt that he accepts exists, can we not set aside a bit of time for cool reflection and come back to this in October? If I am wrong and Mr Beattie is wrong, we will say so when we have had an opportunity to consider the Member's views, the legal opinion that he has received, which, of course, we will not see because it is private to the Executive, and the views of all others who are concerned. Why the haste? The Member has not given a reason why, on 27 July, we have to rush this through.

Mr Stalford: The House voted to give the Bill accelerated passage; that is how accelerated passage works.

To be clear, all those types of matters that were deemed to be required to go to the Executive prior to the Buick case will continue to be required to do so. That means no change at all. Rather, it prevents the situation from changing to bring in many more issues.

It is also important to note that, even with this amendment, read in conjunction with the Buick case, it is still likely that not only will at least as many matters go to the Executive but additional matters will also be required to go when applying the test. These matters will need to be set out in the revised ministerial code.

In conclusion, I am saddened by the confusion caused and by the commentary around the issue. The Bill is short, but it deals with a very specific area of the law. One thing that we know is that lawyers will always disagree with one another. However, the duty then falls on us to interrogate the matter, to be informed and to come to a reasonable conclusion. If others elected not to do so at the various junctures that were available to them, that is a matter for them. I will vote against the amendments, supporting a sensible way forward that fully respects and enhances the principle and intention of St Andrews.

Mr Sheehan: Prior to the Buick judgement, all Members believed that, if an issue was significant, controversial or genuinely cross-cutting, it would be called into the Executive for decision-making. The Buick judgement, of course, changed all that and any issue in which another Minister had even an incidental or peripheral interest had to be called into the Executive. The rationale behind the Bill is to ensure that the legislation is recalibrated back to where we all believed it was, prior to the Buick judgement.

For example, if we moved ahead in the context of Buick, practically every decision made by a Minister would have to go to the Executive. The argument has been made, previously, that the Finance Minister has an interest in practically every decision because he is the one who resources it. That is not genuinely cross-cutting, as we all know. However, if, for example, the Health Minister decided to bring forward legislation in regard to mental health in prisons, it is inconceivable that that would not be cross-cutting with the Justice Department. That is an example of an issue that is genuinely cross-cutting.

The crux of the discussion is the issue of accelerated passage, and why we have rushed the Bill through. Consider that, since the Assembly got back up and running, we have dealt with numerous pieces of legislation that received no scrutiny whatsoever, as a result of the pandemic, the crisis, the emergency in which we find ourselves at present. Under normal circumstances, none of us would support that type of draconian legislation, but we all understand that it is necessary and, for those reasons, we acquiesced in that type of legislation passing through the Assembly.

We are still in a crisis, a health crisis. There is also an economic crisis and emergency. We need to deal with that as well. It is not just a matter of the health crisis. We need to get our economy back up and running. We do that by, first of all, dealing with the health crisis, by eliminating coronavirus from society, and ensuring that our economy can open up again and move ahead.

One of the most important cornerstones of our economy is infrastructure, particularly major infrastructure projects. The Infrastructure Minister's in tray is probably overflowing with a number of major infrastructure projects that need approval. The planning process is already a two-tiered system. We have the councils and the Department. To add another layer of bureaucracy to planning would, in my view, only increase that bureaucracy, slow down the process and make it much more difficult, at a time when we want to —.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I am intrigued by Members opposite, who seem to be trying to hit some public opinion. They have come into the House wearing masks. The same Members were not that good at wearing masks when they attended the funeral of Bobby Storey. A fair degree of populism goes on on that side of the Chamber.

The Member talks about slowing up the economy. The Member's party had no difficulty in slowing up the interconnector that would give us all-Ireland electricity provision. They still do not accept that that is the way forward, yet it is all-Ireland, and they were quite happy to go to the courts about that process. When will we have an end to double standards and a bit of honesty about what the party opposite wants?

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Mr Sheehan: I thank the Member for his intervention. I am always amazed when the Member opposite intervenes on issues of propriety in government. Given his party's long record of being in government here, the words "neck" and "brass" come to mind, but we will leave that for another time.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Sheehan: Certainly. Go ahead.

Mr Storey: I have always been big enough to stand in a position where I will defend my party. I am very proud of being a member of this party and have been since I was 15. When I was —.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order, Members. May I bring you back to the Bill and the amendments rather than the private discussion that is going on?

Mr Storey: On issues of cross-cutting importance, can the Member give any example of me, when I was the Minister responsible, doing any of the things that he makes allegations about?

Mr Sheehan: Again, I thank the Member for his intervention. I am not sure what relevance it has to the debate. I did not keep a note of all the decisions that the Member made when he was a Minister. I am not sure how that relates to this particular debate, but we can discuss that outside the Chamber, if the Member wishes.

In any event, as I was saying, we need to get the economy up and running. We need to get people in the construction industry back at work again. One of the best ways to do that is to get big infrastructure projects moving along. We do not want any further delays. Under normal circumstances, accelerated passage is not the best idea. However, in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, in the current emergency, there is a crisis there, and we need to deal with it. We need to deal with the health crisis and the crisis in the economy. This is a sensible and pragmatic way forward, and, for that reason, I will support the Bill and oppose the amendments.

Mr McGrath: The SDLP has supported the Bill after its journey through the Executive, where we are quite confident that it received all-party support, including that of the party that offers amendments today. That journey will have involved substantial legal scrutiny, legal opinion and interrogation before the recommendations that are in the Bill were made. Internally, we sought opinions on the Bill from our party membership far and wide, which includes many who were the architects of key agreements and policy documents.

Our imperfect system of government is a legacy of the Troubles and the division that our community has faced over generations. The system of numerous parties coming together to make decisions has often led to paralysis in decision-making. It can allow one larger party in the Executive to block decisions that everyone else wants to be made. At times, that paralysis has severely impacted on the ability of Ministers to take decisions. As a representative of a smaller party in the Executive, I have found it somewhat frustrating that there was an expectation that every decision would go to the Executive in order to receive approval; otherwise, it was open to judicial review. The Bill rectifies that and goes some way to codifying what needs and what does not need to go to the Executive. I acknowledge that it is not a perfect Bill and is going through under accelerated package, which no one likes, but the speed is being used to unlock many of the key planning decisions that will get our economy working again.

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGrath: If I must, yes.

Mr Wells: Thank you for that very generous offer.

What Mr Beattie proposes does not stop those projects going ahead. It does not stop major infrastructure being implemented. What it does is that it closes a loophole that could lead to solo runs on many more significant issues.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. I know that he wants longer to debate the Bill, and I think that he is using interventions to get that time. However, like the Member for South Belfast opposite, if Mr Wells gives me more time to make my remarks, he will see that I address the concerns that he has raised.

Mr Wells: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Maybe it has not been made clear that there is no time limit when one is dealing with legislation.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Member has made his point, and it is on the record. I suspect that the Member who was speaking was simply making a point about the timing of the discussion. I will let him explain. The Member's point is on the record.

Mr McGrath: As I said, I acknowledge that, while the Bill is not perfect and is being done by accelerated passage, which no one likes, the speed is being used to unlock many key planning decisions that will get the economy working again. The Bill will speed up the delivery of jobs and decisions, and will prevent the paralysis that we have seen previously. People want action and delivery from Stormont and the Executive, not a Government who constantly block the decisions that are needed to get the North working again.

The Buick ruling cast a shadow over the Executive's capacity to make decisions. It has left unanswered questions about what Ministers can and cannot do. My party seeks a number of assurances that would reduce the necessity for the amendments. I ask for the junior Minister's understanding of what constitutes "significant or controversial", as the provision for such matters to be referred to the Executive remains unchanged. While I appreciate that those matters are not codified in law, there are conventions that apply. I would appreciate the junior Minister's view of how those matters can continue to be brought to the Executive table.

One issue that concerns me is Brexit, which, we know, is significant and controversial. I hope that the junior Minister agrees that any decision that a Minister takes in relation to Brexit should be brought to the Executive for consensus.

Mr O'Toole: Will the Member give way?

Mr O'Toole: Does the Member agree that implementation of the Ireland protocol is a legal obligation on the whole Northern Ireland Executive, and that, therefore, the implementation and delivery of that protocol is inherently cross-cutting?

Mr McGrath: Absolutely; I agree with that. I would like to see all decisions that are taken in the light of that to be brought to the full Executive for discussion. There was an Executive subcommittee on Brexit. It remains, now, a standing agenda item. That only underscores that it is a significant and controversial issue.

The proposed removal of subsections 8 and 9 would not be helpful. Those sections provide the legal surety that Ministers need to be able to take decisions. While people might disagree with a decision, the content or outworkings of it, those subsections merely provide certainty for the Minister that the decision can be taken. There remain many avenues by which to challenge ministerial decisions; not least this place, which is, quite often, overlooked when it comes to decisions. We have plenary meetings, ministerial questions, ministerial statements, scrutiny Committees, private Member's business, and other methods by which to challenge the decisions that a Minister takes.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGrath: Yes, of course.

Mr Stalford: The Member is touching on a point that I raised in my comments. Does he agree that it is, frankly, insulting to the other members of the Committee for the Executive Office, and to Members of the House, to suggest that because we were all too busy looking at COVID, or too busy with the furore over the funeral recently, we just ignored the Bill or let it slip? We are paid to ensure that it does not slip. It is insulting when a Member stands up and says that other Members, from other parties, were simply asleep and let that go through unnoticed?

Mr McGrath: I accept the point that the Member makes. Of course, I would say that a scrutiny Committee provides the opportunity not to scrutinise for the sake of it, but to ask questions. If you are satisfied with a decision that is being presented, you do not need to ask questions. Maybe you have already had conversations with party members. You may have had other conversations to determine whether you are happy with the decision that is being presented, and that, therefore, you do not need to scrutinise for the sake of it.

As I said, we have this place. This place is critical, for example, to members of the Green Party, People Before Profit, Jim Allister and, indeed, more increasingly, Mr Wells. They are not at the Executive table, and they do a fine job of holding Ministers to account for the decisions that they take. We also have the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission and commissioners for young people and older people to provide appropriate oversight of decisions that are taken by the Executive. Matters that attract significant spend or hefty changes to internal departmental budget lines are required to be brought to the Executive as well. Then, there is the ultimate decision-making body, the electorate, which will get to judge whether a Minister's decision was right or wrong. Constantly being able —.

Mr Butler: Will the Member give way?

Mr Butler: Will the Member agree that, although the electorate will get the opportunity, at a very late stage, to express their displeasure with a decision that is made in the Chamber, if the Bill passes, we cannot undo the damage that may be caused and that, by backing the amendments today, we will give ourselves a short window of time to ensure that we get it right first time? We have three parties in the Chamber that sit on the Executive but cannot agree on the purpose of the debate. They may vote the same way, but that lack of confidence, which led to a three-year hiatus of the Assembly, is the risk that is being fought out today in this discussion.

Mr McGrath: I thank the Member for his intervention. Again, it comes back to the fact that, as a party, we are happy with the Bill. We do not need any further consideration of it. That is a viewpoint that we are perfectly entitled to hold.

Constantly being able to threaten to use the judicial review mechanism if a matter is not brought to the Executive, even if it is not significant or controversial, is wrong, and clauses 8 and 9 close down that vexatious process.

I believe that the proposed amendments are well intentioned and were tabled as a helpful measure to ensure accountability. However, it is our belief that there remains an acceptable number of methods to appropriately challenge decision-making at the Executive, and we support the Bill as it is presented.

Mr Muir: My party does not support the amendments, and I will outline why. I understand that the rationale given for the amendments is that the provisions proposed in the legislation that these amendments seek to remove would give too much power to a Minister to act individually on what have previously been described as "solo runs". I will address those issues before coming to a final point on how the clauses in question will interact with the requirements of the ministerial code.

The Northern Ireland Executive are, rightly, criticised by Assembly Members and by the general public at large for not getting things done quickly enough. The Alliance Party wants Ministers to be able to take decisions that are clearly within their sole statutory responsibilities. However, we must also recognise that, in a post-conflict society such as ours, collective decision-making on difficult issues is important. An Executive that do not come together to collaboratively and genuinely resolve significant and controversial issues will not last long. Under the current system, Ministers have a duty to work through those matters together. The alternative is bitter recrimination, a breakdown of relationships and trust, and, ultimately, the fall of our democratic institutions.

The requirement to bring significant or controversial matters to the Executive Committee sets a high bar, The language was inserted into the legislation following the St Andrews Agreement, and the provisions in question in this legislation do not change that. Introducing the "more than incidentally" provision into statute does not in any way remove the requirement to bring significant or controversial matters before the Executive Committee. On that basis, claims that the amendments are necessary to prevent solo runs are, in my opinion, overplayed.

Concerns over legal challenges are more substantive. I fully accept that whether a decision is more than incidentally cross-cutting is difficult to define precisely.

Mr Stalford: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he accept that, if a decision is deemed to be significant, controversial or cross-cutting, in law that decision cannot be validly made by a Minister? If a Minister were to announce such a decision, that decision would have no force, because it has to be brought to the Executive by virtue of the fact that it is deemed to be significant or cross-cutting.

Mr Muir: I thank the Member for his intervention. The issue is that we have had a number of cases on which a judge has ruled on that. Mr Allister, during Second Stage, outlined that the "incidentally" thing is something that will potentially be tested in the courts. These issues have been tested before.

Reference has been made to the St Andrews Agreement and the provisions and protections in that. The Act that implemented the St Andrews Agreement makes it clear that it is around "significant and controversial" matters that are clearly outside the scope of the agreed programme referred to in paragraph 20 of strand one of the Belfast Agreement.

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The cross-cutting elements, which other Members referred to, are not in the St Andrews Agreement; they are in the basis of the Belfast Agreement. Under strand one, on democratic institutions, clause 19 states:

"The Executive Committee will provide a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers, for prioritising executive and legislative proposals and for recommending a common position where necessary".

It is in the Belfast Agreement or what other people call the Good Friday Agreement. The Bill would give clarity on what "cross-cutting" is in light of the Buick judgement. The "significant or controversial" elements in the St Andrews Agreement remain.

Additionally, the question before us today is whether the situation would be better if we were to remove the proposed subsections, as the amendment proposes. I do not believe that it would be, for the simple reason that, following the Court of Appeal's ruling on Buick, many decisions by a Minister not brought before the Executive Committee could be challenged on the grounds that it was cross-cutting. That could make it difficult for Ministers to get anything done, even on matters that are not considered significant or controversial. On that basis, I cannot support the amendments. We have to resolve the issues arising from Buick and not run away from them.

For the last week, I have read over Buick and the judgments given around that, and I encourage other Members to read it. We have to act on the outcome of Buick. Saying that we will put it off and leave it until October or beyond is irresponsible. We have to have a system of government in Northern Ireland where Ministers can make decisions and, where matters are significant and controversial, they are then referred to the Executive and clarity is given on what "cross-cutting" is.

One highly significant point that we do, however, need clarity on from the Executive Office is how the proposed legislation will interact with the requirements of the ministerial code. The ministerial code also includes a requirement for Ministers to bring cross-cutting matters to the Executive Committee, but there are no caveats regarding what is considered incidental as proposed in the legislation. On that basis, unless the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act are considered to be senior to the text of the ministerial code, clarity needs to be given on whether the ministerial code needs to be updated and legislation brought before this place. I ask the junior Minister to clarify that.

In essence, the amendments would remove the clauses on cross-cutting issues on the basis that legislation is brought forward at a later date and not through accelerated passage as it is likely to produce better law on the issue. It is not clear to me that that is likely to be the case. Furthermore, it would come at the cost of curtailing the power of Ministers to take decisions for the additional months that it would take to pass the legislation. On that basis, I oppose the amendments.

Mr Wells: I have listened with interest to the comments made by Mr Stalford, and, no doubt, Mr Lyons will read from a script given to him by an adviser. I know that there is deep concern on the DUP Back Benches about the Bill. I am aware of the concerns of many, but I am also aware of the system and how it works. Those who think outside the box and those who have concerns will be brought in and educated, and they will be drilled, frogmarched or stampeded through the Lobbies to vote for something that, they know, in their heart of hearts they cannot support.

No one has told me why we are in this position. It is 27 July, and the Buick judgement has been with us for a long period. There was ample opportunity to address the issue, and it was not taken. The legislation was expedited through the Chamber. I asked Mr Stalford, "Why the rush?", and he said, "Because we adopted emergency procedures". That is not the answer. Why did you adopt the emergency procedures? Why did you have to rush this through? The Chairman of the OFMDFM Committee said that it is important that we get major planning applications processed as quickly as possible. Will any of those applications be processed between now and October? Absolutely not, for various reasons. First of all, try getting a planner on the phone at the moment during coronavirus. Try getting anything decided at the moment with coronavirus. There is no huge stack of applications waiting to be processed.

There is one, however, and I have received many emails from people from west Tyrone, many of whom would vote for Mr McGrath's party, who are deeply concerned that the legislation will be used to force through the Dalradian Gold mining application. There is huge opposition to that in west Tyrone. I understand that it has been referred to a public inquiry, but, after that reports, it will still be the Minister's decision whether it will go ahead. Many people in west Tyrone are concerned about that and concerned that the Bill has suddenly emerged out of nowhere. There have been 24 days between the publication of the Bill and today's debate. That is insufficient time to deal with such controversial legislation.

I in the Speaker's Chair last Tuesday, and my duties required me to be totally impartial, I was asked to inform Members that amendments to this crucial legislation had to be in by 9:30 the following morning. That is a very unusual procedure. At least Mr Beattie was wide awake and was able to dash to the Business Office and table his amendments. You do not give less than 24 hours' notice for this type of legislation. The question that I have to ask is this: why the rush? Why is the debate being held at the very end of an Assembly term? Is there an attempt to push it quietly through without public scrutiny?

In the middle of all that, Mr Bullick made his comments. They were not Twitter messages, Mr Stalford; they were not. They were well-thought-out, well-argued pieces in a leading local newspaper, the 'News Letter'. He went through the Bill forensically and line by line and made what, I thought, was a very well-argued case that the Bill should be put on hold temporarily. He also raised the point that, in his opinion, the idea that three Ministers in the Executive can stop anything is a fallacy; it does not exist. He made that argument. The response from the First Minister was, "Well, we are going ahead anyhow". She did not deal with his concerns. Then, there were the comments from Tughans solicitors, who also raised important points about it. Mr Allister QC, who, unfortunately, cannot be with us today, raised very valid concerns about it, and I noted that a former leading Member for South Belfast was in the newspapers at the end of last week raising his concerns. Many people have said, "Hold on a minute. This legislation is not all that it seems".

What are we asking for? Are we asking for the Bill to be ditched? No. Are we asking for it to be shredded? No. What we are asking for is what, I know, many DUP Back-Benchers want to happen. Many of them want it set aside for a few weeks to allow for an in-depth analysis of the critiques of the Bill that have been made by people who are much better educated than I am and even better educated than Mr Stalford, which is saying something. They have all looked at it with a forensic legal mind and have all come back to say, "Hold on, here. There is something amiss".

Remember this: if the Bill becomes legislation, we will be stuck with it for ever. There will be no turning back. After tomorrow, we will have it for the rest of our political careers. One thing is certain: those who have stood up this afternoon with such great enthusiasm and read the scripts that their spads have given them and said that they are in support of it will never allow it to be amended or changed. We are going over a cliff, and there is no way back.

There is a point that has not been raised. It does not matter what Mr Bullick thinks or what well-educated people like Mr Stalford or Mr Lyons think; it is what a judge will think when he — or she; I am glad to say — is ruling or what he or she will make of it when the issue is challenged.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: Certainly. Yes, I will.

Mr Stalford: I would never impugn the Member's integrity, and I am sure that, when he was a Minister, he would never have read a prepared script from anyone. I am sure that that would never have happened. Does he accept that it is entirely because we have had a legal judgement that the measures are necessary? It arises out of a legal judgement.

Mr Wells: I accept that. What I can say is that, as Mr Stalford admitted, there is confusion, debate and a lack of clarity on the implications of the Bill.

Does he accept from me that, once we go past tomorrow, it does not matter how much confusion or vagueness there is? It is a done deal. It will get the Queen's assent, and we will be stuck with the implications of the Bill. If it turns out, as I and others expect, that it allows Ministers from that side of the House to go on solo runs on projects that would never have the support of my community, those who march through the Lobbies today in support of it will have a difficult question to answer to their electorate. That is the point that I am making.

To go back to the earlier point, it does not matter what Mr Bullick, Mr Stalford, Mr Allister or anybody thinks. The question is how will a judge interpret the powers of Ministers if this is sent to a judicial review. If there is the slightest doubt in my mind that a judge could rule on a Minister doing a solo run, my advice to the House is to pull back quickly, because we could be going over this cliff and into a situation from which we can never recover. We are not giving the junior Minister, Mr Lyons, a ladder to climb down on. We are not asking him to eat humble pie and to seek forgiveness, we are just saying, "Give us a bit more time on this. Give us the two or three months that we all need".

Mr Beattie is right: I slept in on this. I am the first to accept that until I read the critiques of the Bill, I was not aware of its implications. I sat meekly and allowed expedited passage to go through. I did not raise any concerns, but when a large body of very professional legal advice says, "Hold on here, there is a doubt", it is incumbent upon us, when there is absolutely no need for the Bill to be rushed through, to sit down with cool heads and examine it. If, when we have all has a chance to do that, it transpires that our concerns are wrong and misplaced, I will be the first to stand up and say, "Yes, I was wrong". At the moment, I am not in a place and a position to say whether it is right to go ahead with the Bill or it is not. It is too important. It is not like a dog-fighting or litter-picking Bill. It is too important, when there is that doubt in our minds, to let it go through to a situation that can never be redeemed. Mr Stalford has admitted that there is that level of doubt.

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: I certainly will.

Mr Stalford: If the Member reflects on what I said, it was that because of certain media outlets and social media doubt had been sown in people's minds. That is a different matter altogether.

Mr Wells: I can tell the Member that doubt has been sown in this obscure Back-Bencher's mind. I can assure him of that. I am extremely worried, and, going by the phone calls that I have had over the past two or three days, a lot of people in his party have the same concerns. As I sit here, I am getting texts and emails that say, "We are desperately concerned as to what the party is doing on this subject".

Let us go back to the St Andrews Agreement. I chaired the Programme for Government Committee that led to the St Andrews Agreement. It was a long period of discussions with the parties. The then Speaker, Mrs Bell, decided not to chair them, so myself and Mr Donnelly chaired those discussions for months and months. Our reward was that we did not get invited to St Andrews. I am not bitter. [Laughter.]

That was our reward for all our hard work. As a result of those discussions, the St Andrews Agreement occurred.

I then attended a series of public meetings. The main issue that sold the St Andrews Agreement to the vast majority of the unionist electorate was that we would always have the ace card up our sleeves to block anything that a Sinn Féin Minister — they never mentioned the SDLP, I do not know why — would do that would be to the detriment of our community. That agreement would never have had the support of unionism had it not been for that crucial undertaking. There was also an undertaking that mandatory coalition would last only for eight years. Unfortunately, we are still stuck with a totally unworkable system.

If we had been told that there was any doubt about that "lock", as it were, or block on the activities of Sinn Féin Ministers, I do not think that it would ever have got through and I do not think that we would have had devolution in 2007. We accepted the commitment that was given. So far, it has worked and legal action has shown that we were right.

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Now, let us move to Mr Bullick. To younger Members, the name "Richard Bullick" does not mean very much. I accept that, but I had the privilege of working alongside Richard for 20 years. In the DUP, when some Back-Bencher decided to look at all the facts and make up his own mind, he was taken in for a quiet bit of re-education. It was a good cop, bad cop situation. I will not name the bad cop — people may know who he is — but I will name the good cop: it was Richard. Whilst one would take the Schwarzenegger approach to re-education and make it clear that one's life would not be worth living unless one changed one's mind, Richard was a diplomat and a gentleman. The reason that so many Back-Benchers respected the views of Richard Bullick was that they knew that he had a legal brain that was second to none in Northern Ireland and knew that he could be trusted in his understanding of complex and detailed legislation.

Mr McGrath: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, is this a debate on amendments to the Bill, or is it a discussion about Richard Bullick? I am losing track. The majority of the conversation today has been about Richard Bullick rather than the Bill or the amendments.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I encourage the Member to connect the two if he wishes to make that link and bring his remarks back to the amendments and his views on them.

Mr Wells: On this occasion, we can connect Mr Bullick's integrity and knowledge with the debate, because we would not be having this debate without his intervention and that of other legal experts.

Mr Storey: I appreciate the Member's integrity. He and I go back a long, long way. There is an eminent Member who normally sits in the seat beside him and has two letters after his name. He is not here today. That Member has made comments on legal issues, but they are opinions. Let us remember: no one judge or member of the legal profession has divine knowledge. We always need to caveat that we are talking about an opinion held by three people — two solicitors and Richard — and that, equally, there are other legal opinions that say, "No, the outworking of this is not that envisaged by the other three or four". I caution my colleague and friend to take that into account. Richard is someone of immense ability, but what he is saying is an opinion.

There are other decisions that were made in the past 17 years that, as a humble Back-Bencher, I did not agree with and the consequences of which were not in the best interests of the House or the community; for example, the decision on the number of Members. We all can point to issues that show that no one is infallible. We have all made our mistakes, and we all can get it wrong. If he can caveat his comments in that way, some of us would accept some of his other arguments with a more ready hand.

Mr Wells: The difficulty, Mr Storey, is that, if you are wrong and we go past the point of no return tomorrow, it could be calamitous for the future governance of Northern Ireland. If we have the temerity to ask for and receive a two-month delay to a final decision to enable further scrutiny and it transpires that Mr Bullick and the other legal opinions are wrong, what is there to lose? What would another eight or 12 weeks do to destroy or undermine the Bill? It would mean that, at the end of that period, we could all say, "We have considered the issue carefully, and we can give the Bill our total support". At the minute, there is still a doubt in my mind, and the Bill is too important to vote for if there is that shred of doubt, because the implications are absolutely enormous as far as the future of Northern Ireland is concerned.

Take Casement Park for instance, which is a planning decision. Say Sinn Féin decided to spend a vast amount of money, as it could, holding the Department for Communities, on making Casement Park even grander, that would cause huge concern amongst the unionist community, given the sectarian and republican nature of the GAA. Could we do anything to stop that? No, we could not, if Richard Bullick, I and Jim Allister etc are right. What will be the reaction of —?

Mr Stalford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: Certainly.

Mr Stalford: The Member appears to think that you simply submit an application for planning and it goes directly to the Minister. The reason that the Casement Park project has not advanced is that local residents, having been badly treated by the applicants, used the existing planning processes to prevent it advancing.

Mr Wells: The point I was making was not —.

Ms Ennis: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I appreciate you letting me in to make a point of order. It is on the comments by Jim Wells about the GAA being a sectarian organisation. I urge him to immediately retract those comments, because the GAA could not be further from that. It is sad that he would label any sporting organisation, particularly one that is so rooted and relevant in the community as the GAA, as a sectarian organisation.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to use temperate language in all that they say in the Chamber. The Member has made her point, and it is on the record.

Mr Wells: This is the organisation that holds "Great Escape" events in South Down — events eulogising Bobby Sands — and one of its leading lights was hurling sectarian abuse at a loyalist parade in Newcastle last September.

Mr Sheehan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is that kind of intemperate language that, in the past, has led to the killing of members of the GAA. I ask you to insist that the Member desist from that type of intemperate language.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, we are here today to discuss an important Bill and the amendments to it. I urge everyone to return to that subject, rather than raising other issues that cause discontent. I ask everyone to use temperate language in the points that they make and to return to the Bill and the amendments.

Mr Wells: I will make no further comments about the GAA, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Let us give another example: a proposal to move university departments from Coleraine to Magee. That would cause huge concern to the community in Coleraine. A Sinn Féin Minister, should he happen to hold the portfolio, could do that. My interpretation of the legislation is that there is nothing that can be done, if the Bill goes through, to stop that, because it clearly is within his or her power and does not meet the criteria to be stopped under the legislation.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: Certainly.

Mr Storey: The Member needs to be careful of hyping an issue that is not relevant. The powers in relation to the governance and courses in a university do not rest with any Minister; they rest with the university. The Member needs to be aware of what the powers are, because, if that were the case, I would be knocking on the door of the Economy Minister in relation to certain courses that have disappeared. The responsibility rests with the university, not with the Minister.

Mr Wells: The honourable Member is very long-standing, and I have known him for about 50 years. The honourable Member misses my point. You could have a situation where Magee campus is very pleased to have courses transferred from Coleraine, and you could have a compliant Minister who would allocate the appropriate funding. There could be huge concern in the East Londonderry and North Antrim constituencies about that, and my reading of the legislation before us is that it could not be stopped. It is a totally hypothetical example. I was going down the route of the GAA, and that obviously caused offence to the Members to my right, so I am plucking that out of the air as another example. It could be pensions for those who have been involved in terrorist activity. It could be anything.

What we know is that, when the late Martin McGuinness was about to leave his post as Education Minister, he unilaterally abolished the 11-plus, and the reason why we adopted St Andrews was to make it absolutely certain that that did not happen again. People might say, "But it hasn't happened since". Well, it has not happened because, although there are many obnoxious proposals emanating from the Members to my right that, if they had half a chance, they would implement, but they do not bother because they know that, under the present arrangements, it is not worth their while and they will be blocked. Anything that weakens that worries me intensely. I ask Mr Lyons to explain — this is the Achilles heel of the argument — what would be wrong if today we agreed not to move the Bill any further and to bring it back in October. You could be in favour of the legislation, or you could be against the legislation: there is nothing that requires the urgency with which this is being pushed through. And the more that Members stand up —.

Mr McGrath: Will the Member give way?

Mr Wells: Certainly.

Mr McGrath: If the Member is suggesting delaying a decision on the grounds of not having the full information and not understanding how it will impact on people across Northern Ireland, can he remind me how he voted on our motion for an extension to the Brexit process?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order, Members. I do not want to have a debate about Brexit. This is not a Chamber for debating Brexit or previous decisions; this is a debate about the Bill that is before us and the amendments that have been proposed. Can we concentrate on that, please?

Mr Wells: The fundamental difference is that there had been months and months of debate on Brexit. Every jot and tittle and the minutiae of every piece of legislation and policy had been debated. The difference here is that we have had 24 days and less than two hours' scrutiny in its entirety. That is the crucial difference.

I get more and more suspicious about this legislation when Back-Benchers are ordered to stand up and support its rapid passage through the Chamber. That makes me more worried, because I have to wonder whether there is a hidden agenda to get it through on the nod. There is also the fact that they decided to table it when they knew that people's attention was on coronavirus, when many Members had holidays planned and when we had the issue with Mr Storey's funeral. Maybe it was an interesting time to get bad legislation passed without public scrutiny. I am worried about it, and I know that my view is held by many unionists throughout Northern Ireland. Therefore, I appeal to Mr Lyons to simply agree to an extension of the period for scrutiny of the Bill so that we can all agree with it or otherwise with a clear conscience knowing that we have done everything to check and double-check that what we are being told is correct.

Miss Woods: I suppose that I will have to mention Mr Bullick, like every other Member has, but with the caveat that neither I nor the Green Party has spoken to him or engaged with him on the matter. However, I am glad that his comments, on whatever platform they were made, have encouraged other Members to realise the issues in the Bill, that the Bill is not just about planning and that there are wider implications included here.

Junior Minister Lyons, in introducing the Bill to the House on 6 July, stated that the Bill was intended to address the implications for ministerial and Executive decision-making of the judgement in what is known as the Buick case, which was brought against the Department for Infrastructure's grant of planning permission for a waste incinerator during the time that the Assembly was suspended. It is supposed to limit the grounds on which legal challenge can be taken against a decision made by the Executive or individual Ministers and outline the processes by which planning decisions can be taken by the Minister for Infrastructure. It is also to amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to deal with any significant or controversial matters that are clearly outside the scope of the Programme for Government — that is, of course, if we ever have one. It leads to scenarios where any Minister can decide matters without recourse to the Executive unless it affects the statutory responsibilities of another Department more than incidentally.

The amendments today are supposed to limit the proposed changes to purely planning matters by removing the reference to other Ministers, but do they do that? We have had no time to consider the full implications of the Bill or, indeed, the amendments, and the Executive Office Committee spent only minutes discussing this on 1 July, which is hardly enough given the implications and the reality that this is a change to the Northern Ireland Act and the St Andrews Agreement. The Bill was and is being sold as a minor technical Bill to regularise an anomaly identified by the Buick case and to stop the Executive becoming a de facto decision-making body for planning applications. Why, then, was the Bill not limited to planning? The fact that the amendments have been tabled shows that the Bill appears to be much more significant than we were told by the Executive Office, and we need time to properly consider it. There is absolutely no justification for accelerated passage.

Whilst I understand the rationale behind the amendments — to try to remove the reference to other Ministers — it still, for me, opens up the same question of what this means for the exercising of power and decisions by the Executive, going forward. The amendments seem to remove some of the main problems identified but leave the specifics to do with planning, so does that mean that the Department for Infrastructure and the Minister for Infrastructure will be exempt and will enjoy the increased power and authority? Would the amendments mean that the Infrastructure Minister may take decisions on their own on those matters but nobody else can? How would that fit in with the collective responsibility of the Executive, even if the Bill were amended?

1.45 pm

How will it fit in with our wider responsibilities for the environment? That is not confined to one Department. Planning decisions will, of course, have more than one incidental, significant or controversial impact on other Departments and Ministers' responsibilities. You could and can make the argument that every such planning decision will have an impact on the environment.

Where does this leave us? We should be encouraging better collective and collaborative working, not giving Departments cover to plough ahead with working in silos or isolating one through these amendments, recognising that there are issues with the way in which the Bill is written and the powers that it confers on our Ministers and Departments. This is not the time to be passing powers in this Bill. We need a full and informed, comprehensive debate with Assembly scrutiny. I have heard no reasons given by any Members from both sides of the Chamber and in the House today for accelerated passage being required for this. If it were needed, it would have been introduced in February. This is an example of a bad Government, and bad policy will flow from it.

Mr Carroll: It is not an overstatement to say that the majority of the public questions already the level of transparency, scrutiny and oversight in the Assembly. When I first spoke about the Bill, I outlined my disgust at the cavalier way in which the Executive circumvent basic tests of scrutiny and accountability around decision-making that most reasonable people should expect from political leaders. I add to that my disappointment at how Ministers brush off the concerns that I raise about the lack of accountability, presuming that they are unlikely to face any consequences. If the Bill were passed, it would undoubtedly further dilute the levels of transparency and accountability that are already low.

I think that it is reasonable to consider, at this time, the ways in which this Executive and previous Executives, made up from the same big parties, have flouted transparency and accountability, in order that we know exactly the well-trodden path that the Bill walks. The RHI scheme cost us over £550 million, and, years on, we find ourselves asking, "Where is the accountability? Where are the emergency oversight measures that would guarantee that it would never happen again?". The Bill would do the exact opposite.

Decisions and statements made in the middle of a global health pandemic, at best, misled the public on PPE, an issue of unmatched importance for thousands of front-line staff. Where are the new beefed-up oversight measures to guarantee that that will not happen again? The Bill seeks to remove the limited oversight measures that we have.

A massive decision was taken about an incinerator, one that would have an impact on communities and the environment, without the Assembly or a Minister in place and without the necessary oversight. A Court of Appeal rightly upheld the court's verdict that that flouts basic scrutiny. What is the Executive's reaction? It is to take what most people would see as the sensible response to prevent permanent secretaries being allowed to make similar decisions in future but use it as a vehicle to remove the same scrutiny measures from Ministers so that they can ram home similar decisions whenever they want, without facing the scrutiny and questioning of the Executive Committee. I feel that sense of disgust again here today.

An issue in my constituency that I cannot help but think about is Casement Park and those who must be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of pushing ahead with that project, more or less unchanged, despite serious safety concerns raised by residents, because they will have, in effect, fewer loopholes to jump through and less reason to hear the valid concerns of residents in the area.

It is, of course, the case that occasionally a Minister could choose to apply the same level of scrutiny for what are deemed to be controversial cases. Given the record of this and previous Executives, who can truly say that they would trust them to do so?

Despite the various platitudes about learning the lessons from RHI, the Bill does the complete opposite and draws the incorrect conclusions. The RHI scheme was world-famous for all the wrong reasons. What Minister here wants to face a similar situation in the future? If they can justify it, what do they have to hide from scrutiny that is worth this attack on oversight measures?

Ministers' decisions should not be questioned only behind closed doors or by those who walk the corridors of Stormont. A public hearing, public scrutiny and those who vote MLAs to the Chamber should not be held in such contempt. In the past few months that we have sat in this seemingly reformed Assembly, only a handful of times have the Executive parties openly voted against one another, so who can really have confidence in a behind-closed-doors approach to decision-making from those same parties? Despite the well-trodden charade for the cameras on either side of the communal divide in the Chamber, this is one of many issues on which both of the big parties have each other's backs. This is not an issue, as it is being presented by some in the media, that divides the main nationalist and unionist blocs. They are both seemingly here to vote for it today, and it is not difficult to see how they could both benefit from the legislation in the future.

We in People Before Profit do not care about the political ideology or communal identity of the Minister involved. All Ministers should be subject to maximum scrutiny and accountability, but this Bill seeks to do the exact opposite. Let me be frank: we can never rule out an "I'll scratch your back if you scratch my back" approach to decision-making in this place. Any Ministers worth their salt would recognise the public's distrust because of the history of this place and be more than happy to face the necessary scrutiny measures in order to quell it. This Bill does the opposite, at breakneck and accelerated speed, and through the use of accelerated passage. It speaks volumes about what we can expect in the outworkings of the Bill. Where was the accelerated action to ensure that our healthcare workers were paid the strike pay that they lost out on earlier this year? They have been promised that it is coming, but I am afraid that they are still waiting for it after months.

In summary, the Belfast Agreement states that the Executive Committee should, for significant and controversial decisions, provide:

"a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers".

Who could truly argue against that? In fact, I argue that we should go further. I will therefore not support the Bill. Although I recognise the efforts of Mr Beattie to amend aspects of it and to address some of the concerns raised, I am not convinced that the amendments before us go far enough to address fundamentally those concerns, so, unfortunately, I cannot support them today.

In conclusion, because the accelerated passage approach was taken and because the Bill has been rammed through very quickly, it is important to read into the record some concerns raised by others. Mr Bullick has been mentioned in detail, but some groups have raised concerns about this, including Cooperate Against Mining in Omagh (CAMIO). It has said:

"It is clearly evident that the NI Executive intends to imminently push through a selection of unsavoury and toxic projects, hence the justification for proposing this legislation at an unprecedented speed. This is the antithesis of democracy, essentially creating ministerial dictatorships."

Many would probably agree with that.

It also states:

"The purpose of this legislation seems to be to stifle debate, prevent any form of information relating to any proposed 'controversial' project be discussed in a public forum, while suppressing all documentation relating to same."

There are therefore many concerns, not just raised by me and others in the Chamber but by groups outside. I will leave my comments there.

Mr Lyons (Junior Minister, The Executive Office): We wish to oppose the amendments tabled by the Member for Upper Bann. Mr Beattie's amendments reflect the concerns aired recently on social media and in the media about the perceived implications of the Bill for safeguards in the decision-making process and for the authority of the Executive. We believe that those concerns are unfounded. I can assure Members that we have been rigorous in our consideration of these matters and have received legal support and advice from our senior legal advisers to the Executive and to Departments. We have rigorously examined the Bill against our intended policy and also to avoid any unintended consequences.

In doing so, we have looked fully at the intention behind the proposals in the St Andrews Agreement and at the debate that clearly outlined the intentions behind the clauses in a series of pre-notified questions by the then MP for East Belfast, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, to the Minister who was responsible for bringing the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 through the House of Commons, the Rt Hon David Hanson, the then Minister of State for Northern Ireland. We are fully satisfied that the amendments on clarifying the cross-cutting test are fully in line with those intentions as set out. Indeed, it is clear that the intention was a wide one, but it was one that cut across responsibilities rather than interests and did so in a way that was more than de minimis. The language that we have used in the Bill enshrines this test to ensure that all matters that are more than merely incidental are required to be brought to the Executive Committee. The Belfast Agreement states in paragraph 19:

"The Executive Committee will provide a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers"

That was given statutory force by section 20 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The agreement also states:

"Ministers will have full executive authority in their respective areas of responsibility"

within the Programme for Government.

Mr O'Toole: I am grateful to the junior Minister for giving way. On the point about cross-cutting, will he clarify that, presumably, it would be his and the Executive Office's understanding that the implementation of the Ireland protocol, which is binding on the entire Executive, would be seen as such a fundamental cross-cutting matter that implementation and decisions around that would, if necessary, be brought to the full Executive?

Mr Lyons: That is an issue that is being brought to the Executive, and we have our Brexit subcommittee that is dealing with all Brexit-related matters.

On a very important point, it should be noted that the responsibilities and authorities of Ministers are entirely based on statute. The St Andrews Agreement and Act subsequently further codified these respective roles through the 2007 statutory ministerial code that placed specific obligations on Ministers to bring cross-cutting and significant or controversial matters to the Executive Committee for decision. It did not, however, redefine or offer any interpretation of what constituted a cross-cutting matter. This, and the need for referral to the Executive, was always left in the first instance to the judgement of individual Ministers, based on advice on how, and to what extent, their proposals impacted on the responsibilities of other Ministers. It has always been the case, therefore, that Ministers have been able to take a wide variety of decisions without reference to the Executive. Before the Buick judgements, for example, planning application decisions were not brought to the Executive for consideration. The Executive, therefore, is not now abandoning a control that it has never sought to exercise, despite what is being claimed.

Mr Muir: Will the junior Minister give way?

Mr Lyons: I will give way.

Mr Muir: Does he accept that the Buick judgement references that no previous Environment Minister or Infrastructure Minister has ever referred an individual planning application to the Executive Committee for agreement prior to its determination?

Mr Lyons: I thank Mr Muir for his intervention. That is certainly my understanding. This was never a common practice.

Here we are, 14 years on from St Andrews. We believe that the Buick judgements, in their interpretation of cross-cutting, including matters that another Minister may have an interest in, rather than one that cuts across his or her responsibilities, has shifted the balance too far in the direction of the Executive by merging the concepts of ministerial responsibilities and ministerial interests. The threat of legal action against ministerial decisions because a link, however tenuous, could be identified with the interests of another Minister would, potentially, make their exercise of authority uncertain and the work of the Executive unsustainable, by forcing everything on to their agenda. In this regard, I wonder what consultation the Member has carried out, in moving the amendments, with his party colleague who is currently the Minister for Health.

He was asked earlier to state whether the Minister of Health actually supported this legislation or simply supported the idea of having some legislation. That would be a fairly ridiculous position for the Minister of Health to put himself in and to say, "Right, go ahead. I am happy enough with the idea that we are going to have some legislation, but do not bring it back for me to see." Of course, the Minister has seen the legislation and has agreed to it. Every Minister must accept the decisions of the Executive Committee under the Pledge of Office.

What consultation has the Member carried out with the Minister of Health? Removing the clause would mean that he would have to bring almost every departmental health decision to the Executive on the basis of the very broad interpretation that all matters merely touching —.

2.00 pm

Mr Wells: Will the Minister take an intervention?

Mr Lyons: In a second — the very broad interpretation that matters merely touching on another Department ought to be brought to the Executive, as per the Buick judgement.

Mr Wells: The junior Minister is tilting at windmills: we are not asking for any of that. The Minister has not addressed the issue of "Why the rush?". He has not quoted any outstanding legal challenges based on the Buick judgement. He has not indicated any crucial infrastructure project that we must get a decision on quickly if we do not pass the Bill. Will the Minister address the fundamental point — the one thing, I think, that the House can agree on today — that we need a few extra weeks to consider the Bill to dot all the i's and cross all the t's and so avert potential disaster?

Mr Lyons: There seems to be confusion. I think that what Mr Beattie is saying is that we pass his amendment today, pass the Bill tomorrow, and then we can look at these issues at another time. However, Mr Wells seems to be saying that we need to pause everything for a few months. I do not think that there is agreement even among the Members who support the amendments about the route that they want to go down.

To go back to the point that I was making, it is difficult to think of a —.

Mr Wells: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lyons: I will give way, of course.

Mr Wells: More windmills, Mr Lyons. You have not answered this question: what would be wrong with giving two more months' consideration of the Bill to iron out all the uncertainties that are so obviously inherent in it?

Mr Lyons: First of all, timing. The Member has raised before the notice period for amendments. That matter is out of our hands at the moment. The Bill's next stage is tomorrow. I understand the uncertainty that some Members have about the Bill, but we have gone through accelerated passage, and I am convinced, on the basis of the legal advice that we have received from numerous legal sources, that the Bill does exactly what we want it to do.

Mr Beattie: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lyons: I understand and fully accept that other Members may not believe that that is the case. They do not have the assurance that the Bill will do what it is intended to do, but we have that confidence. The House has decided to proceed with accelerated passage, and that is what we will do. On that point, I give way to Mr Beattie.

Mr Beattie: I thank the Minister for giving way. The Minister mentioned the legal advice that he has received that makes it absolutely clear: will he release the legal advice, so that I and everyone else can see it and be absolutely clear? That would help. If the Minister had done that earlier, maybe we would not even be having this debate. My question to the Minister is this: will he release the legal advice?

Mr Lyons: The Member should know that it is not in my gift to release legal advice that is given to the Executive. The smile on Mr Beattie's face shows that he knows that that is the case and that it is not something that I can do.

Mr Stalford: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lyons: I am being generous with interventions. I will give way to Christopher, although I note that, in his earlier comments, he said that people who were good friends of his went to his wedding. That is how close he was [Interruption.]

I put on record that I was not at Mr Stalford's wedding; however, I will, of course, give way to him.

Mr Stalford: I am tempted to say, "Maybe the next one"


but I do not think I will.

The Member asks about seeking legal advice. Can the Minister confirm that there is absolutely nothing to prevent the leader or members of the Ulster Unionist Party from making an appointment with the Departmental Solicitor's Office and asking for advice?

Mr Lyons: I certainly would not tell Members what to do. However, if that is the path that they would like to go down, I am sure that that path is open to them.

Let us go back to the Department of Health. It is hard to think of a single issue in the Department of Health that would not meet the very low bar that has been brought about as a result of Buick. Some Members have argued that the very wide and expansionist interpretation that follows from Buick should remain, as it would if the amendments were to be made. They argue that Ministers individually or the Executive collectively should ignore the requirement that it come to the Executive. That is just not sustainable; that cannot continue.

Mr Butler: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Lyons: Of course I will.

Mr Butler: I will not detain the junior Minister long. Would the junior Minister agree that making the change as proposed is to forget the political reality that we operate in? This is not the politics of unicorns and fairies. We have had a very disruptive and very disrupted term of politics, never less than in the last four to five years. Work needs to be done that is underpinned by 'New Decade, New Approach'. This may be just a step too far, given the confidence and the relationships that need to be built.

Mr Lyons: What is the Member saying? The Member is saying that we should do one of two things. We should either bring all these issues — everything, however tenuous, that touches on the interests of other Ministers — to the Executive. The other thing that, the Member says, we should do is, "Let's just ignore that and use the power only whenever we want to". We cannot do that. That is not sustainable. That is not a position that we can remain in. If something is required to be brought to the Executive, the Minister cannot make that decision by himself or herself. It must come to the Executive, and then you are leaving yourself open to all sorts of legal challenges. That is why we are trying to bring in the legislation that is before us today.

What changes as a result of the Bill becoming law? First, what does not change? A Minister must still bring to the Executive a significant or controversial matter where it is outside the scope of the Programme for Government. Secondly, cross-cutting matters must still be brought to the Executive. What changes is that, first, the Minister for Infrastructure does not have to bring specified planning decisions to the Executive, nor can those decisions be called in by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Secondly, the intention of the St Andrews Agreement is enshrined: significant and controversial matters are required to come to the Executive — this is the key point — regardless of whether a Programme for Government is in place. That addresses a long-standing issue in the original drafting. In relation to the requirements under the Programme for Government, the intention was that matters previously agreed by the Executive would not need to come again to the Executive. However, that would apply only to the matters or aspects of a matter explicitly specified and included in the Programme for Government. To reassure, any policy or matter not specified but which would or could support outcomes in the PFG will still require full consultation and will be subject to the requirement to come to the Executive, if it is either significant or controversial or if it is cross-cutting. Thirdly and most relevant to today's debate, the test for a matter being cross-cutting has been given a statutory definition so as to reduce the uncertainty about what might constitute the interests of another Minister by providing that a Minister does not have to bring a matter to the Executive unless it affects the exercise of the statutory responsibilities of another Minister or Ministers more than incidentally.

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr Lyons: I will make some progress. I will come back to the Member later on.

That definition is also consistent with the language of paragraph 19 of the Belfast Agreement and, importantly, the St Andrews Agreement and subsequent Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, which refers to "responsibilities" and not to "interests".

It is important that an appropriate balance between authority and the efficient functioning of our system is struck. This will not open the floodgates of unfettered decision-making by Ministers on matters that they would normally have brought to the Executive; indeed, I can be clear that the Executive's policy intention is for the Bill to enshrine in law the practice that was in place before the case of Buick and after the St Andrews Agreement. The objective of the Executive is that all matters that were deemed to be required to come to the Executive prior to the Buick case and this Bill and all the types of matters brought to the Executive would continue to be brought under these requirements. The amendment is not to diminish that Executive role in any way, with the exception of planning matters as specified in the amendment.

The Bill is intended to prevent a wide range of additional matters not hitherto considered matters required to come to the Executive now having to be brought. However, it should be noted that the amendment relating to cross-cutting requirements, read in conjunction with the Buick case, still supports wide-ranging responsibilities for Ministers on matters that cut across the responsibilities of more than one Minister; indeed, that may still require additional matters to come to the Executive than would have been the previous practice. Further guidance on that will be given in the ministerial code. Therefore, it is not that what we bring to the Assembly today diminishes Executive collective decision-making; rather, it protects and enhances it in all matters, with the exception of the planning-related issue. In that regard, it is important to reference that cross-cutting powers remain wide. As outlined clearly by legal advice, once a matter is required to come to the Executive, the relevant Minister does not have the authority to make that decision. In terms of the courts' interpretation of that test and the practice of the Executive Committee, if a Minister is in any doubt about whether a matter should be brought to the Executive Committee, it needs to come. That is the best way to ensure that legal risk is minimised. Those matters will be made clear in the ministerial code.

I turn for a moment to the specific planning aspects of the Bill. Some commentary has raised the issue of multiple related consents that may rest in other Departments. It is important to note that those matters were not previously brought to the Executive and that there is no intention to now require them to be brought. The ministerial code will require amendment, and that issue will be dealt with in a more detailed way in the code to make it clear. If any problems persist with this planning matter, further action will be taken to address it.

Let me address this issue, because there has been some confusion about call-in powers and how they relate to the planning section. The call-in on these matters will still apply under section 28B of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 through the power of 30 Members to request that a matter be referred to the Executive. We should also bear it in mind that the call-in power for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in respect of significant or controversial matters is unaffected, other than those in respect of those specified planning decisions.

The amendment would remove an important provision and would leave Ministers in a position of considerable uncertainty about the exercise of authority in their Department and expose them to a much greater risk of a legal challenge based on the interpretation of what is or is not a cross-cutting matter. Therefore, we ask Members to reject the amendment.

Dr Aiken: I thank everybody who came in for the debate. It will come as no surprise to find that I am coming to support the amendments. Let us quickly go slightly further back into the history of this. I will bring in a few of the catch-alls that everybody has been commenting on. I declare an interest as an MLA for South Antrim, and I do not want to see the Arc21 Ponzi scheme being built on top of a cliff face in that constituency.

I do not believe that any of the decisions on Arc21 have been correct. The Buick case was a long-running process that exposed the problems that were based on the planning decisions that were made going forward. I fully understand the Infrastructure Minister's frustrations about trying to get decisions going. I fully understand the views of everybody else here that we want to get the Northern Ireland economy going. I fully understand that the planning processes in Northern Ireland are, to put it mildly, archaic and are really counterproductive to trying to get Northern Ireland going. The legislation needed to enable the Infrastructure Minister to make those decisions is something that we as a party and, indeed, all the parties here want to see. This Bill, if it is not amended, is not that legislation. Mr Wells asked this question, as did Mr Stalford and others in oblique ways: what is the legislation supposedly trying to do?

What is the rush to bring the legislation through, where it is quite clear that there is a degree of doubt in the process as we are coming through? We have heard Member after Member talk about the fact that we should take more time to consider it.

We have heard quite clearly from the junior Minister — thank you very much indeed for your comments — about the importance of the legal position and the fact that you have had the best legal advice, but, Members of the Assembly, they had the best legal advice when we were dealing with RHI, and where did that come to? So, when somebody says to me that they have the best legal advice and that, in some way, we, as Members of the Assembly, should accept that because the Bill is some form of good legislation, I say that the reason why we have tabled the amendments is because it is not good legislation. It does not seek to set out what we are trying to right, which are the problems with planning, infrastructure and Buick. It does something fundamentally different, and many Members have referred to that in their comments today.

I want to talk about some of the specific points. The question is this: is the Bill good legislation? The mere fact that a party that is part of the Executive is challenging the legislative process shows that it is not good legislation. Why do we think that this is not good legislation? One of the biggest problems that we have in Northern Ireland is responsibility and accountability and openness and transparency. I welcome the talk about the ministerial code, which has not been updated yet. I welcome the fact that we are going to have definitions of significant and controversial. We do not know what those are and what those are likely to be. We are being asked specifically to take the Bill on the basis that the ministerial code, which we have not seen to be amended, will be amended .We are being asked to accept the Bill on the fact that we need to put some balance and trust on the words "significant" and "controversial". We see the word "cross-cutting", and cross-cutting is good, but when will we see the rest of the detail?

The Ulster Unionist Party tabled the amendments because we want the legislation that goes through to be specifically based on dealing with the Buick issues on planning. The Bill, as it is being put through at the moment, does not do that. It is about making sure that we have the appropriate checks, balances and controls.

We have heard a lot about St Andrews, and we have heard about the Belfast Agreement, but one of the reasons why Northern Ireland, to use the words of the soon-to-be-leaving head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, is seen to be unique is that the normal checks, balances and controls do not work. We have to make sure that, when we are doing the legislative process, we have good legislation that comes through that addresses the specific issue. The specific issue, Mr Deputy Speaker and Members of the Assembly, is how can we ensure that proper planning decisions are made in an appropriate time, not moving away from the position that we are in at the moment and not taking away checks, balances and controls.

I could speak for much longer, and you are probably glad that I am not going to. I could talk about the Democratic Unionist Party's history lesson, which, I must admit, I really enjoyed. Thank you very much indeed for that. It will be used in the future for people to look at this, but this is not an issue about people from outside of here. This is about making sure that we have good legislation, openness and transparency. Members of this House, I commend the amendments to you.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Members, before putting the Question on amendment No 1, I remind Members that amendment No 1 is a paving amendment for amendment Nos 2 and 3.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social-distancing measures and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber. Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that it would be preferable to avoid a Division.

Question put a second time.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. It is important that, during any Division, social distancing in the Chamber continues to be observed. To facilitate that, I ask the following: any Members in the Chamber who are not due to vote in person should consider leaving the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Those Members who wish to vote in the Lobby on the opposite side of the Chamber to which they are sitting should leave the Chamber via the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the Rotunda. Those remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first. Any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. However, any Member who needs to vote in both Lobbies should remain in the Chamber.

I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing.

The Assembly divided:

The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division:

Mr Beattie voted for Mr Allister.

Mr K Buchanan voted for Ms P Bradley, Mrs Cameron, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford and Mr Weir.

Mr Butler voted for Mr Nesbitt.

Mr McGrath voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty and Mr O’Toole.

Mr Muir voted for Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long and Mr Lyttle.

Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis [Teller, Noes], Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin.

Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments to allow other Members who wish to return to the Chamber to do so.

Amendment No 2 proposed:

In page 1, leave out lines 20 to line 2 on page 2. — [Mr Beattie.]

Question put.

Some Members: Aye.

Some Members: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I have been advised by the party Whips that, in accordance with Standing Order 113(5)(b), there is agreement that we can dispense with the three minutes and move straight to the Division. Do we have Tellers?

Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that any who are not due to vote in person should consider leaving the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Members who wish to vote in the Lobbies on the opposite side of the Chamber to where they are sitting should leave the Chamber via the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the Rotunda. The remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first, and any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing whilst voting.

The Assembly divided:

The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division:

Mr Beattie voted for Mr Allister.

Mr K Buchanan voted for Ms P Bradley, Mrs Cameron, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford and Mr Weir.

Mr Butler voted for Mr Nesbitt.

Mr McGrath voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty and Mr O’Toole.

Mr Muir voted for Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long and Mr Lyttle.

Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis [Teller, Noes], Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin.

Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I will not call amendment No 3 as it is consequential to amendment No 2, which has not been made.

That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Executive Committee Functions Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments before the next item of business, which is the question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)

Question for Urgent Oral Answer


Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Mr Colm Gildernew has given notice of an urgent oral answer to the Minister of Health. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.

Mr Gildernew asked the Minister of Health to outline the reasons for the change to restrictions in respect of travel from Spain, introduced on 26 July 2020.

Mr Swann (The Minister of Health): I thank the Member for the question.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 came into operation on 8 June. On July 10, a list of exempt countries was inserted, allowing those who had been in those countries to be exempted from the self-isolation period of 14 days when they arrived in Northern Ireland. On Saturday 25 July, I made an urgent amendment to remove Spain from the list of exempted countries, meaning that, from Sunday 26 July, those arriving in Northern Ireland from Spain are again required to self-isolate for the full 14-day period.

My decision, which has now been supported by the Executive, was based on detailed scientific information that was shared with me on Saturday. The key points to note are that, since last week, the weekly case rate for Spain has broadly doubled; Spain is following the same trajectory as Serbia, which was removed from the regulations following the same process on 11 July; Spain now conducts fewer tests than the UK, so the true prevalence, compared with the UK, could be higher than this data represents.

Areas of Spain have been reintroducing lockdown restrictions, particularly in the Barcelona region. The weekly case count in Spain has doubled from circa 4,489 to circa 9,575 this week. That rise in the disease has been seen in 15 of the 19 regions and autonomous cities of Spain. The total number of tests performed has increased, as I said, but the proportion of those that are positive has also increased from 1·4% to 4·3% during July, with the greatest increase in the last week.

I discussed that advice with the Ministers from the other three UK regions, and the decision was taken to remove Spain from the list of exempt countries from midnight on Saturday night. I recognise that the timing of the change would have had a significant impact on travellers who arrived early on Sunday morning. However, the evidence was considered to be so strong that a delay was not feasible. The risk to the Northern Ireland population was too great to delay another day.

I will continue to make decisions based on scientific information to determine which countries may be removed or added to the exemption list and will move quickly to remove any country when the evidence supports doing so. The health and safety of the people of Northern Ireland is my main priority.

Mr Gildernew: I will remove my mask to ask the question as not doing so can cause people with hearing difficulties additional problems in picking up what is being said.

Considering the ongoing confusion around travel advice and restrictions, does the Minister agree that it is important to convene a British-Irish Council meeting to agree a consistent approach to travel into and across these islands?

Mr Swann: As the Chair of the Committee will be aware, there will be a North/South Ministerial Council meeting on Friday, at which that will be the main topic of discussion. So, I am sure that the incidence in Spain and other countries, and how we manage that on an all-island basis, will be up for discussion at that point.

Mr Gildernew: Will the British-Irish Council meet to consider the east-west dimension?

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Now, this is not a Committee.

Mr Gildernew: My question was not answered.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: This is not the Committee, and the Minister has given an answer.

Mr Swann: If any directions come from the North/South Ministerial Council in regard to the British-Irish Council, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will take them.

Mr Easton: What is the process when somebody comes back from Spain and lands at the airport? What happens at that stage? You have to go and isolate for two weeks, but is there some sort of process at the airports to make sure that holidaymakers and residents who are coming back know exactly what they have to do?

Mr Swann: There are information points at the airports. There will also be announcements made on aeroplanes as people arrive as to the steps that they should be taking. There is an international travel locator form, which is mandatory for anybody who lands in Northern Ireland from one of the red countries. That must be completed, and there is a penalty of £60 for anybody who fails to do so. So, the test, trace and protect system should work if it is necessary to follow them up and make sure that they are observing the 14 days of isolation that is required should somebody come in from a quarantine country.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Before I call Mr Pat Sheehan, I remind Members to rise in their places if they wish to ask a question.

Mr Sheehan: How is the Minister going to address the confusion about, and differences in, the travel advice? I am not just talking about North/South but also east-west, where there seem to be a lot of anomalies in the advice that is being given out.

Mr Swann: That is a valid point, and it is one that I raised with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, on Saturday night, because there seems to be inconsistency between the advice that is coming from the Health Departments across the four nations and the advice that is being given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wrote today to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office asking for clarity and for it to consider the guidance that it is giving in regard to travel from the islands specifically, because it seems to contradict what was agreed by the four Health Ministers.

I have raised the matter with the Health Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I hope to receive clarity on the specifics of it, because it is causing some confusion for people who are travelling or who still intend to travel to the islands. At this point, I encourage them not to.

3.15 pm

Mr McGrath: I thank the Minister for coming to answer questions on this important issue, which is causing great concern to people. I appreciate, from his advice, that the incubation period could be up to seven days, but is there a method of prioritising testing for those individuals on that seventh day? If results could come back within 48 hours, that could shave five days off the quarantine period for them, which would enable many of them to get back to work. Many of those who are off at this period are teachers, and they need to get back into school and back to work as quickly as possible.

Mr Swann: The Member raised with me yesterday by text message the ability of someone who is currently in Spain to book a test and take it on their return. Our testing system is not set up to do that. At this minute in time, it is set up for people who are symptomatic. We are looking at whether it should be necessary or whether there could be an advantage in that, but I would not want testing to be a reassurance or a second line for somebody who wants to book a holiday to a country that is in the red zone and then rely on testing when they come home to allow them to get back to the workplace earlier. As I said to the Member when he asked me yesterday, the issue is the incubation period of COVID-19. The initial test, when somebody lands, might be negative, but there is an incubation period of, we reckon, up to about seven days where a second test may be necessary. We are looking at that, but we need to be consistent across all nations.

Mr Blair: Can the Minister give any clarification or information on how or if there is a joined-up Executive approach to this? For example, is the Department for the Economy working with employers? Is the Department of Finance working with holiday insurance companies? Are both or either working with the Department of Health?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. He makes a valid point. He may not be aware that there was an Executive meeting prior to the urgent oral question, and the only item on the agenda was what supports other Departments could put in place. The Department for the Economy and the Minister for the Economy are now engaging with employers to request that there is flexible support for those who have been in Spain and now face 14 days of quarantine. The Department for the Economy will also engage with travel insurers, as the Member suggested. The Department of Finance and the Minister of Finance will engage with their counterparts in Westminster in regard to furlough to see if anybody who had been furloughed could re-engage with furlough when they return from Spain.

There are as many support mechanisms in place as possible, and, again, the Department for Communities and the Minister for Communities will see what additional support packages are within the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Executive Office will look at updating information on nidirect so that anyone who is currently in Spain or intends to go to Spain can get all the information in one central location rather than having to source it elsewhere. Currently, nidirect gives information to people who may be looking to go on holiday, but we need it updated for those who are in Spain and are caught in that situation so that they have the information on what to do when they return.

Mr O'Dowd: I want to return to the British-Irish Council meeting and the need for a British-Irish Council meeting. The Minister has taken a decision on Spain because the evidence suggests that we should restrict travel. There are parts of these islands where infection rates may be as high as if not higher than those in Spain. Does the Minister agree that the British-Irish Council meeting will be an opportunity for all the Administrations to share advice and to give reassurance to the public that the best advice is being used?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member, and I realise the political point that he is trying to make in regard to engagement at the British-Irish Council. I will attend any meeting that develops positive health advice for the people of Northern Ireland. Whether it is North/South or British-Irish, I would be supportive of any meeting that provides a consistent approach and consistent guidance to the people of Northern Ireland across these islands.

Mr Chambers: Minister, given that this is a fast-changing situation, what advice would you give to anyone who is considering overseas travel that is not essential?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for his question. I will read him the current advice, which is on nidirect. It states:

"You should carefully consider your holiday and travel options, in light of the continuing COVID-19 threat. A 'staycation' is one way of mitigating the risks - while also supporting the local economy. If you're holidaying abroad, you may have to self-isolate for a period of 14 days on your return home – depending on which country you have visited."

I ask people to take great cognisance of that in regards to the ever-changing situation and coronavirus in other countries and places. As we have seen with Spain, it can change at a very rapid pace. The guidance on nidirect is fully supported by the entire Northern Ireland Executive, and I encourage people from Northern Ireland to read it when planning their holiday.

Mr O'Toole: Does the Health Minister have any specific guidance for family members or people who share a household with someone who has just come back from Spain? For example, if a young person comes back from holiday and returns to his or her parent's house, what is the guidance for other people who share that household? Should the person who is returning be self-isolating in a separate part of the house? How does that work? Will specific guidance be given to family members and householders?

Mr Swann: The Member almost answered his question. The guidance on self-isolation and how that is managed has been there from the early days of our managing coronavirus. That information on self-isolation stands. It is about isolating in rooms that are separate, if possible, using different bathrooms and bedrooms and making sure that you are not in the kitchen at the same time. That advice and guidance is well documented and is available on nidirect and the Department of Health's website. We will reiterate it for anybody returning from Spain, so that the entire package of information is there to support them.

Mr Muir: Dublin Airport is a popular airport for people from Northern Ireland. What arrangements are in place for data sharing in terms of people who are travelling back from countries that are on the red list? Without that data sharing, what do you consider to be the risk of people who are travelling through Dublin Airport not self-isolating in Northern Ireland?

Mr Swann: The Member raises a point that, I think, I am on public record about, thanks to another leaked letter. I have raised concerns about data sharing with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland. We have information points at all airports across these islands that indicate that the completion of the travel locator form is for your place of residence or final travel. Anybody landing in Dublin and coming to Northern Ireland must complete that travel locator form. We have information points at all the airports and places of landing. However, I have raised concerns with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland that we do not have a process whereby the information on people completing the form is being shared openly with us. It is on the agenda for discussion at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on Friday. It is important that we have that information to make sure that we can reinforce the 14-day self-isolation that we are requiring for people returning from countries that are on the red list.

Mr Givan: Minister, people have been caught up in the change, at the eleventh hour, on returning from Spain. A number of them will have gone there in good faith that they would be able to come home and return to work; for some of them, that is to work in your Department. However, the policy there is that they need to self-isolate and the time comes off their leave. Will a sympathetic approach be taken to employees who face circumstances in which they could be forced to use their holiday leave because of the decision taken?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for making that point. As I said in a previous answer, his party colleague the Minister for the Economy is speaking with the representative bodies of major employers to ask them to be as flexible as possible, so that people can be supported through working at home or by additional or reintroduced furlough payments, in order that they do not have to use sick leave to take the fortnight of self-isolation. I encourage my ministerial colleagues, where possible, to avoid anyone being penalised. If they can be supported by them working at home for the fortnight, they should be.

Dr Archibald: I am glad to hear about the Executive's approach that the Minister outlined to Mr Blair. Are there any exemptions to the quarantine period, for example, for essential or key workers?

Mr Swann: Unfortunately, because we are looking at Spain as a country that is on the red list, the list of exemptions is minimal, if not non-existent, because of the level of prevalence of COVID-19 in that country.

We have been asked whether health workers could be exempted, but, if they were to prove to be positive on the seventh day or the tenth day or if they were to have been asymptomatic during that time, there would be a risk to the people whom they have been working with and to the patients with whom they have come into contact. There are very limited exemptions for anybody coming in from a red country, but I will get exact details for the Member, if that is helpful.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Minister. No other Members have indicated to me that they wish to ask a question.

I remind Members that the Assembly is scheduled to sit again tomorrow.

Adjourned at 3.25 pm.

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