Bill on ministerial decision making passes latest Assembly stage

Bill on ministerial decision making passes latest Assembly stage
Brexit

A proposed law change to clarify ministerial decision-making powers has passed its latest Assembly stage.

The Executive Committee (Functions) Bill is proceeding through the devolved legislature with accelerating passage in a bid to establish certainty around future planning decisions.

It passed the consideration stage without debate on Tuesday or the need for a formal division vote.

The proposed law changed has been the source of some controversy, with one of First Minister Arlene Foster’s former senior advisers among its critics.

The Bill seeks to clarify what constitutes a cross-cutting issue that requires the consideration of the whole Stormont Executive.

It is a response to a 2018 court judgment, when judges ruled that the granting of planning permission for a contentious waste incinerator plant in north Belfast was unlawful.

The decision was taken by a senior civil servant in the Department of Infrastructure in the absence of a minister due to the powersharing impasse.

The landmark Buick judgment found that making such a decision in the absence of a minister ran contrary to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

It highlighted that the issue was a “cross-cutting decision” that should have required the input of the wider executive.

The proposed legislation seeks to clarify what constitutes a cross-cutting decision amid concerns that the judgment sets a precedent that any issue involving more than one minister should be referred to the executive.

Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill have argued that just because another minister has an interest in an issue being handled by another department does not automatically make it a decision that should be taken by the executive as a whole.

They claim the Buick judgment could undermine decision-making across all executive departments, leaving ministers open to legal challenge on issues that are not referred to the wider executive.

Mrs Foster’s former adviser in the Executive Office, Richard Bullick, has raised concerns about the Bill.

He claims it would undermine provisions in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement designed to prevent ministers acting alone on significant matters.

When asked about those concerns on Monday, Mrs Foster insisted she was comfortable with the contents of the Bill.

“Well, my very clear view, not just my view but the legal advice that we have been given on this, is this puts us in a post-St Andrews position, but a pre-Buick position,” she said.

“You will remember Buick was the case that was taken when there was no executive in place and there was a judgment given in relation to cross-cutting issues and so we needed to deal with that issue.

“And I’m very comfortable that that’s where we are.”

Asked if the Bill is paving the way for more ministerial solo runs, Mrs Foster replied: “No, it most certainly is not.”

Members have until 0930 on Wednesday morning to propose any amendments to the bill before it proceeds to its next Assembly stage.

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