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Lord Skelmersdale: I suspect that when I come to read the Official Report I shall find the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in introducing the amendments totally self-explanatory. However, as I heard them, I am afraid that I did not quite follow what he meant. My interest is in Amendment No. 33. If the amendment is agreed to, subsection (6) will read:
Lord Dubs: I did not think that what was a very simple proposition would cause quite so much debate. Perhaps I may deal with the various points that have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked what would happen if no election took place for the First Minister or Deputy First Minister within the six-week period. If the Assembly fails to make such an election within six weeks, it will be dissolved and the Secretary of State then sets the date for an extraordinary election. That is not unreasonable. Six weeks is a sufficiently long period to deal with a matter of importance to the government of Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord asked also why there was the word "and" in line 37 and not the word "or". Clause 14(6) makes clear that if one office falls vacant, the other office holder automatically ceases to hold office. Therefore, by definition, there cannot be a single vacancy. Either both offices are filled or both are vacant. That is because, under the agreement, an election can be held only for both posts jointly. Therefore, the drafting of Clause 14(7), in the light of Clause 14(6), seems to be correct and accurate.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, suggested that a six week interregnum period was too long. The amendments prevent an interregnum in the case of a mid-term vacancy. There will be people in place exercising the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting in a caretaker capacity until a successful election is held to replace them. After an Assembly election, it will clearly want to move to an election of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister as soon as possible. But Ministers from the previous administration will remain in office until such an election is held.
We do not wish to demand an election of the First Minister or Deputy First Minister within a shorter period if failure to do so in the appointed time would trigger a new election for the Assembly. Therefore, we are trying to achieve a balance between maintaining good government but ensuring that there is a time period and if that is exceeded, a new election for the Assembly would be triggered. I believe that those arrangements are reasonable, bearing in mind that in the case of our own government there have been occasions in the past when there has been something of an interregnum and uncertainty has continued for some time. We have achieved the right balance between the two arguments.
Lord Renton: I have listened extremely carefully to the Minister, but I am still perplexed as to what would happen if the First Minister falls seriously ill and for that reason has to resign. His deputy is then out of office also and there would be a period of six weeks in which there was no leadership. What is to happen in that time?
Lord Dubs: First, it will be a period up to six weeks and may well be a much shorter period. Secondly, that is where the role of the alternate would come into play. Clearly, if the First Minister, prior to his illness, had indicated who the alternate was to be, then if he fell ill and was no longer able to carry out his functions, the alternate would be in place. There would also have to be one for the Deputy First Minister. That is for a short period only until a new election is held.
Lord Fitt: Perhaps I may repeat my question to the Minister. If the Deputy First Minister is ill and is incapacitated, he would then be able to appoint another Minister to carry out his functions. Would that Minister then have two offices, two ministries? Would he have the functions of the office of the Deputy First Minister and the functions of his own office? How long would it be possible for that situation to continue, because it would be an extremely onerous responsibility to carry two departments for any period of time?
Lord Dubs: The maximum period for which that situation could pertain could be six weeks and may well be shorter than that. After all, in the real world, people would not wish that situation to continue for six weeks. I believe that even in the summer, the Assembly members would be recalled and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be elected extremely quickly. It is not a difficult situation. There may be something of a problem but not a serious one.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Perhaps the Minister would clarify one point for me. If, for example, the Deputy First Minister were to fall ill and appoint an alternate, as these clauses suggest, the First Minister would also have to resign at that point. They would both resign together, as has been explained. The First Minister would not necessarily have to appoint an alternate. He could continue for up to six weeks to exercise his functions, or would he also have to appoint an alternate?
Lord Dubs: I hope that I have got this right because these questions are becoming rather technical. For the six week period, the First Minister, in the situation described, would stay in office but within that period, and not later than six weeks, there would have to be an election for both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Therefore, if the First Minister wished to continue, he would have to stand for re-election, along with the Deputy First Minister.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: Is there any difference and, if so, what, between holding an office and exercising the functions of an office? If there is no difference at all, why cannot the one who remains fit and active just continue until the election takes place? Why does he have to cease to be the Deputy First Minister but then carry on exercising his functions of acting Deputy First Minister, or whatever he is to be called, for the necessary period until the election takes place? It seems very odd to make him resign if he is to continue doing the job.
Lord Dubs: We are talking about a period of up to six weeks. It is not a long period. It is simply to ensure that functions can continue. Clearly, we must allow for a number of different situations. One is when the First Minister or Deputy First Minister wishes to resign. Another is when they may be temporarily incapacitated or permanently ill and no longer able to do the job. There are many situations in which they may no longer to continue. We must try to allow for all of them. But it is only a maximum of six weeks. It may well be only one week. It is a temporary device to cover the situation.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: The Minister used the phrase "in the interests of progress and continuity". Given that the opinion of most of us would be that there should be seamless continuity, it does not seem to make sense that because one person is ill or, God forbid, one happens to get killed, continuity then goes out of the window. There is confusion and turmoil and the whole
Lord Dubs: My understanding is that the idea of having both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister elected together is to ensure that there is a broad basis of support across the Assembly for those two posts. We do not want to have a person who has the support of only one part of the Assembly because the other Minister is in post and there is a division between the communities in the Assembly. We do not want that. We want the Assembly to act as effectively as possible with cross-community support. The method of electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister seems the best way in which to ensure that.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: Yes, but the Minister would be the first to admit that many people have been taken by surprise by the degree of co-operation and understanding between the two main blocks in the Assembly as it stands at present. Surely to goodness, the members would act with common sense and a sense of good will. If a Minister from either group were to be incapacitated, surely that same group would be accorded the choice of providing a successor to their own man. It is not a question of any one block grabbing both seats. There would be a generous concession that if the deceased, injured or sick person belonged to that group, that group should nominate the successor of that post.
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