Northern Ireland news

Doug Beattie's bid to curtail Stormont legislation fails as MLAs give backing to controversial bill

Doug Beattie's amendments sought to limit the reach of the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill

A LAST minute bid to water down new legislation that gives individual Stormont ministers more power has failed.

The assembly yesterday overwhelmingly rejected amendments to the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill tabled by Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie.

According to the first and deputy first ministers, the fast-tracked legislation will provide "greater clarity" for Stormont ministers over which issues are cross-cutting departments and must therefore be referred to the Executive Committee for agreement.

Ministers are currently required to bring any cross-cutting decision or any decision that is significant or controversial – and not included in the programme for government – before the Executive Committee.

The legislation was drafted in the aftermath of 2018's Buick judgment, in which the High Court upheld the quashing of Department for Infrastructure planning permission for a waste incinerator on grounds that other departments should have been consulted.

The bill was introduced on July 6 and was following a largely uncontroversial passage through the assembly until former DUP special adviser Richard Bullick raised concerns about it on social media.

Mr Bullick, who has served under three DUP first ministers, left politics to work for Belfast public affairs company MCE after the assembly collapsed in 2017.

He claimed the new legislation ran contrary to measures the DUP had secured in the St Andrews Agreement which prevented ministers making 'solo runs'.

Mr Beattie's amendments sought to limit the reach of the legislation, which is now set to be backed by the assembly today ahead of receiving royal ascent and becoming law.

The Upper Bann MLA said the bill was being backed by his colleagues despite them being "neither convinced by the reason for doing so or clear on its long term implications".

"Given that advocates for the bill failed to answer many of the fundamental questions raised by the rush to pass this legislation through accelerated passage and some of the best excuses that could be mustered were that you`ll get different opinions from different legal professionals, I fail to understand how so many MLAs from other parties allowed this to proceed without further amendments or scrutiny," he said.

Mr Beattie had called on the assembly to "pause at this point and reflect on whether this is the right way to proceed".

"With more time to scrutinise this bill, it would have been possible to produce legislation better shaped to address the concerns raised by the Buick judgment rather than potentially throwing the baby out with the bath water and undermining collective decision making," he said.

"There are also major doubts about whether the proposed ministerial code reflects what is the intent of the bill and will probably require much more work in the future."

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford rejected a claim that the new legislation would enable a decision similar to that taken by the then education minister Martin McGuinness in 2002 when he unilaterally abolished the 11-plus.

He said that initially there had been no controversy about the bill but “then an article appears in a newspaper and then suddenly this has grave constitutional implications and we should all be concerned about it”.

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