Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointments and Regional Rates) Bill

Explanatory Notes

Fast-track legislation

13 The Government intends to ask Parliament to expedite the parliamentary progress of this Bill. In their report, Fast-track Legislation: Constitutional Implications and Safeguards, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution recommended that the Government should provide more information as to why a piece of legislation should be fast-tracked. 1

Why is Fast-tracking necessary?

14 It is necessary to fast-track Clause 2 to safeguard public revenues in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, and to protect the interests of the business and household ratepayers who normally pay by 10 instalments. If there is delay in setting the 2017-18 regional rates beyond the first week of May, ratepayers will be presented with fewer instalments of a higher cost each time. This could cause financial hardship and lead to a demonstrable reduction in the total revenue collected.

15 Furthermore, as is mentioned in the policy background section above, the deadline for the parties in Northern Ireland to appoint Ministers has passed and Ministerial appointments have not been made. In the absence of the provisions in Clause 1, it is not possible for any agreement between the Northern Ireland political parties to form an Executive to be implemented without a further election being held. Any delay in passage would further defer the point before a functioning Executive can return beyond the 8 June UK Parliamentary General Election, even if an agreement is reached in the coming weeks. Further legislation would then be needed after the General Election to enable an Executive to be formed at that point, adding further uncertainty and delay into the process.

What is the justification for Fast-tracking each element of the bill?

16 The Bill is brief and each provision is necessary to give effect to the two policy aims of the Bill. As set out above, there is a clear need for fast-tracking the Bill to support economic and political stability in Northern Ireland. Any delay to Clause 2 beyond early May could cause financial hardship to citizens and lead to a demonstrable reduction in the total revenue collected by the Executive. Clause 1 is required in order for Ministers to be appointed and a new Executive to be formed at the earliest opportunity should an agreement between the parties be reached in the coming weeks or following the UK Parliamentary General Election.

What efforts have been made to ensure the amount of time made available for parliamentary scrutiny has been maximised?

17 The Government has sought to defer legislation for as long as possible to permit decisions in the devolved space to be made by the devolved institutions. The need for this Bill arises from the lack of an agreement and the appointment of Ministers within the timescale set out in the 1998 Act. In the circumstances, therefore, it has not been possible to give Parliament more time to scrutinise this short Bill.

To what extent have interested parties and outside groups been given an opportunity to influence the policy proposal?

18 The Bill is being introduced in the absence of any Northern Ireland Executive. Clause 2 sets the regional rates for both domestic and non-domestic properties. It is deliberately restricted to an inflationary uplift only, using the inflation index employed in previous years, to minimise the involvement of the UK Government in an otherwise devolved matter. This follows engagement with the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

19 Over recent weeks, the UK Government has engaged extensively with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government about the formation of an Executive. It is the shared intent on all sides that an Executive will be formed, in line with the principles of the Belfast Agreement. Without this Bill in force, no Executive could be formed should an agreement be reached in the coming weeks or until further legislation was passed after the UK Parliamentary General Election, unless another Assembly election was held.

Does the bill include a sunset clause (as well as any appropriate renewal procedure)? If not, why does the Government judge that their inclusion is not appropriate?

20 The Bill does not contain a sunset clause. However, Clause 1 applies only to the process for forming an Executive following the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March 2017, to ensure that the future approach to Executive formation is not affected. And Clause 2 sets the regional rates for both domestic and non-domestic properties in Northern Ireland only for the year ending 31 March 2018.

Are mechanisms for effective post-legislative scrutiny and review in place? If not, why does the Government judge that their inclusion is not appropriate?

21 As noted above, the Bill makes provision only in relation to the process of forming an Executive following the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March 2017 and the rates level for the year ending 31 March 2018.

Has an assessment been made as to whether existing legislation is sufficient to deal with any or all the issues in question?

22 Yes. The current timeframe for the filling of the Ministerial Offices following an election is set out in primary legislation. The only way to extend the statutory timeframe for the appointment of Ministers is with a further piece of primary legislation. Clause 2 directly addresses the issues caused by the absence of regional rates for the purposes of non-domestic and domestic rating within Northern Ireland. Under the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, the regional rate must be set each year. The rate set for 2016-17 expired on 31st March 2017 and does not carry forward. New legislation is required in order to set the rate for 2017-18.

Has the relevant parliamentary committee been given the opportunity to scrutinise the legislation?

23 Due to the need to implement the Bill urgently to provide certainty of regional rates and to enable a Northern Ireland Executive to be formed in early May, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has not scrutinised the Bill in draft. However the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland engaged with the Chair and members of the Committee in advance of the Bill’s publication in relation to its content.


Prepared 20th April 2017