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Lord Cooke of Islandreagh: I find it hard to believe that every clause in this Bill was part of the agreement as such. I was glad of the support of the noble Lords, Lord Molyneaux and Lord Cope, because there is no doubt that Bills have been passed in this Chamber and in another place which have involved vast costs on industry and agriculture without any substantial benefit. Provisions such as this, I think, would be helpful to the Assembly. With consultation I would suggest that this might perhaps be amended so that it would be narrower in its scope and would not interfere with everything that the Assembly might do. Perhaps that could be looked into by the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 [Submission by Secretary of State]:

[Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 29:

Page 6, line 14, leave out ("be outside") and insert ("not be within").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 13 [Parliamentary control where consent given]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 30:

Page 6, line 28, leave out ("subsection (2)") and insert ("subsections (2) and (3)").

The noble Lord said: I beg leave to move this amendment formally.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 13, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 14 [First Minister and deputy First Minister]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 31:

Page 7, line 18, leave out from ("within") to ("elect") in line 19 and insert ("a period of six weeks beginning with its first meeting,").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 32 and 33 address concerns raised during Commons stages of the Bill about the impact of a vacancy in the First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts. As the Bill stands, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister need to make decisions jointly. If one of them ceases to hold office the other automatically does so. This is followed by a new election for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. In the meantime, however, there is obviously a vacuum at the centre of the devolved government. These new provisions will prevent such a vacuum by enabling the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to appoint alternates from among the Northern Ireland Ministers to exercise functions during their absence through illness, incapacity, and so on, or during a vacancy.

Under these amendments, if either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister post fell vacant the other would too, but the alternate and the remaining post-holder

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would continue to exercise the functions of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, acting jointly in a caretaker capacity until a fresh election had been held.

Amendments Nos. 31, 34 and 35 clarify the Bill's provisions, making it clear that the Assembly is to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister within six weeks of its first meeting or, in the case of a mid-term election, within six weeks of the vacancy. I beg to move.

The Earl of Balfour: Perhaps I may raise a question here. Thinking in terms of this Parliament and a period of about six weeks--for example, we rise at the end of July and return on the 5th October--I think that this period will be more than six weeks. I wonder whether the Minister might reconsider his time-scale a little.

Lord Dubs: I should tell the noble Earl that the intention is that the Assembly is to elect a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister within six weeks of its first meeting or, in the case of a mid-term election, within six weeks of a vacancy. I do not think that six weeks is too short a period. After all, when there is an election here we deal with things very quickly indeed; so I think that this is a fairly reasonable proposition.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: I understand the reasons for all this. In particular, I think that Amendments Nos. 32 and 33, provide essentially for what is to happen during a vacancy when there is a vacuum. As the Minister has set out, an alternate is to be designated by the person who exercises one of these two great offices. I am not quite clear whether the intention is that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should give notice in writing of an alternate at the start, when they first take office, which they could subsequently alter, so that the alternate is, as it were, standing by all the time in case the First Minister or Deputy First Minister falls ill or something else happens to him.

I can see that that might be desirable in some ways, but it is a novelty as far as concerns the British constitution that we should have an alternate named and standing by waiting for someone to fall ill. It is a common enough occurrence on the stage. An understudy is appointed and hangs around in the wings. But it is more of a novelty in the constitution.

I am more concerned about the question of six weeks. Like the noble Earl, Lord Balfour, I think that there may be times in the year when it is more difficult for the Assembly to fulfil this injunction either when it first meets or, for that matter, when one or other of these Ministers falls ill, or whatever it may be. Let us suppose that the assembly fails to carry out the election successfully in the course of those six weeks. Who will be in breach of the Act? Is it an offence not to have an election within six weeks; and if so, who will go to prison or who will find himself in court on the ground that it has not been done in the six weeks? One cannot arrest the Assembly for the breach, and, in any case, I do not think there is any provision for it being an offence. Therefore, I am not sure that it is an effective provision just to say that it must happen by Act of Parliament within six weeks if there is no sanction. In practice, of course, it would have to keep going until it had settled

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the matter and found a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I am not sure that it is effective to write the law in this way.

I have another point which relates to subsection (7) of Clause 14. It states:

    "Where the offices of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are vacant"--
that is to be altered to "become vacant". Why does it not say:

    "Where the offices of the First Minister or the deputy First Minister".
After all, only one of them needs to become incapacitated, or to resign, or whatever, to trigger the need for an election--the need, first of all, for the alternate to do his stuff for a time but then, subsequently, to have an election. It seems to me that, in the way in which these amendments alter Clause 14, the word "and" in line 37 ought to be "or". I make that suggestion not as a manuscript amendment but as a point for the Minister to consider between now and Report stage. It would make the drafting of other parts of this rather complicated clause easier.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Renton: Although about 40 years ago I spent three-and-a-half years merely as Under-Secretary at the Home Office as a link between the Stormont Government and the United Kingdom Government, I have not previously spoken in the debate. But now we have before us the suggestion that there should be an interregnum--a vacuum--of six weeks without a head of government or deputy head of government. I think that is much too long. To have a period as long as six weeks without someone bearing the responsibility--it has to be borne--must be carefully considered. I ask the Government to think again about it. I agree with everything that was said by my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley.

Lord Fitt: On reading this clause, my mind goes back to the Sunningdale executive. It had a cabinet which was called the executive. The First Minister--the chief executive--was Brian Faulkner. I was the deputy executive. We did not hold any offices. All the other departments were run by the various Ministers whom we had appointed, which meant that we had a kind of roving commission to try to hold the thing together. In this case there is to be a maximum number of 10 departments. The Deputy First Minister and the First Minister will have departments. Therefore, if one of them were to be incapacitated he could, under the provision, appoint someone to act in his absence. That Minister would then have the responsibility of his own department and also the responsibilities of First Minister or Deputy First Minister. Those could be onerous responsibilities, depending on how long the situation lasted.

Furthermore, party politics being what they seem to be, it would appear that there are to be three Official Unionists and three members of the SDLP, constituting as they do the main parties in the executive. It is likely that if the Deputy First Minister were to be

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incapacitated, he would want to appoint as the person who would act as his deputy someone from among the other two Ministers of his own party. The same would apply to the Official Unionist, David Trimble. The responsibility of trying to run two departments for six weeks may prove very onerous.

I wonder whether the Minister has taken into consideration the point that in making these appointments difficulties could arise. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have been in America doing what they can to attract investment into Northern Ireland. The two of them could not be away at the one time. Therefore, it will frequently be the case that they will want to appoint someone to hold their office in their absence. It may be that the only time that they will travel abroad will be when the Assembly is not sitting, but there may be occasions when they will have to go abroad when the Assembly is sitting. Has the point been taken into account that holding two ministerial offices may prove rather onerous for one individual?

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