The Constitution Committee releases a report on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, raising concerns over its fast-tracked timetable and the wide powers that will potentially be exercised by unelected officials.
The Bill seeks to facilitate the formation of an executive in Northern Ireland and provides for the exercise of government functions in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers.
The Committee raises concerns over the provision of powers to officials to ensure public services continue in Northern Ireland. While draft guidance seeks to limit the powers of civil servants to administrative purposes, the Bill potentially invests Northern Ireland departments with considerable scope to make policy decisions without being subject to any democratic oversight. The Committee also notes that it raises questions about whether and how decisions taken by civil servants could be subject to judicial review.
The Committee questions whether the fast-track timetable for the Bill is necessary. Power-sharing has been suspended in Northern Ireland for well over 18 months and there have been few recent signs that a resolution to the impasse is likely. The Committee understands the Government's desire to allow the negotiations to continue for as long as possible to avoid this legislation, however more time (even with a fast-track timetable) could have been made available for parliamentary scrutiny for this Bill.
The Committee reluctantly accepts that the unusual political situation in Northern Ireland requires an exceptional response to protect the people of Northern Ireland from a potentially significant damaging impact on the provision of services. However the Committee emphasises that in any other circumstances provisions in the Bill, which challenge established constitutional principles, would not be acceptable and that no part of this Bill—nor its fast-track process—should be taken as a precedent for future legislation.
Chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Baroness Taylor of Bolton said:
"The provisions in this Bill challenge fundamental constitutional principles relating to democratic accountability. However, a considerable democratic deficit already exists in Northern Ireland as a result of the political situation and the lack of a power-sharing executive. As a result, while we express serious reservations about the Bill, we accept that the legislation is needed to ensure that the administration of the province can continue to operate adequately."