At yesterday’s meeting of the Justice Committee of the NI Assembly it was reported that the Minister had obtained the agreement of the NI Executive to introduce the Damages (Return on Investment) Bill on 1 March. If passed at its second stage a week later it would then transfer to the Committee for scrutiny. The Minister proposed a ‘condensed’ Committee Stage of 21 days so that the legislation could be passed by the summer recess, which would enable a new rate to be set some time in the autumn. Her suggestion got fairly short shrift, meaning her timetable might be at some risk.
Her proposal and her letter communicating it were roundly criticised by Committee members. During their discussions it was obvious that members were put out by her making the proposal and very concerned about the impact on workload and on other projects of moving quickly here. The Committee clerk had advised of a number of significant risks to full close scrutiny of this Bill and of knock-on effects on other Committee work arising from a condensed stage for this Bill. The clerk also confirmed that it was for the Committee to recommend the length of its scrutiny stage and that the 30 day period noted in the standing orders was usually extended by the Assembly.
No members supported the Minister’s proposal, which one referred to as “shabby work” and “a disgrace”. Members then agreed to the Chair’s suggestion of seeking the views of the Speaker and other Committee chairs on it.
The upshot from yesterday is that the acrimonious dispute between the Committee and the Minister has ratcheted up another notch or two. It does seem bizarre that this friction between them is dominating the debate on the (as yet unpublished) Bill to the near-complete exclusion of the fundamental policy questions of what the correct discount rate should be, how it should be derived and monitored and how the resolution of cases is affected by it?
However, if the Minister is correct that only a 21 day Committee stage can ensure the Bill’s passage before the summer, and thus a new and stable discount rate in the autumn, then that prospect now appears less likely.
Although it is arguable that this ongoing dispute is a proxy for wider political differences, it nevertheless is going to have to come to a head when the Bill passes its second stage in early March* and is then transferred to the Committee. So more to follow here in a month or so.
[* By coincidence, early next month is around the same time that the judicial review of the Department’s decision to legislate for a new discount rate framework will be heard.]