I beg to move
That the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill [NIA 7/09] do now pass.
I wonder whether it was something I said, or maybe something that I am about to say.
As Members are aware, the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill would disqualify any individual who is elected, appointed or otherwise selected as a local councillor while also holding the position of Member of the Assembly. As amended at Consideration Stage, the Bill states that disqualification would take place 60 days after an individual takes his or her seat as a Member of the Assembly. However, it is my sincere hope that, in practice, all resignations and co-options will be finalised well before that deadline so that there is no inappropriate burden on local councils or unnecessary delays in new councils beginning their work.
The Bill would come into effect at the next elections after Royal Assent. If it were not being derailed by the cowardly acts of one party in the Chamber — or one person at the minute — that would likely be the upcoming local elections in May. The Bill would still allow an individual to stand for two levels of office at the same time. I understand that that is disconcerting for some Members. I share some of that worry, but I also feel that creating any prohibitions on candidacy would be a worse choice. We will have to leave it to the voters to deliver any punitive measures that they see fit for those who are perceived to be pursuing multiple levels of public office out of self-interest.
I am pleased to have reached this momentous day. It is one of the few times that a private Member’s Bill has achieved Final Stage in the Assembly. I recognise all Members of the Assembly secretariat for their professional assistance as I attempted to navigate the legislative process. I recognise the Committee for the Environment for its careful scrutiny of the legislation and the important matters that it raised and all of the Members of the Assembly who have played a key role in sharing and promoting the vision of the legislation. I also acknowledge and pay tribute to my senior policy adviser, Shannon O’Connell.
The vision of the legislation concerns the quality of our democracy. In the past 16 years, we have made great strides in establishing and embedding a truly democratic system of government in Northern Ireland. We are about to go to elections, having served the Assembly’s first full term without suspension since 1998. Many Members have played key roles in those developments, and some have made their contributions while serving as MLAs and councillors. They are to be acknowledged and commended for that work.
However, democracy is not stagnant; it is a living, breathing entity that is malleable and shifting. Its preservation requires perpetual vigilance. Once established, the next step must be to examine its quality and the value of the representation and the participation that it offers to citizens. As I have noted already this evening and in previous debates on this topic, there are Members of this Chamber who served as councillors during extremely difficult times in this country. Many showed leadership and courage during our darkest days, and that has to be acknowledged.
I often think of my friend and mentor and former MLA and councillor David Ervine, who loved what he did as a councillor and as an MLA. He was very good at both jobs, but David also knew well the importance of participation and representation to our young democracy. He understood how vital it is that politics is inclusive rather than exclusive and that elections and political parties should be a means through which under-represented groups and individuals access decision-making. I think that it would have been as difficult for David as it is for others to pick one level of office to pursue, but I think that he would have seen the merits of doing so and of opening an opportunity for someone new to come in, for new ideas to find fertile ground and for the next generation to realise how essential their participation is.
The legislation really is about taking the next bold step in our democracy, ensuring that it is of the best and highest quality that it can be. That means diversifying decision-making and promoting processes that bring people in rather than keep them out. It means preventing not only conflicts of interest but the very opportunity for those conflicts to occur. A conflict of interest is unambiguously defined as a situation in which someone in a position of trust has competing professional or personal interests that may make it difficult for that person to fulfil his or her duties impartially. A conflict of interest exists even if no unethical or improper act has taken place, and, by its very definition, a conflict of interest arises if a person is merely in a position to exploit a situation for personal or professional gain.
It is unavoidably true that Members of the Assembly make decisions that impact on local councils. Some of those involve remuneration and pay, some involve decision-making powers and authorities, and some involve additional responsibilities or professional opportunities for councillors, which can also include compensation. Transition committees, district policing partnerships, neighbourhood renewal partnerships, education and library boards, and even the planning powers that are currently under discussion in the Chamber are just a few examples of the areas in which the Assembly makes decisions that impact directly not only on councils but on councillors and often involve a degree of financial compensation. This situation cannot be allowed to continue; it is simply bad government.
On the subject of bad government, it seems that lightning does strike in the same place twice. The DUP had an opportunity to right a wrong from last year, but, unfortunately, it has chosen yet again to table a petition of concern against the Final Stage. That is a horrible misuse of the legislative process, and it sets a very dangerous precedent for this House. If parties and Members see fit from here on in to kill legislation at Final Stage with a petition of concern because they have lost all the votes during the stages at which the Bill could have been amended, essentially because the majority of the House voted against them, we are looking at very real problems for our democratic process. So much for their woolly words on wanting simple majority voting introduced to this House. If that happened, the Bill would pass.
It is one thing to disagree with this legislation, and the DUP and the Alliance Party have made it very clear that they find the Bill distasteful; however, it is another thing entirely to kill the Bill at Final Stage, not with the majority of votes, but with a mechanism that is designed to prevent the representatives of any community riding roughshod over the other. It is essentially a safeguarding mechanism.
It is also an abuse of the electorate. The DUP is misusing a safeguard that is designed to protect citizens of this country from abuses of power by, ironically and tragically, abusing its power. The DUP’s actions today are blasting big holes in the legislative process in this Assembly and in the public’s confidence in that party’s ability to lead. It is extremely worrying that the largest party in the Chamber is using a mechanism that is meant to safeguard the terms of a peace agreement to wreck legislation at Final Stage because it does not have the votes to defeat it properly or honourably.
I strongly urge the DUP to reconsider its actions, which can only be described as an abhorrent abuse of power. I question whether the DUP is capable of its leadership role. Leadership without vision or compromise is no leadership at all. The public mood on this issue is unequivocal. The electorate wants to see an end to double-jobbing and to all the loopholes in the system that allow a small number of people to have access to all the power and privileges that come with that power.
The question of fairness, which opponents of the Bill dismissed in earlier debates, is certainly undeniable at this point. With the Budget that we are facing over the next four years, and with some analysts projecting almost 40,000 job losses, there is no way to argue that it is acceptable for a single individual to hold more than one paid full-time position in office.
With that type of economic environment in front of us, we will also need all the talent and diverse decision-making in government that we can possibly get. Countless pieces of research that have been conducted since the onset of the recession have found that the more diverse and representative of the population a decision-making body is, both in the public and private sectors, the more sound financial and strategic decisions it makes. We will need new ideas, new voices and the perspectives of those who will be most affected by the spending cuts, which are about to hit with very severe consequences. Women, young people and the most disadvantaged will be most affected, but very few of those individuals are genuinely represented in this House.
I cannot control what the political parties will do about candidate recruitment. Some of the choices that have been made over the past number of weeks have been astonishing, but I hope that all is not lost and that the move away from double-jobbing will breathe new life into our political system. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I look forward to a positive and constructive debate.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Ms Purvis for moving the Final Stage of the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill. The Committee welcomes the Final Stage of the Bill, which is designed to eliminate the practice of individuals holding the office of councillor and being a Member of the Assembly at the same time. The Bill is very short, but it has led to very long debates in the Committee and in the Chamber.
The Bill was referred to the Committee on 9 March 2010, and Members conducted detailed scrutiny of it, making recommendations and prompting amendments where it deemed necessary. The Committee considered that the key issues relating to the Bill were conflict of interest; eligibility for election as a councillor; timing of implementation; expanding representation; public perception and confidence; and the context of the Bill in relation to local government reform. As the arguments on each of those issues have been well rehearsed at earlier stages, I will not go into any great detail on them now. The Committee outlined its recommendations for the Bill at Consideration Stage. However, I want to take the opportunity to highlight members’ particular areas of concern.
The first concern is the timing of the implementation of the Bill. At Consideration Stage, the Committee tabled an amendment that would allow 60 days to elapse between an election taking place and disqualification taking effect. The Committee’s intention was to ensure that there was time for all council seats to be filled before councils held their annual general meetings. Members recognised the importance of that and agreed that a 60-day period would allow the co-option process to be completed. An amendment was tabled at Further Consideration Stage to reduce that period to 14 days. The Committee was concerned that that gave insufficient time for all council seats vacated by newly elected MLAs to be filled. I was glad that the House supported that view when it rejected that amendment.
The other main issue was eligibility for election as a councillor. The Committee recommended that an amendment should be made to ensure that it did not disqualify any person from standing for election, even if he or she were currently an MLA. The sponsor confirmed that that was not her intention. Subsequently, she agreed to amend clause 1 to clarify that disqualification would prevent an MLA only from being a councillor and not from standing for election. The Committee agreed to the sponsor’s amendment to address that issue.
As I mentioned earlier, for such a small Bill, much debate has ensued. It is time for that debate to end and for the legislation to proceed and be implemented. Public perception is that power is in too few hands. The Bill will end that perception and will ensure that those who want to get involved in local politics will have an opportunity to do so.
With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to say a few words on the Bill on behalf of Sinn Féin. I thank the Bill’s sponsor for the leadership that she has shown and the steps that she has taken in recent times. I commend her for that, and I am disappointed that we have come to this point. All this week, we talked about maturity and common sense. Obviously, common sense will not prevail in that respect. I want to point out why it is common sense. Clearly, no matter what anyone says, if we look to the future and the powers that will be transferred to local government, there is a potential conflict of interest. Yesterday, we spent all day discussing the Planning Bill. When we discussed the matter previously, Mr Weir said that when it comes to making decisions, a councillor — we were referring to the Minister at that time — could leave the decision-making process. If I were a member of the public who had voted for someone and had asked that person to represent me on council, I would want that person to be there.
I thank the Member for giving way. At present, that is the position. For example, last night — Stephen Farry can testify to this — I believe that he almost chased two members of my council out the door when the Down-Armagh tourist partnership was raised, of which they are members. There was a conflict of interest, and they had to leave. Therefore, what exists at present is not anything particularly new. A situation in which there is a direct conflict of interest is adequately covered at present.
I thank the Member for his intervention. However, we are creating legislation. In the implementation of that legislation, it could be perceived that there is a conflict of interest.
People sat here all day today debating the Budget, and it would be easy to skip over the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill and leave without commenting on it. However, it is good legislation, and a lot of work went into it. The Committee put as much work into the Bill as any other that we have worked on so far. I want to give it more time.
We must consider the issue of proper representation by councillors. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been here until a late hour on Mondays and Tuesdays. Being a former councillor, I know that most council meetings, particularly on planning issues, are held on Monday and Tuesday nights. If anyone says that those people who are double-jobbing as councillors at present are making a contribution to their councils and to the Chamber, my answer is that they cannot be in two places at once.
No. I gave you an opportunity already.
I tried to do both jobs in the first two years of this mandate. Even if I left here at a normal time and tried to rush down to Armagh City and District Council to take a file into the council, it was difficult to contribute properly to the council meeting. I do not mean any disrespect to anybody, but there is a considerable amount of work involved.
I am one of those so-called double-jobbers, and I am proud that the electorate elected me to both of the elected positions that I hold. I have one of the best records on my council for attendance and for the part that I play in anything that comes before the council. I appreciate that the past couple of weeks have been more difficult, but if Ministers had not sat for a time on legislation and tried to rush it through the House at the last minute, I doubt if we would have been sitting here to all hours of the night.
That is a fair point. I will not challenge the Member on his attendance. Good luck to him. However, a number of other MLAs were not at council meetings and maybe do not have your record. I have done it, and I know what it is like to drive back to Armagh to work on council business.
The Bill is a positive piece of work that has been brought forward by a Member, so let us not demean it. Some good work has been done to bring it forward. It is disappointing that a petition of concern has been presented. I hope that the Member is returned to the House, because this is good groundwork, and it may be continued. I think this is how it will happen in the future, but, unfortunately, it is not happening now.
I want to speak about expanding representation and giving people an opportunity. At the present time, we are not giving people an opportunity. Ian McCrea said that he had a good record, and fair play to him, but maybe he is slightly concerned that it would be a wee bit difficult for him to challenge for the central Government seat if he were to give up his council role. I know through my time on a council that some members believe that council work is worthwhile groundwork. That is fine; it is good groundwork. I would recommend it to anybody who wants to get into politics. There is no doubt that the local council is a good place to start off. I will be going out and rapping the doors again and taking another opportunity to see if I can come back here.
Sinn Féin fully supports the Bill. We are disappointed for the House that the opportunity has not been taken to move the Bill forward. I may stand corrected on this in a couple of years’ time, but I have some confidence that it will be brought forward in the very near future. With that in mind, I will finish.
I apologise for not being in the Chamber for the sponsor’s proposal. I was out in the Great Hall, as we were letting the people of Northern Ireland know the great successes that we have had in the Budget, following a lengthy Budget debate in which many parties adopted positions of hypocrisy. It is almost a year since the Bill was brought to the House, and the debate on the Bill has been ongoing since then. We have had debates on many issues, but the debate on this issue alone exposes some of the rank hypocrisy that there is among other parties in the House.
I listened to the Ulster Unionist Party, which I know has been very vocal on this issue. Its Members say that this issue is a point of principle for them and that there should be no dual mandates. If it is a point of principle, I cannot help but ask why, over the past four years, it has not ended all dual mandates for its MLAs who are also councillors. I have raised that before in the House. If it is a point of principle, which is the message that it is trying to tell the people of Northern Ireland, it should have taken that action voluntarily. The fact remains that it has not done that.
I believe I can supply the answer to that. The legislation by which one could co-opt somebody only came into being on 1 April. I know that, because I resigned from Coleraine Borough Council on 1 April. If I had done it earlier, there would have been a by-election that my party could not have won.
Of course, the logic of that argument would be that, once that legislation came in, we would see all of those with dual mandates stand down immediately because the legislation was there to allow them to do that. However, that is not what we saw; that is not what happened. If it was a point of principle and they were waiting for the legislation to be in place, the logic is that once that legislation was in place we would suddenly have seen that dual mandate ending. That is not the case.
The Member has brought the SDLP into the argument —
Before the Member gets on to the SDLP and we leave the Ulster Unionists, I appreciate the point that was made; it certainly would have been available from 1 April. Whatever the explanation for past behaviour, how does that explain the fact that, in my constituency of North Down, there is an Ulster Unionist who will be seeking a new dual mandate? He is currently neither a member of the council nor a Member of the Assembly, but intends to serve in both. They are actually creating fresh dual mandates.
That further exposes the hypocrisy that we have seen from other parties. It is a poor show when certain parties are trying to tell the public one thing but are actually doing another. That will be exposed.
I will move on to the SDLP, as it has been very vocal on dual mandates. I recall that, at the last stage of the Bill, I raised the fact that that party’s entire House of Commons team were still Members of this House and had not acted on ending that dual mandate. At the time, Mr McGlone helpfully said that Mark Durkan would be stepping down from this House within a matter of hours, and he duly did so, but the fact remains that two thirds of that party’s House of Commons team are still Members of the Assembly. I do not think that either Alasdair McDonnell MP or Margaret Ritchie MP have any intention of standing down from this House. Again, that highlights the hypocritical position that the SDLP has adopted on the issue of dual mandates.
We can look at the MPs that Sinn Féin has in the House of Commons. Again, there is no indication from Sinn Féin that they will be stepping down from the House of Commons. Whether they take their seats or not, they hold two mandates, and that is what the issue is. It is not about double-jobbing; it is about dual mandates, and Sinn Féin Members hold dual mandates. Again, I think that that is a hypocritical position from Sinn Féin. I wonder if the Member wants to make an intervention.
Thank you very much. Sinn Féin members do not service two Parliaments at all in that respect. What we are talking about is this Assembly and local councils. I said the last day that I have freely stepped down from council, and we have co-opted. It is about giving people an opportunity. If people are afraid that they will not get re-elected on a council ticket or an MLA ticket, I say on behalf of my party that we will not be double-jobbing. We are going to change the system. I wish you would take on board the piece of work that has been done. I suspect that it will happen anyway in the very near future.
Indeed it is, and the issue of dual mandates is particularly relevant, because if parties take a view on the dual mandate between local government and the Assembly, you would expect those parties to take the same view on dual mandates between the House of Commons and the Assembly. In relation to ending dual mandates, that is where I think our party is relevant. The Member for Upper Bann mentioned the pledge that the DUP has made. We did say that we would be ending dual mandates; we said that we would be phasing that out.
In fact, the two parties in the House that are sceptical of the legislation are the two parties that have acted on ending dual mandates. When the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long won her seat in the House of Commons, the party immediately took action to co-opt Mr Lyttle. It did not need legislation to do that; it did it voluntarily, just as the Democratic Unionist Party has taken similar action on a voluntary basis. We have had Nigel Dodds, Ian Paisley Jnr, Jim Shannon, William McCrea, Jeffrey Donaldson and David Simpson all leaving this House to serve in the House of Commons. If we look at the dual mandate between local government —
I was just putting the issue of dual mandates into context, and I will go on to discuss the issue of dual mandates between local government and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The fact remains that many Democratic Unionist MLAs have already stood down from local councils, and a number of others have indicated that they will not be standing for local government next time around. Again, we did not need legislation to do that. That was done on a voluntary basis, and a total of 25 dual mandates have been ended by this party.
Other myths have been brought up over the past year as the Bill has come to the House, in numerous guises. One of the first myths was that the Bill will bring more young people and women into the Chamber, but I do not accept that. I would like the Chamber to be representative of society, and having more young people and more women in the Chamber would be a good thing, as it would make it more representative of society. However, to suggest that ending dual mandates will achieve that is misleading. The whole selection process for candidates will remain the same. The electorate will also remain the same, and they will still have the choice to pick who they want to serve their local communities. Therefore, that is an argument that I have no sympathy with. There is no evidence that it would be the case.
The second myth that has been put forward about the issue is that the public are very angry about the issue of dual mandates and want them to be ended immediately. There are a number of things that could be said about that. First, fewer than 15 members of the public took the time to respond to the public consultation that the sponsor of the Bill did. If the issue was as big as the sponsor of the Bill has said, I would have expected many more members of the public to voice their concerns or opinions on it, but they did not do so. In addition, the evidence points to the fact that the electorate have not been put off from voting for Members who hold other mandates. If it was such a huge issue among the public, they would not vote for a candidate who either held another office or said openly that they wanted to stand for two offices. That is also worth bearing in mind.
There was also a media campaign about the dual mandate issue. More recently, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ ran a campaign to keep Sammy Wilson in the Assembly because we need him as Finance Minister and do not want him to end his dual mandate, because we also need him to have a voice in the House of Commons. Therefore, even the media has changed its tune on the issue, and that same media expressed concerns about many senior Members leaving the House as it could potentially leave a gap. Therefore, the public and media perception of things has changed dramatically.
I listened to the comments that were made by the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment. He has left the Chamber at the moment, but he talked about not being able to be in two places at one time, and about how councillors wanted to be in their local councils giving their views and casting their votes on issues for their local communities. My colleague Ian McCrea talked about his own voting record at local council level, and it is worth putting on record the fact that the voting records of Members of this party who serve both on local councils and in the Assembly or elsewhere are favourable when compared to anybody else. Indeed, we have one of the best voting records of any of the parties. The greatest irony of all is that the sponsor of the Bill has one of the worst voting records in the House, and she does not hold another mandate. I think that that highlights the fact that the sponsor of the Bill —
You are talking about recorded votes, which, on many occasions, are on motions that are not binding. I do not vote on petty sectarian motions that tend to be tabled by your party simply to have a go at someone else on the other side of the Chamber.
The Member should make that argument to the people of East Belfast. She should also explain why she does not bother to turn up to vote in the House, and I would be amazed if the people of East Belfast are —
I thank the Member for giving way. Like me, the Member has listened to the excuse given by the Member from East Belfast about why she has such a poor voting record. Like me, the Member is in the Chamber on many occasions for votes whether or not they are petty, as the Member for East Belfast said, and he has eyes to see whether another Member is in the House —
I thank my colleague for that intervention, which highlights the fact that having a dual mandate is not impacting on a Member’s ability to be in the House and to vote on a number of issues. They are not all frivolous or silly, sectarian issues. Decisions on a number of issues may not be binding in the House and we may not have jurisdiction over certain issues, but there are still issues that the public want us to take a stand on, even if it is only to send a message to Westminster.
The public will, of course, have their say. The Member is absolutely right that there are many roles in which MLAs must function. However, a primary role is that of a legislator, being in the Northern Ireland Assembly and being able to be here to cast their vote to represent the people in their community. The public bear that in mind at election time.
My party’s position from the very beginning on the legislation has been that we want to end the practice of dual mandates. We have said that we will take the steps necessary to end dual mandates. We have already taken steps.
I listen to comments from Councillor Beggs MLA, but he has not stood down voluntarily when he has been able to. That is a question that he will have to answer. If he makes such a big play of being opposed to dual mandates, why has he not ended his own?
We tabled amendments to try to find what we believed was a sensible compromise on the legislation. We said, first, that if people held a dual mandate between local government and the Northern Ireland Assembly, they would not receive their allowances and pay as a local councillor. The Assembly rejected that amendment. Our second amendment stated that we would end dual mandates by 2014. That would have allowed for a phased withdrawal of dual mandates, would have allowed new candidates to be identified and brought into local government, and would definitely — 100% — have ended dual mandates by 2014. The Assembly rejected that amendment also.
It was disappointing that a genuine, sensible approach from, and compromise by, this party was rejected by the Assembly. Therefore, that led us to the position where a petition —
Does it not strike the Member as a most unfortunate misuse of the Committee system that if the DUP was going to kill this Bill, it would have been better to kill it stone dead at Second Stage? There is something slightly unfortunate about leading it through Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage to Final Stage, at which point, because it did not get its way with amendments, the DUP presented a petition of concern?
Does it also not concern him, and it certainly should the Members of his party who were here at the beginning of this process, that the petition of concern mechanism was set up specifically to deal with controversial community issues where one part of the community, unionist or nationalist, felt that the other was getting an advantage or pushing through something that it did not like? It was then possible to present a petition of concern to protect that community.
It was never, ever designed to protect narrow party interests so that individual Members would be able to use the power of their big hitters to get others in afterwards or to try to up their votes. That is not what the petition of concern was designed for, and this is the most awful misuse of that system. Does the Member not agree that the way in which this has developed is most unfortunate?
I listened to an SDLP Member talk yesterday about their concern about the petition of concern. It was the Ulster Unionist Party, which Mr McFarland was a member of at that stage, and the SDLP that drafted the petition of concern Standing Order. It is a tool that can be used, and, therefore, it is being used.
The Member asked why we did not kill off the Bill at Second Stage. As I have outlined, this party tried to find a genuine, sensible compromise on the issue. We brought forward amendments, first, to take away the salaries of those holding dual mandates and, secondly, to end dual mandates through a phased approach by 2014. So, it was not a matter of killing off the Bill at an early stage. We tried to make the Bill better. We tried to use amendments, as is the case in the legislative process for a range of Bills. Unfortunately, the House rejected those amendments. It rejected ending dual mandates by 2014 and removing the salaries. Therefore, we were left with little choice.
As regards abusing or misusing the petition of concern, it is not the case that it has been used only for constitutional issues or issues of great importance to one community or the other. The petition of concern was used on the issue of the Civic Forum. That is not a huge constitutional issue nor is it one that will impact on one community over the other, yet the petition of concern was used.
The Member gives a great example of the use of a petition of concern, particularly in relation to the DUP. The Civic Forum was part of the Good Friday Agreement and was designed to include in decision-making voices that are excluded from the Assembly. It was used as a mechanism to ensure that those marginalised voices and those communities and people were represented in here. So, the Member gave a really good example of how his party wanted to concentrate power again.
I would have thought that the people in this House are the ones who represent the community because we are elected by it. I do not want to get into an argument about the Civic Forum, and I am not going to defend something that was set up under the Belfast Agreement, given that this party has been opposed to the Belfast Agreement since the very beginning. The example highlights the fact that it was not a constitutional issue or one that affected one community over the other, yet the petition of concern was used. So, I do not buy the Member’s argument either.
I conclude by saying that it is a shame that the Assembly was not able to support the amendments that this party put forward and that we are left in this position. We remain committed to ending the practice of dual mandates, as we have said on the public record, and that will be done in a phased way. We have proven that we have taken steps to do that.
I declare an interest as a local government councillor. As I have indicated, I will be seeking election to a single mandate in future. I will not be standing for local council elections in May.
Why is this Bill necessary? Stormont is changing. It appears stable. In the past, certainly in its first mandate, it was up and down, and then there was a large gap when it was not meeting at all. However, it has operated virtually continuously over the past four years, with the exception of the period when the Executive was blocked. I am sure that all Members are only too aware of the pressures on our time that recent change has brought, with real legislation going through the Assembly and the detailed scrutiny that that requires both at Committee and from Members individually. To read it carefully and to understand it is demanding on time. The number of Members’ motions on what are, to a certain extent, wish lists, for which votes are not critical, has died away. There is huge pressure on Members’ time, certainly over the past two months in the Assembly. It has been vital that Members have been active and have been here. I expect that to continue in the future with a working Assembly, provided that there are no more blockages in the Executive.
Changes are also occurring at a local government level. RPA was to have created a new super-council with new roles. Unfortunately, the DUP and Sinn Féin could not agree and finalise local government boundaries. It is hoped that reorganisation and the associated savings to the ratepayer will occur within the next four years; that is certainly what the present Environment Minister is indicating. Regardless of whether RPA happens, significant additional powers and responsibilities are being passed to councils as a result of recent legislation or legislation that is progressing through the Assembly.
I am thinking of legislation such as the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, which could mean that councillors have to spend more time taking decisions and improving actions in their neighbourhoods. Other examples are the High Hedges Bill and the Welfare of Animals Bill. So, a number of pieces of legislation, which will soon be passed, will require additional work by councils.
Not at the moment.
Perhaps the most significant change expected, and again the Minister hopes that this will happen within the life of the next council mandate, is the devolution of planning powers, which will be very significant. A completely new raft of responsibilities will fall on councillors, who will be much more accountable to the local electorate in their decision-making. They will also have to know the planning system very well and ensure that they can stand over their decisions. I am aware that that additional workload will fall upon councillors at some point.
I appreciate some of the points that the Member has made. He mentioned the High Hedges Bill, which will result in additional powers being given to councils and council officials going out and arbitrating. I am not quite sure how those additional powers will affect councillors. Will they be out cutting hedges? How will the extra responsibilities on councillors differ from general complaints that would come to an MLA’s office on such issues? The extra responsibilities from the High Hedges Bill will not take council time; they will take council officials’ time.
It may do, but those council officials, whether as a result of the High Hedges Bill or the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, will present recommendations to councils. Council officials may present reports and request that their councils take action. A responsible councillor will make sure that he or she is well briefed on the matter and will engage with the local community, where there will be arguments for and against certain issues. So, there will be extra time expected of councillors in the future.
I heard recently that there are council members who are advising people to get their planning applications in, because they will have a say in the formulation of local development plans in the future. So, there are people on both sides. That is a definite example of the conflict of interest.
Conflict of interest is very difficult to manage for someone who is a councillor and an MLA. I have seen some MLAs who are also councillors behaving at Committees as though they have forgotten that their role in the Assembly is that of an MLA, because they appear to be acting solely in the interests of the other group that they represent. I have always endeavoured to take a balanced view on anything that I am presented with so that I can stand over my decisions and not be open to criticism.
The bottom line with dual mandates is that it is not possible to be in two places at the same time. New pressures, as I indicated, are emerging in councils and at the Assembly, and if someone is elected to two different bodies that happen to be meeting at the same time, he or she cannot be at both.
Would it not be better for new councillors to replace MLAs on councils at this election? That is what my party has decided to do. It is a responsible position for MLAs who are already elected to not stand for council. It will mean that new councillors will have an opportunity to learn the ropes before, as I indicated earlier, significant new planning powers are transferred. The choice is between doing that or keeping MLAs on councils with a dual mandate and at the end of the next term, just before the planning powers are devolved, drop the new people in. That will mean new councillors who are relatively inexperienced on planning issues having to start taking planning decisions.
Would it not better for opportunities to be created today for fresh people to learn the ropes and get an understanding of the issues involved in planning so that, when councils are given the powers to take planning decisions, perhaps in two to four years, they have some experience and knowledge and are not coming to this issue cold and with all the associated difficulties?
I thank the Member for giving way. He makes a relevant point about trying to get people in to build up experience. Why then, when the co-option legislation was put in place last April, did he not stand down from his position as a councillor on Carrickfergus Borough Council and let someone else in to gain experience if he always intended to do that at this election anyway?
I have given way. I have the Floor, and I wish to answer the question. Is it not honourable for someone to wish to complete the term to which they were elected? I was elected to serve a term on council, and I wish to complete that term. Is that not an honourable thing to do? I have said that I am not standing again. Is that not an honourable thing for an MLA to do? Nevertheless, my decision is being questioned.
People with a dual mandate have an advantage over their political opposition; they get two bites at the cherry. They can talk about issues in the Assembly, and they can go back to their local community and talk about local issues that are raised in council. There is a political advantage in serving on two public bodies. When people are honourable and decide to stand down from a second body, they are giving an advantage to their opposition. That is what we are doing voluntarily. It is sad that others are not joining in, because it would bring better governance to everyone. It is sad that some appear to want to take the advantage and continue to serve, yet there are some very practical time difficulties in trying to serve on two bodies.
As I said, I suspect that the difficulties will increase. That is why I am happy that this is a good time for me to finish my local government experience. I value greatly my experience on local government; it has given me a direct input into taking local decisions about local services, and it has allowed me to try to improve the lives of ratepayers. Like others, I highly recommend it to anyone aspiring to higher political office. It is a wonderful starting point for getting to grips with local issues. I am fortunate to have been elected on two occasions to local government, and I appreciate that. I recognise the limitations on my time and ability to serve on both. Therefore, I am standing down at what I think is an appropriate time.
I hope that I have answered Mr Ross’s question as to why I did not stand down earlier. Perhaps if I had stood down two years ago, he might be happier, and he might have a greater chance of getting elected because I would not have been representing the wishes of the local electorate. Perhaps that is why he is so keen for me to stand down. I have decided to stand down at this honourable point in time.
I understood that the petition of concern was introduced to enable the Assembly to be created in the first place, as some were reluctant to come in here in case there was dominance; it was to create confidence that one community would not be dominated by another. It was not brought in to give an individual grouping a blockage over every issue that it came across. That is clearly an abuse of the petition of concern. Members may criticise it, as, at times, I do. However, we must all recognise that if it did not exist there would probably not be an Assembly, because the cross-community support that enabled the Assembly to work would not have been brought in. It is easy to criticise its creation, but if people examine why it is there, they will find that to be a reasonable explanation.
The DUP lost the argument on the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill on the Floor of the Assembly, in the Committee for the Environment, and again on a number of occasions on the Floor of the Assembly.
I find it incredible that, having lost the debate on the Floor of the Assembly on a number of occasions and in the Committee, the DUP chooses to abuse the petition of concern to try to block this Bill. It is a terrible abuse of the democratic process in the Assembly to use the petition of concern in a way that, clearly, it was not originally intended to be used.
What is worse is that this abuse is not in the community’s interest but in the narrow self-interest of both the party and the individuals concerned. They are using and abusing the mechanisms for narrow party political gain over opponents. That is very unhealthy for this Assembly and in any democracy. They seem to want to continue as full-time MLAs, and let us remember that full-time MLAs have publicly funded offices. These Members want to continue as full-time public representatives with publicly funded offices, enjoying that advantage over other part-time local councillors and those who aspire to become councillors. There is, therefore, an undoubted advantage to becoming an MLA. Very few MLAs who stand for local councils do not get elected. If they do not, it is because of a major problem and they probably will not get elected to the Assembly subsequently.
That is another important reason why this legislation should be approved by the Assembly. It creates a level playing field at councils so that political power does not rest in the hands of a very few, power will go back to the community and the people, and there will be less likelihood of party political power brokers at council level. On some councils, the politics are largely local, but, particularly when follow-ons from activity in the Assembly are taken down to local council, it has a poor effect on them.
I think it disgraceful that the petition of concern has been used on this Bill. I am very worried about the abuse of the petition of concern. That abuse gives cover for political opponents in the future to use and abuse the petition of concern to block some other piece of legislation that perhaps 70% of the Assembly is in favour of. Others may decide to abuse the petition of concern.
I thank the Member for giving way. He will acknowledge that the position of my party is that we should move away from petitions of concern and the designation system, towards weighted majority voting, which gives that built-in safeguard. Does he acknowledge that my party’s policy would be of benefit, and would he welcome it?
I will give way in a minute.
However, the practicalities are that this is here at the minute and the DUP chooses to use and abuse it. Regardless of where you aspire to go in the future, you choose to use and abuse the petition of concern for narrow party political self-interest, and for that, you should be ashamed.
That is an interesting comment.
Let me move on to another area. Last year, as we are all aware, there was great concern as the public demanded higher standards from MPs and public representatives. I will quickly move on. With regard to double-jobbing, there are relevant issues in the DUP’s 2010 manifesto. I quote:
“Following the Westminster election, successful DUP candidates” —
Its 2010 manifesto indicates that it will end double-jobbing:
“We also believe double-jobbing on quangos should end.”
Those appear to be shallow words that were not delivered on. DUP members are not only double-jobbing, but they are double-jobbing on quangos, and I have not heard of any action on that either. The DUP was keen to say things to get votes but not to deliver. Of course, the DUP’s nominating officer could decide not to nominate MLAs going forward for council as candidates for both bodies, and its party leader could decide to change the position should he so chose.
In that spirit, will the Member give an assurance that no Ulster Unionist candidate will be nominated for a council and the Assembly? Leaving aside the situation alluded to in North Down, others may be doing that as well. My understanding is that two MLA candidates for East Belfast are also sitting councillors and that they will presumably remain on those councils.
Indeed, that is also the case in North Antrim and in other constituencies. There has to be consistency. If the Member is saying that the right thing to do is to bar any MLA from being a councillor, his party should take a lead on that as well.
As indicated, I will give way in a moment. As regards the hypothetical situation that the Member mentioned, I think that he is seeking even further political advantage, because he wants some councillors who aspire to be MLAs to stand down from their council position and perhaps not even be councillors in future. He wants even further advantage over political opponents from which he and his party can benefit. The Ulster Unionist Party has decided that none of its sitting MLAs will run for local government, because that is an honourable thing to do. However, is it realistic to expect councillors to give up their council positions even though they cannot actually be certain that they will be elected to this House? What we are doing is reasonable, and if the legislation is passed we will honour and support it. The Member’s party is seeking further political advantage for itself.
I thank Mr Beggs for giving way. Given that consistency seems to be the theme here, does the Member accept that if every party were consistent on this, we would not need legislation? The legislation has the objective of delivering consistency and bringing an end to the anomalies that exist in all parties. That is the aim of the legislation; that is why we are here this evening. I therefore thank the Member for introducing the Bill.
I thank the Member for his contribution. The Ulster Unionist Party has decided voluntarily to honour the spirit of the Bill, whether it is passed or not.
It is important to demonstrate some of the practical difficulties for some Members who continue to double-job.
I have given way quite a few times, and I wish to move on with my speech. I wish to give some practical examples that I, as an Assembly Member, have encountered with some other Members. During my time on the Public Accounts Committee, I remember one individual frequently leaving early to attend council planning meetings, and MLAs elected to Committees leave to attend planning sub-committees of councils. That happened in the life of this Assembly. Another example of the difficulty of being an MLA and a councillor is that their work depends on exactly when a council might meet and on what Committees they are on.
I notice, interestingly, that Alderman Gregory Campbell MLA was frequently absent, or left early, from PAC meetings on the second Thursday of each month. It was drawn to my attention that he is a member of Derry City Council’s policy and resources subcommittee, which, guess what, meets on the second Thursday of each month. Interestingly, that council meets on a Tuesday, when Members should be here, and on a Thursday. That particular public representative would also have difficulty serving on an Assembly Committee that meets on a Wednesday, because it is on Wednesdays that he occasionally flies to London and goes to Westminster. There are some very practical difficulties in being a double- or treble-jobber, depending on which council Members serve on.
Is it honourable that a Member of this House frequently leaves Assembly Committees to which they are appointed to go elsewhere? Is that honourable? I ask other Members to address that when they take the Floor later.
Is it honourable for someone whose council meetings conflict with meetings of this Assembly to sign a petition of concern that would potentially allow that conflict to continue? Is that honourable?
No, I have given way liberally.
Let me give Members the full picture of the Public Accounts Committee. The Public Accounts Committee meets on a Thursday, generally at 2.00 pm, and those meetings could go on until 5.00 pm. The policy and resources subcommittee meets at 4.00 pm in Londonderry. It has been pointed out to me that, on 11 November 2010, Mr Campbell joined the PAC meeting at 2.14 pm and, keeping up his present rating, was marked present. He left after 10 minutes at 2.24 pm. The following month, on the occasion when the two meetings possibly clashed, he sent his apologies. The month after that, he left the PAC meeting at 2.51 pm; he must be able to drive quite fast to other places. On 10 February 2011, he sent his apologies. Therefore, there is a very practical problem for some councils in attempting to have dual or treble representation.
Members are saying that the voters vote for them. Let us remember that individuals elected to the Assembly, or, for that matter, Westminster, are full-time politicians paid from the public purse. They also have ample office cost allowances for staff to back them up. Is it a surprise, with all that backup, that the public see those Members as higher profile and, in the past, have voted them for council?
We are about trying to move things on to bring about better governance, so that Members can be in their Committees here or elsewhere and, as was said earlier, have the time to carefully scrutinise legislation coming forward, the issues being discussed at Committee or the issues being discussed at council. There must be sufficient time for that. Believe you me, in travelling between three different locations, a big part of time is lost to travel or driving, never mind —
I wish to congratulate Ms Purvis for her perseverance in carrying out the research for this Bill and bringing it through its various stages.
When the original Bill was debated, I complimented Ms Purvis on its brevity. However, it was necessary to amend that Bill, given the complexity of electoral law; a desire to avoid unnecessary by-elections being triggered by the very legislation that we are putting through; and the other changes to electoral law. The final shape of the Bill is not exactly as I would have wanted, but I recognise that it is a considerable improvement on what was in place in the past.
It would be possible to stand for both jobs, but there would be a 60-day window. I was concerned that that could be cynically abused. People would vote for big hitters but, after 60 days, they would get Bs or others that they did not know they would get. There is the possibility of such abuse if individual parties choose to abuse it. It comes down to whether individual parties and public representatives choose to abuse it. Nevertheless, I recognise that the Bill would bring about improvements to our democracy by ending dual mandates relatively quickly.
I must express, once again, my disgust — I use the word “disgust” deliberately — at the DUP’s abuse of the petition of concern as it strives to axe the Bill. That party should bear in mind that it could come to regret that in a whole series of issues. It has created the precedent of the petition of concern being used for narrow, party political self-interest. Others may decide to abuse it in the same way in the future. The DUP has created the precedent. I support the Bill.
Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members that, since this debate is on legislation, every Member has an opportunity to speak on the Bill. I ask, therefore, that interventions are a lot shorter than they have been heretofore.
Where does one begin at this late hour? I will begin by extending my congratulations to Dawn Purvis for bringing this Bill forward. I understand why Dawn has done that. No one in the Chamber has worked harder to build democracy, particularly among people who, in a previous life, did not understand the value of democracy and, unfortunately, sought other ways to solve problems.
The law that allows co-option came into being on 1 April 2010. After 33 years on Coleraine Borough Council, I thought that I would avail myself of that law. That is the best decision that I have made, not because I wanted to give up my speedy journeys to Coleraine, but because I have created an opportunity for a younger person, a female, to take on the role of councillor. I am pleased that that person has performed extremely well. We are building a fledgling democracy. I was convinced that we had got there earlier today, when all the seats were filled with Members with so much to say. However, so many of those seats are empty now.
I did not actually say anything. The Member will find that it was Mr Ross. He criticises the fact that there are empty Benches. However, given that only three Members from his own party have stayed, will he not take a little look around at his own party before he criticises others?
I am very happy to say that our party is in another room discussing the future of the Assembly — the Budget, largely, about which so much was said earlier.
The Bill refers to double-jobbing. There are Members of the Assembly — I suspect that one or two of them are across the Floor — who are treble-jobbing or quadruple-jobbing, if we take into account district policing partnerships, community partnerships and the committees that were set up for the reform of local government, which, of course, never happened after £20 million was squandered on it.
The Bill is important because there is a thin line between democracy and arrogance. What I have seen here tonight is the most extreme arrogance from people who have very short memories. It is not so long ago that it would have been impossible to even get people into this Building to peacefully discuss a political way forward. Now, the people on the opposite Benches want to stifle that opportunity for other people, who, I believe, are entitled to hold council posts for all sorts of reasons, but particularly because it builds and strengthens democracy.
I would hate to think that the day would ever come that I would feel so arrogant that I would refuse to believe that someone else could do my job on a local council. That is insulting. It is interesting that it is people in their own parties that those on the opposite Benches do not trust. I know that it is fashionable for politicians in the North to go around with a wing mirror on each shoulder, but I thought that we had got past that. Let any Member on the opposite Benches tell me that there are no people in their political party that could replace them on local councils.
Arrogance and being flippant are two things that do not run well together. Members of the public are looking for encouragement to engage in the democratic process. The Member might be a little bit concerned that, in some parts of the North, the turnout at elections is less than 20%.
I will finish by saying that I had the privilege of meeting Dawn Purvis many years ago at the reconciliation centre at Glencree in County Wicklow. I wonder how many Members on the opposite Benches have been there. I understand why the Bill is important to her. It is also very important to other people who have put their faith in democracy and want to see maximum engagement from people at all levels.
I will leave it there, except to say that the petition of concern is an absolute affront to democracy. It is a disgrace.
I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council in addition to my role as an MLA. I assure the House that I will not stand for election to the Assembly in May, but I hope to return to the council. In fact, I am in demob mode, and I am looking forward to leaving the Assembly. I first fought a Stormont election 45 years ago, when I was working for David Bleakley against Roy Bradford in the Victoria constituency, and I feel that I am entitled to a break.
The Bill is unnecessary and uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I cannot support it. Indeed, if it is acceptable that councillors in Scotland, England and Wales can serve as Members of the devolved Administrations or as MPs, why is it so wrong in Northern Ireland? In practice, few councillors in the rest of the UK decide to avail themselves of the dual mandate. I have no doubt that the same situation will follow here, particularly if there is no financial incentive to remain as a councillor. I support the previously outlined proposal that councillors who are MLAs and who stand for council should not be paid. Most MLAs have kept the dual mandate in order to retain job security and their political careers. Now, because the Assembly appears to have a stable future, the dual mandate will no longer be necessary and most MLAs will stand down from councils.
However, because the Bill is subject to a petition of concern, there is no point in me voting against it, because my vote will be irrelevant and will not be taken into account. That is a real injustice. My unwillingness to reinforce the divisions in our community, by designating as either unionist or nationalist, means that my vote on the dual mandate is ignored.
More importantly, the 3,000 North Down voters who elected me are also disenfranchised. Such discrimination against MLAs who refuse to designate cannot be justified in any democratic society.
I must confess to Members that I have been guilty of double-jobbing for nearly 30 years. For the past four years, I have double-jobbed as an MLA, and, for the previous 25 years, I doubled as a full-time lecturer. Many of my council colleagues are also double-jobbing as teachers, doctors, social workers, electricians and care assistants. Indeed, throughout Northern Ireland, many hundreds of people are double-jobbing, with a full-time job through the day and a part-time job as a councillor in the evening. If the Bill is passed, only MLAs will be barred from being councillors, and even MPs could remain in council. Such discrimination is difficult to justify. Indeed, I believe that it could be challenged under human rights legislation.
I thank the Member for his intervention, but that is not my point. I was trying to make the point that MLAs would be the only people who could not become councillors. Everybody else could, and that discriminates against MLAs.
Some people have argued that MLAs cannot do both jobs efficiently, but there is no evidence to support that. There is great public hostility to the principle of double-jobbing. A councillor’s role is a part-time one, normally one night a week, so it does not impinge very much on a full-time job. If properly organised, a councillor can also have a full-time job, whether that is as a teacher or an MLA.
The public are against double-jobbing, but I have topped the poll in six successive council elections in Bangor West. That does not suggest that the electorate of Bangor West feel that I am not capable of doing both jobs. I also reflect on the recent Westminster elections, when 17 of the 18 MPs elected were serving MLAs. That is unacceptable. The roles of both MP and MLA are full time, and it would be more appropriate to ban that form of double-jobbing.
It has been argued that double-jobbing as councillor and MLA can lead to a conflict of interest and give an MLA too much power. I cannot think of any example of that happening. In fact, the lowly Back-Bench MLA has little power and is merely Lobby fodder for the Whips. The main role of a Back-Bench MLA is to promote the interests of his or her constituents, which is exactly the same as the role of a councillor. Perhaps, councillors who are also MLAs can provide a better service because they have more facilities. However, should the MLA achieve a post in the Assembly such as Minister or Chairperson of a Committee, both of which involve the exercise of power, he or she should resign from council. The holding of a ministerial post is totally incompatible with being a councillor. However, on a positive note, an MLA who is also a councillor has access to Ministers and the opportunity to put forward a case on behalf of either the council or the resident.
In-depth knowledge of council operations is beneficial in examining legislation. Over the past year or so, we have looked at a lot of legislation, including the Planning Bill, Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill and the High Hedges Bill. The expertise that we have gained as councillors is useful in considering that legislation. Not only do we know the legislative process, but we also know the practicalities of being involved day to day with people affected by that legislation. If councillors were no longer allowed to be MLAs, that expertise would be lost.
Many MLAs make an important contribution to local council business. Indeed, North Down Borough Council last night unanimously expressed regret that Dr Farry, having been a very successful chairperson of the council’s finance committee over the past 10 years, is stepping down. His expertise on rates will be sorely missed, and he will not be replaced easily.
I do not believe that the public are against double-jobbing or dual mandates per se. Why would they continue to return the same politicians to multiple jobs if they felt so strongly about it? The public reaction is more against multiple salaries. If Members were limited to one salary, the public would lose that hostility and judge the Member on their effectiveness.
I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned the pay issue as it relates to MLAs. I do not know whether the Member is aware that a public consultation from the DOE has gone out in the past couple of months on the issue of anyone who is serving. Indeed, one of the options is the complete removal of any salary from a councillor who is also an MLA.
I am very much aware of that, and I certainly support it. It should be introduced.
There is no evidence to support the argument that the Bill would attract a large number of new people and new blood into the Assembly or perhaps councils. Three female Members have left the Assembly and have been replaced by males. If you want to increase the number of females involved in the political process, you have to change the political culture and the adversarial, aggressive nature of politics. I think that most women do not like that. I suggest that they would not tolerate sittings going on until 1.00 am. There would probably be better hours for the Assembly if we had more female Members. They would not be attracted by the practices in the Assembly.
The Bill is unnecessary. The problem of double-jobbing will resolve itself over the next few years. MLAs will follow their counterparts in Scotland and Wales and resign from councils. That is already happening. If the financial benefits of remaining a councillor are removed, I have no doubt that the vast majority of councillors will stand down voluntarily. I cannot support the Bill.
I declare an interest as a member of Craigavon Borough Council. I wish that this House had the same rules as Craigavon Borough Council about the length of time that you are allowed to speak. If we were to apply those rules here, maybe we would get through the business a bit more quickly.
It is clear that the multiple mandates of some elected representatives is an issue in the community. Some Members, including me, sit on local councils. This is an opportunity. This place has established itself. People who were involved in local councils for quite a number of years did not want to give up their position until they saw what happened here. We have to understand and realise that Stormont is here and will not go away. It is the place of the future. However, one of the things, Mr Mayor — sorry; Mr Deputy Speaker. [Laughter.] The purpose of the Bill is to disqualify those who are elected to this House from holding office as a local councillor. People have been around long enough and are sensible enough to know what they want to do and what they cannot do. It is clear in everybody’s mind that they cannot be in two places at the one time. Once they get over an initial period, they will soon decide for themselves where they want to be. However, there is strong support for the Bill in the community. Of the 16 substantive responses received, only two raised objections.
With that in mind, I am staggered that the Democratic Unionist Party has lodged a petition of concern on this matter. That flies in the face of public opinion. The DUP is good at that, and maybe other parties have not yet jumped on the bandwagon, so there is an opportunity there for other people to get —
No. I will not give way. I have listened to you long enough, and I want to get away home.
The record will show that there was an opportunity for many people to develop their political aspirations here and to move this thing forward. There is also a council system that allows us to gain office, move forward and be more professional. There are big opportunities there, and RPA is sitting on the sidelines. I am assured that, after the elections in a few weeks’ time, RPA will probably move forward and there will be opportunities for people who want to be more deeply involved in councils.
In my time in local government, there have been great opportunities to get work done. Many people in this gathering here tonight have probably spent most of their political life in local government. It all comes down to which seat they would choose to give up. Mr Ross touched on many issues today that I could not disagree with him about. The opportunities are there for many people, but it comes down to the fact that you cannot be here and there at the one time; if you are, you do a disservice to your people.
Local planning is one of my big duties as a local councillor. If my constituents have a problem, it is nice for me to be able to come down here and speak to the Minister or put my hand on his shoulder to see if we can get that sorted out. That can be done, but — [Interruption.] Hold on a minute: that can be done if you go about it in the right fashion. I am not saying that I have an advantage over anybody else, but the opportunity is there, and not one of you is not doing it.
As we go forward, legislation will come about, and it cannot come about quickly enough. There are things that we would like to do but cannot do. Dawn, a Member for, I think, South Belfast —
— has brought the Bill forward, and I congratulate her on the work that she has done. I only hope that she has a successful outcome to what she is trying to achieve.
I do not want to say anything more. Many people have put a lot of time and effort into their council and their work here. They have a choice to make. Sometimes that choice can be made for them, as happened in my case. However, no matter where we go, we go there to work for the electorate — the people who put us there — in whatever way we choose to serve. At the end of the day, they are the people who will decide where we go. Thank you very much, Dawn, for what you have done.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am sure that everyone in the Chamber will be glad to hear that I will be brief, and I am not going to talk about being brief to elongate things either.
I especially thank Dawn. We have worked in Committee together on many other projects, so it is good to see recognition being given — even if it is stymied tonight — to the good work that she does. Indeed, I thank her for introducing this private Member’s Bill. Members might recall that the last private Member’s Bill that we discussed was so accelerated that I thought I was at the Isle of Man TT. In fact, it passed so quickly that it went into a bit of a whirl and changed utterly in shape, form and direction. That was my preamble, but I am glad to say that this Bill is consistent, so it is unfortunate that a petition of concern will block it. However, we are where we are.
When Mr Beggs was speaking, I briefly made a point about what this is about. Everyone in the Chamber can put up their hands and say that there are motes in our eyes. We can all point at the other side and other parties and say that they are not being consistent. However, the point of the Bill is to introduce consistent practices and to prevent situations that those of us who have been or are in local government have experienced, such as the Assembly’s oversight of local government when developing policies or, indeed, practical measures, where it is so difficult. Hand on heart, I have to say that, until just over a year ago, I was a member of my local authority in Cookstown, so I know that it is extremely difficult to properly attend and devote time to Assembly business and then leave in time to get to a council meeting to deal with other issues, especially planning issues, which, as Mr Savage rightly said, are very important to rural councils.
On the subject of rolling out measures to bring an end to double-jobbing, being honest to myself and to my electorate, regardless of party obligations, I felt that leaving here early to go to a meeting in Cookstown meant that I was not giving the electorate an adequate service. I was being pulled in two directions by two masters. The Bill will regulate and introduce harmony and consistency to that situation and prevent potential conflicts of interest, allowing us to devote ourselves to one mistress — democracy — whether in local government or the Assembly.
As Assembly Members, we are well enough paid. God knows we went into the ramifications of the Budget earlier, when employment issues were raised, so we know that, compared to the people who come into our constituency offices to seek help, many of us are more than well paid. For the first time in their life, many of those people have to face the ravages of unemployment, and that is not a good place to be. Therefore, in seeking to nurture and protect democracy, we are more than amply compensated, although, for many of us, money is not a requirement. I am sure that those of us who have served for many years will recall nights in council when, as community activists, we sat there for little or no recompense, and it is important to put that on record.
Ms Purvis’s legislation will harmonise the situation and bring consistency, ensuring that Members are not torn between two masters, are dedicated full time to their work and do not have a conflict of interest along the way. My colleague Mr Dallat more than amply outlined my party’s position, and we are more than happy to support the Bill in its present form. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for affording me the opportunity to speak. Indeed, I feel honoured to speak to the motion to pass legislation that, ultimately, will benefit democracy and resolve people’s allegiances to local and regional government.
I give no such hostage to fortune. I may speak at great length; we will see how it goes.
In the past few years there has been a campaign, which my party and others have been involved in, to break up the political cartels that were accumulating huge resources from the number of jobs and income streams that they were receiving. At least one person was raking in over £500,000 in allowances and salaries, and another was raking in over £600,000 in allowances and salaries. Anybody can see that such a thing is not right, and the reason why it is not right has been recognised by the people who were involved. There are people sitting on these Benches today who would not be sitting on them were it not for the campaign against double-jobbing. They are the beneficiaries of it.
As Members have mentioned, the fact is that, at the beginning of devolution, when there was uncertainty about whether devolved politics would go or stay, local government was the only place in the democratic field that had worked for 20 or 30 years. There was nothing else, and there was nothing here. There was local government and MPs and nothing in between. It was perfectly natural that people would retain their positions in local government. Otherwise, if this place folded, they would be completely out. I fully understand that.
The salaries in local government are not the issue, although Mr Wilson drew attention to them. The issue is, fundamentally, the conflict. I do not care what anybody says; there is a conflict. Councils currently deal with a number of matters, let alone what they will deal with if RPA is implemented. Planning has already been mentioned, and I will come back to that. Waste management strategy is another obvious issue. We have issues concerning leisure, environment and heritage, and roads. We only have to think back to the bad weather at Christmas and the issue with Roads Service footpaths to see how councils are involved. People may sit on the Regional Development Committee and deal with an issue there and sit on a council and deal with it there also. In that case, of course there is a conflict of interest. You do not need to be Einstein to see that. The most flagrant example of a conflict of interest was the situation where the former Environment Minister Sam Wilson sat on the planning committee of a council when he was in charge of the Department of the Environment. The officials at the other end of the table were answerable to him.
When did the Member first notice that conflict of interest? Was it when he was sitting as an MLA? Or was it when he was sitting as a councillor? Or was it when he was a Minister in the Executive, both in the previous Executive and in this one? All those roles were simultaneous, yet the Member seems keen to lecture us on double-jobbing.
I have recognised it for some time, and I said at the beginning that it was obvious at the early stages that people had a perfectly legitimate reason for staying on in here and in councils, because the future of this place was uncertain. If you have come to the conclusion that the future of this place is not uncertain, the rationale for remaining in councils diminishes. The obvious question of conflict of interest arises because, if you are in charge of a Department that makes decisions on an issue before a council — planning committees being merely advisory — and yet you are consulted by the Department you are in charge of as a member of the council, of course there is a conflict. That is blatantly obvious. It was recognised by previous Environment Ministers such as Sam Foster and Arlene Foster, who removed themselves from planning committees and local councils when they took that office. No argument can be advanced to say that that is right.
There is again a conflict when it comes to waste management and other things, where huge amounts of money are involved. In other parts of the United Kingdom, that is fully understood, and, as our local government hopefully becomes more powerful, the risk of conflict will rise. That is fairly obvious, and, as Mr Savage and other Members said, there is the burden and strain of trying to be in two places at once. If this place is mature and is here to stay, surely being a Member here is a full-time job. We are paid well and are given substantial office cost allowances, travel allowances and other things. Of course, I accept that being a councillor is not a full-time job. There is a risk of conflict of interest. So why the big fuss? Why not accept that there will be national legislation to deal with these matters in any event?
Just a moment, please.
There will be national legislation, because there will be recalcitrant elements who will not bow to it. There will be those who feel that they can continue to hold the different mandates, and, ultimately, it will be resolved only by legislation.
Is the Member aware that the Secretary of State said that he would legislate on membership of this House and the national Parliament at Westminster? When will that legislation come forward in line with the legislation that he has just mentioned on membership of this House and local councils? The Secretary of State has failed to deliver on the other legislation, so is there any certainty that he will deliver on that?
We would be delivering on this if it were not for the petition of concern, so we could have ticked the box to say that at least we had done our bit. The Secretary of State will deal with his matters in his own time, and he has indicated that, perhaps, before 2013, he will introduce legislation. I hope that that is the case. We could deal with our own things. We are happy to say that we are so pleased to have this place because at least we can control our own affairs. On this issue, we can control our own affairs, but we have decided that we will not control them. We have decided that we will block the Bill on the basis that we want to continue with a practice that is unnecessary.
I love local government. It is a great institution, and it kept the democratic flag flying in this country when all other institutions had forsaken it. Many of the types of people who used to go into local government, whether from business or from other activities, went away at the beginning of the Troubles, and it was populated by people who tried to keep the flame of democracy alive in this country. I was privileged to be part of that, and I am a great believer in local government. I hope that RPA gets implemented and that local government is strengthened. I am not making any criticism of local government, but the point is that being in here is a full-time job.
There are risks of conflict of interest that do not have to be run, and there is no reason to run those risks. I refuse to believe that there are not a couple of dozen people out in the country who could fill the places occupied by MLAs. The argument was that we could not lose all of the expertise, but I do not think that people out there take that view. There would be no shortage of people to fill the places on local councils vacated by MLAs. Therefore, the sensible thing would have been to take a lead and pass the legislation so that, whatever the Secretary of State did, we could say that we had taken the lead and delivered. In those circumstances, we would add to and enhance the reputation of the House, because it would be populated by people who were devoted exclusively to the work that needs to be done in here, and, let us be honest, there will plenty of that in the years ahead.
In the past few weeks, I have had the experience of going to the House of Lords in Westminster, and I have seen that it is impossible to do two jobs because you literally cannot be in two places at once. You are back and forward on a plane, and it is impossible to do two jobs properly. I think that it does a disservice to our constituents and to everybody else. Therefore, we should simply say that we are MLAs, we have full-time jobs, we have plenty to do, and we have no shortage of problems to resolve. What is the big driver to say that we must retain our role in local government?
It would have been preferable if we had all done the whole thing voluntarily, and, as Brian Wilson said, the issue resolved itself. However, it is perfectly obvious that that is not going to happen. Hopefully, if the legislation is brought forward to implement the review of public administration, perhaps Ms Purvis will have another opportunity, if she is returned, to bring another Bill forward, or somebody else will bring it forward, and it might be possible to deal with it at that stage.
Money is not the issue. The issue is whether there is a conflict between being a councillor and an MLA. I think that there is a potential conflict, and I believe that the back-up to that is that being an MLA is a full-time job. The job of a councillor is not a full-time one, and I readily accept that. It is a good thing to have people from different backgrounds and people who work at different things involved in local government because they bring expertise. Some councillors are businesspeople, teachers or farmers, and it is good to have that mix. However, for the foreseeable future, this place will need the 100% attention of Members who will be returned here on 5 May. I do not think that it is good enough to operate at 75% capacity.
I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council. There has been a lot of hypocrisy on this issue, and I could draw Members’ attention to various things, but I will not go down that route. I expect that I would be chastised fairly quickly by the Deputy Speaker anyway. However, I will take one point that Lord Empey made about an MLA being a full-time job and it needing 100% of Members’ attention. If we are to have legislation to make that the case, let us ban anyone from receiving any form of remuneration outside of this Chamber.
When I was elected in 1998, I became a non-practising barrister, and I have not taken a penny in that work subsequent to becoming a full-time MLA. I have to say that that practice has not necessarily been shared around the Chamber during those 13 years. I was perfectly prepared to have no safety net. If we cannot justify someone carrying out the fairly compatible roles of councillor and MLA, let us ban every other form of remuneration. Let us at least be consistent.
At Second Stage, I said that my guiding principle, which remains, is that democracy is about letting the people decide. We are told that there is an angry mob out there with pitchforks, and that they are ready to attack us over this issue. If it is such a key issue, it did not show up when there was public consultation on the issue, as we found at the Committee for the Environment. However, let us leave that aside. We are told that there is such anger, yet Mr Beggs said that if an MLA runs for council, they will get elected. Therefore, according to Mr Beggs, people are so stupid that, even though they are very angry about somebody being an MLA and a councillor, they will not vote them out of one of those roles when they are given the opportunity.
I have great faith in people. Let the people decide. Even if every party voluntarily ensured that not a single Member was performing more than one role, I still do not believe that it would be right to legislate for a ban. I believe that parties should have the opportunity to select whomever they want, and the electorate should have the right to vote for whomever they want. That is the principle.
Reference was made to the fact that the petition of concern was not lodged at an earlier stage. Perhaps the Member who asked that did not realise that a petition of concern cannot be tabled at Further Consideration Stage. It is not allowed. Let us leave that aside.
This party was prepared to put some of the concerns that we had in connection with the issue. We did not divide the House at Second Stage, although we raised our concerns. We also raised concerns at Committee Stage. At Consideration Stage, we attempted to put down amendments, but they were ruled out. We put down amendments at Further Consideration Stage, and we offered a compromise of a phased withdrawal in 2014, which we felt that people could unite around. People rejected the opportunity for compromise, so they cannot complain to us.
Many of the parties or individuals who were responsible for tabling petitions of concern in the first place cannot complain when that parliamentary tool is used against them. We have no truck with that. To be fair, the other main opponents of the Bill, the Alliance Party, said consistently from day one that it is against petitions of concerns. Its position has been consistent. Members cannot use petitions of concern when it suits them and say that it is a terrible abuse at other times.
The Member was there at the time, so he knows perfectly well that petitions of concern were introduced in order to stop one side of the unionist/nationalist divide pushing through legislation against the wishes of the other. It was designed as a cross-community protection. It was not designed to protect DUP big hitters from being removed and trying to maximise their vote for party-political gain. That was not what it was for.
I was there, and I am proud to say that I was the first person in Northern Ireland to say no to the Belfast Agreement, having read it, and I stick by that position. You cannot create a parliamentary tool and then complain when it is used against you. It was used very early on in respect of the Civic Forum. I do not believe that that is something that is cross-community.
The proposer of the motion castigated us for using a petition of concern, but I did not see the same concern at the use of a petition of concern when it was used to kill off the definition of victims in a particular Bill. There was silence then, was there not? There was no criticism then. I will not take any criticism of our use of the petition of concern.
I want to deal with other issues. I have served here for 13 years. I am in a relatively unusual position in that I was a Member of the Legislative Assembly before I was a councillor, so perhaps I see things from a slightly different perspective. Conflicts of interest have been talked about. I have not seen a great deal of conflicts of interest during my time, but I have seen complementarity of interest. I am perfectly happy to admit that I feel that I am a better MLA since I became a councillor in 2005. My work as a councillor has given me a perspective, which, perhaps, I did not have before 2005. Mr Farry, Brian Wilson, Mr Cree and Mr Easton brought something to North Down Borough Council, because of the perspective that they have gained as MLAs. There is merit in that, so I do not accept the argument about a conflict of interests.
We have been told about the unemployment figures in Northern Ireland. The unemployment situation is a terrible human tragedy. However, given the number of additional spaces that will be opened up for part-time jobs, our unemployment problems will not be solved by whatever we do on dual mandates.
There is an idea that power is concentrated in the hands of too few people. I think that we have 592 councillors in Northern Ireland, and about half our MLAs are not councillors now. We have about 650 representatives. Expanding that to 700 people will not make a major difference in the measure of success in that regard.
The issue of what happens when someone is removed from the Assembly, for instance, has been mentioned. All parties are guilty on this, and my party is as guilty as anybody else. Every co-option vacancy in the Assembly has been filled by a man. Therefore the idea that opening up additional spaces naturally leads to greater diversity is not borne out by the figures.
The one issue in which there is some merit is covered in the phrase that someone should not have more than one paid full-time job. I pay tribute to those who served in local government quite a number of years ago. Local government has never been a full-time job; everyone in local government is doing another full-time job, unless they are retired.
The Member has said that he supports the concept that a person should not have more than one full-time job. Does he not accept that two of his party’s Assembly team are full-time Assembly Members and, supposedly, full-time Members of Parliament, despite that party’s 2010 manifesto promise to end that practice within weeks?
I do not want to personalise it, but I will not accept criticism on broken manifesto pledges from members of that party. There appeared to be no conflict of interest for the Member during his time as councillor, or during the 18 years that his father served as both an MP and a councillor. There is rank hypocrisy in a lot of that.
The one thing that strikes me as being quite bizarre, which Mr Wilson also referred to, is that, as anybody will indicate, being a councillor is not a full-time job. It has a degree of complementarity. The most bizarre bit of the argument is the suggested evils of somebody who is a professional politician representing people on a council. Heaven forfend that we actually have professionals in local government; that would be a terrible crime. We can have any profession represented in a local council. We can have a solicitor, an architect, someone who has been a bin man or someone who is an estate agent, or whatever. We can have any profession under the sun, but, under the Bill, the one profession that would be barred from being a councillor is a politician: someone who is a full-time public representative. That strikes me as a bizarre piece of legislation.
As was indicated, my party has taken action to start to phase out dual mandates. Indeed, looking at the numbers, we have done more than any other party. I am not going to rehearse the arguments about the hypocrisy of a number of the parties here. We are committed to phasing out dual mandates completely by 2015, but it needs to be done in an orderly fashion.
I am not going to risk commenting on that in light of who is sitting in the Deputy Speaker’s position, but I note the issue. Removal of a mandate, which could happen to any of us, can either be voluntary or thrust upon us, but that is another thing.
There is an argument that people should not be paid twice for the same work. That is why, despite the fact that our amendment regarding payment of a councillor who is also an MLA was rejected by the House, our party has, through the Department of the Environment (DOE), put out a consultation on levels of remuneration and options relating to that, including the complete removal of any form of remuneration. That will be picked up by the next DOE Minister. That is the area in which there is proper public concern. With the best will in the world, there has not been overdue concern regarding dual mandates in recent years. The concern has been about the level of alleged abuse by parliamentarians, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, of the expenses system. As such, dealing with the finance is the crucial issue.
Whatever we do today, we will soon all be going into an election. Various Members have referred to voting records and attendance records. My party leads the league table, both in attendance and voting records. My colleagues and I will be happy to put forward our record. Others should be more than happy to explain theirs.
It concerns me that there is a holier-than-thou attitude, which I may be accused of at times. Many Members just go to Committees, click in and then disappear out the door having ticked the box. They may appear to have a good record, but whether they actually have a good record is for all of us to find out in due course.
I take that point. However, the people who should make a judgment call on that are the electorate. They are sovereign in any democracy, and that is why we should be loath to put any impediment on who can and who cannot run in an election.
I will give way in a second or two. I know that the Member is a conscientious Committee member and a conscientious Member of the House, but a team of wild horses could not have dragged his predecessor to a Committee, and every Tuesday he disappeared off to London, not on parliamentary business, but on whatever business he was doing. Therefore, I do not know whether the record of the Ulster Unionist Party in South Antrim is necessarily squeaky clean in that regard. However, I suspect that we could all be accused of being holier than thou.
I thank the Member for giving way. I heard clearly what the Member for South Antrim Mr Kinahan said about attendance at Committees and our party’s attendance at Committees. He made that comment the last time the Bill was debated in the House, and, as someone who sits next to him on the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I am not going to take lectures. When the First Minister and the deputy First Minister addressed the Committee, neither he nor his party leader, the Chairman of the Committee, were in attendance. Indeed, when the Ulster Unionist Party’s Armed Forces and Veterans Bill was down to be discussed, DUP Committee members forced it through when Sinn Féin opposed it, because Committee members from the Ulster Unionist Party were not there.
I take on board what has been said, and I will not get into private disputes. Ultimately, in six or seven weeks there will be an election, and the people will have opportunity to make their choice at council and MLA levels.
I do not wish to go over this any longer, but the Member should know that we were at funerals that day, and I was actually supporting one of his party colleagues at one of them. He should be aware that Members are often not at Committee meetings for very good reasons, but there are those who are not.
I thank the Member. As I said, it is not my place to comment on what individual Members attend. At least that is a better excuse than Members suggesting that they will not be in the Chamber to vote on petty motions. There can be legitimate reasons why Members are absent, but the bottom line is that whatever the position is, the electorate should be free to choose.
We did try to find some way that we believed the House could unite around. However, that was rejected, and some people are reaping what they have sown. They had the opportunity to have something that we could all live with, even though it was not our ideal position. However, if Members will take absolutist positions, they may find that they get nothing.
For the sake of democracy, let us ensure that people have the opportunity to vote for whoever they want and parties have the right to put forward whoever they want. We have had a lot of lectures about democracy, but that lies at the heart of democracy, and that is why I oppose the Bill.
I will try not to be too long, but that really depends on how many interventions I get as we go through things. I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council, albeit an outgoing member. I am not quite sure whether that interest really applies; if the Bill is ever passed it will be a non-issue for me.
The Alliance Party will be opposing the Bill tonight. That reflects the consistent approach that we have taken throughout the process in terms of scepticism and opposition to the Bill as it has moved through its various stages. That said, the Alliance Party does not agree with or condone the use of a petition of concern as a device to kill the Bill. The party was happy to take its chances with the argument on the Floor of the Assembly, and to vote accordingly. The Alliance Party does see that there are limited circumstances in which a petition of concern can be viewed as a legitimate device, but I am concerned at the frequency with which it has been used in recent weeks. That is something that we, as an Assembly, are going to have to reflect on as we look to the new mandate. We will go through the No Lobby based on our judgement, and whatever will be will be.
To be slightly fair to the DUP, it could have killed the Bill off at an earlier stage if it was minded to do so. However, opportunities for a compromise were missed, parties stuck to a particular line the whole way through and there was no real shift. Unfortunate as it is, and however much I disagree with the device, there is, perhaps, an inevitability about what is about to happen given earlier indications.
From my party’s perspective, a real conflict of interest lies in someone being a Minister and a councillor. With all due respect to the now Lord Empey, he was a Minister when he was on Belfast City Council, and was still on Belfast City Council after 1 April 2010. He did not take the earliest opportunity to remove the perceived conflict of interest that he outlined today.
A problem also exists with the MP/MLA dual mandate. Those are two full-time elected posts. Naomi Long addressed that issue shortly after being elected as MP for East Belfast. It is greatly regrettable that parties continue with MP/MLA dual mandates. Although that might not be germane to the debate, it is part of the wider perspective in which the councillor/MLA issue has to be seen. We are addressing what may be viewed as the lesser of all evils, if one’s perspective is that this is an evil, whereas the bigger evil goes unaddressed. Parties prepared to put their hands up to ban this today have the opportunity to address a dual mandate that exists elsewhere but stubbornly refuse to do so. Indeed, there are Members who are MPs and are intent on going forward for re-election as MLAs in a few weeks’ time. However, it is for them to explain to the electorate the consistency of their approach.
My other point about attitude, complexity and contradictions is that I am aware, as are others with regard to the Ulster Unionist Party first of all, that there are councillors here who did not avail themselves of the opportunity to step down. If that is a problem today and will be a problem tomorrow and after the election, it is still a problem today. The legal opportunity exists to step down.
Does the Member not agree that it is peculiar, given that they refer to some sort of voluntary opportunities, that they are putting forward candidates who are running for council and the Assembly in the next term?
Yes indeed. That is to be the case in my constituency of North Down. I am not sure what the situation is elsewhere in Northern Ireland, but I find that bizarre, because, if you believe in the spirit of this Bill, even if it does not become law, and you think that it is wrong and are prepared to go through the Lobby because of that, the only logical conclusion that you can reach as an individual and a party is to voluntarily stop people from having a dual mandate.
That opportunity can be availed of today with utter surety because there is a guaranteed replacement through the party nominating officer. There will still be that surety after the election. I am not sure why anyone would be standing for two posts if that is the view of the party.
I missed part of an intervention earlier when Mr Beggs indicated that he had not left because, I think he said, of the honourable reason that he was elected. How will that stack up in the next mandate when they are putting a candidate up for a council, the Assembly and suggesting that they will possibly stand down their councillor and replace them then but cannot replace them now?
I agree with Mr Clarke. If people are going to run for the Assembly and council in the election in May, I would like to think that they are genuine about wishing to serve in the respective roles.
In just a second. I would like to think that if they are elected to both, they will fulfil those roles. The most cynical thing that anyone could do is put their name forward to the electorate, and for people to honestly and in good faith put their faith in them as their choice of public representative, bearing in mind that people still vote for individuals on ballot papers and not just party labels, and then step down for someone else who was not on the ballot paper to come in. That is quite cynical. I appreciate that there might be circumstances when Members, sadly, die or circumstances change so dramatically that they have to step down from those posts. However, if people are going into an election mindful of stepping down shortly thereafter, that is wrong. I give way to Councillor Kelly.
I am no longer Councillor Kelly. Mrs Kelly stood down from Craigavon Borough Council on 31 December and has been very ably replaced by Joe Nelson.
Mr Farry, based on what you have said and, indeed, the interventions by —
Sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. Based on what Mr Farry has said and the comments from Members across the way in relation to the cynical cheating of the electorate, if you like, if people are going to run for two positions but not step down, is it safe to assume that those DUP Members who are currently MLAs and are going to stand again for council will run the four-year term?
I am not entirely sure how I, as an Alliance representative, could possibly answer on behalf of the DUP. Maybe Mrs Kelly should have intervened when a DUP Member was speaking. I am happy to facilitate a dialogue across the Chamber if necessary. All that I can say from my party’s perspective is that, if people are running for election to two posts in May, they should be serious about both posts. I apologise for referring to Mrs Kelly as Councillor Kelly. I have to say that, if she only stepped down on 31 January, I am disappointed because she did not step down on 1 April, which was the earliest opportunity to do so. I am not sure why she would hang on for a further eight or nine months, but we will allow people to draw their own conclusions from that.
Does the Member accept that, if a councillor is in an area where their party does not have an MLA, it would be unhealthy if that local councillor could not at least aspire to become an MLA or try to do so? In your scenario, they would have to give up all representation with perhaps not a high probability of being elected. Would it not be unhelpful in any democratic society if a local councillor could not aspire to be a second candidate or even to be the first candidate for their party to qualify to be part of the Assembly? If they wished to try, they would have to give up the council seat that they may have held for some time and cherished. The distinguishing issue is that those who aspire to get to a higher body should have that opportunity, but existing Members should not.
I have to say that I tend to agree with Councillor Beggs. He has set out a wonderful argument. However, the slight flaw in his approach is that that would be an argument against the Bill, as opposed to an argument for it.
If you read the Bill, you will see that that approach does not breach anything in it. The only issue is an undertaking, which we would get from any candidate who is not an MLA and is wishing to stand and we have already got from candidates, that they would maintain only one seat if elected.
In that case, they would be stepping down a matter of weeks after being elected to the council post or as an MLA. I think that that is the height of cynicism. To my mind and from my party’s point of view, it is possible for people to serve as both a councillor and a Back-Bench — I stress the words Back-Bench — MLA.
I will move on to briefly summarise my party’s perspective on the Bill. I do not want to detain the House too long at this late hour. I have served in local government for 18 years. I am stepping down this year with considerable regret —
And, indeed, with great reluctance; thank you, Mrs Kelly. I am doing that for several reasons. It is my own choice in terms of how I manage my work/life balance, what I want to do in the Chamber and looking to the future. It is also a reflection of my assessment of the strength of my local association, where I have an excellent young candidate coming through, Michael Barr, who will hopefully succeed in my electoral area when I step down. That is my personal choice based on my own assessment of what is in the best interests of me, my party and my electorate.
I will not stand here and preach and dictate to others about their judgement on the best way forward. Ultimately, the electorate will have their say on the judgements that people make about whether they stand in one election or two elections and whether they are taking the correct approach.
I will not labour the point, but the job of councillor has always been understood to be part-time. Even if we implement the RPA, there is no suggestion that being a councillor will be anything other than a part-time job. We need to be careful about trying to give the impression that the situation is different. It is not just the case that the legislation will end up squeezing out other full-time elected representatives in paid posts; it will send out the message that anyone who works in any profession — in business, on a farm or in a school, for example — is not welcome in local government, because councillors have to have loads of time on their hands. Therefore, apart from students, we are essentially talking about people who are retired. That will mean that there is not a balanced representation among the pool of people in local government. Like others, I find it bizarre that we are saying that the only people who cannot serve as councillors are elected representatives in full-time positions elsewhere. I am not sure about the logic of that.
There is an argument about a conflict of interest for someone who is a councillor and an MLA. I accept that for councillors who are Ministers. That is fairly clear, and I regret that, from a number of party perspectives, that was not addressed as quickly as it should have been. Frankly, those parties could have addressed that issue safely.
For a Back-Bencher, an overlap between the two roles does not create a conflict due to any personal benefit that may accrue. The approach that I have taken, as I am sure others have, is that I serve my community. If an issue comes up, I will try to work it in whatever way I can. An MLA has access to the Assembly and Ministers to work an issue. I would not go as far as Mr Savage, who suggested that he raises individual planning applications with the Environment Minister. I have never done that, although I am not sure whether I am alone and have been missing out on something over the past four years. I would like to think that, if I tried to do something like that, I would be given short shrift by the Environment Minister and that his officials would feel miffed that the proper processes were not followed. If that did happen, the integrity of our planning process would be drawn into question. However, MLAs can use the Floor of the Assembly and their ability to influence Ministers to work a local issue. Equally, being on a council gives you access and a greater understanding of local issues. Of course, the argument could be made that that could be done by someone else and through party colleagues working with one another. However, sometimes it is more efficient for someone to be well briefed at both angles. If that is what someone wants to do, subject to the electorate granting them the respective mandates, I do not see the harm in it.
In my 18 years as a councillor, including the past four as an MLA, I have rarely come across a situation, either here or in the council, where I have felt any discomfort or any conflict of interest because I serve in both chambers. There have been situations where I have had to declare an interest and where I have seen councillors declaring an interest.
Absolutely. Those interests can be many and varied. For example, if I am sitting on the council and receive a consultation document from a Department, it is not a conflict of interest. I will simply give a view on it as a councillor in the same way as I might give a view on an issue as an MLA on the Floor. It is just saying the same thing in two different bodies.
I do not think that we have had an instance in the Chamber where the interests of local government have run roughshod over the interests of central government. It is not true that there is greater localism in Northern Ireland than would otherwise have been the case if we did not have so many people with dual mandates. That has not come across. If anything during the past few years, there has been a growing tension in this place between central government and local government, notwithstanding the fact that we have people holding dual mandates, on issues such as the allocation of resources and the tensions between the two when new powers have come along. Perhaps we may be able to pour some oil on troubled waters, given some people’s dual role. However, the point is slightly exaggerated.
The only point that I genuinely recognise as being legitimate, worth merit and worth engaging with is the diversity of representatives. It is important that we reflect on who we are bringing through and give people an opportunity to serve. However, going down the legislative route at this stage is not necessarily the right way to crack that problem, although I accept that there is a problem for all parties in ensuring diversity. I may be proud of some of the things that my party has done — promoting women, promoting ethnic minorities and promoting people of different sexual orientations, as well as its balance of religious background — but I am not prepared to pat myself on the back. There is much more that my party can do. However, the first challenge and where we should leave things at this stage is to ask the parties to do that sort of thing. I was reflecting on that issue earlier, and I cannot think of an example in my party of people from different backgrounds being denied opportunities to run for office. If anything, the opposite is true. The issue for all of us is to ensure that we bring through that diversity and encourage people. Parties do not have a blocking mechanism for that diversity, and we are all conscious of the need to promote it. That is the Alliance Party’s perspective, and I will leave it there.
It has been a long day and a long debate, and I appreciate it that Members stayed to take part. I recognise and understand that there are some in the Chamber who would like to delay implementation of the legislation, as it creates real inconvenience for them. However, democracy and democratic processes are not meant to advantage one group over another; they are meant to be fair and equitable. Therefore, we will all have to meet the challenge of broadening our support and recruiting new members and candidates either in preparation for the May elections or the ones that will follow. Some parties have already made great strides in that direction, and others have not.
I will refer to some Members’ comments. The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, Cathal Boylan, referred to the Committee process and its detailed scrutiny of the Bill. I thank the Committee for that, and I thank him for his encouragement. He pointed out that there is clearly a conflict of interest between being an MLA and being a councillor. It is important to point out that the petition of concern was submitted with 35 names from the DUP, and 31 of those names have a dual mandate. They not only have a dual mandate but have many other positions afforded to them by their membership of council: Sydney Anderson, councillor, Craigavon Borough Council, chairman of the development committee, member of Craigavon District Policing Partnership and so on; Jonathan Bell, councillor, Ards Borough Council, Committee of the Regions, EU working group, member of the South Eastern Education and Library Board; Allan Bresland, MLA and councillor —
Thomas Buchanan, MLA and councillor; Gregory Campbell, MLA, MP and councillor; Trevor Clarke, MLA, MP — sorry, MLA and councillor [Interruption.] You were getting promoted; maybe you are running again. Jonathan Craig, MLA and councillor; Alex Easton, MLA and councillor; Arlene Foster, MLA, was a councillor; Paul Frew, MLA and councillor; Paul Girvan, MLA and councillor; Paul Givan, MLA and councillor; Simon Hamilton, MLA and councillor — [Interruption.] He did not change his entry on the Register of Members’ Interests, and it is his responsibility to do so. David Hilditch, MLA and councillor; William Humphrey, councillor, MLA and deputy lord mayor; William Irwin, councillor and MLA; Nelson McCausland, councillor and MLA —
It has not been changed.
Ian McCrea, councillor and MLA; Michelle McIlveen, councillor and MLA — [Interruption.] This information is from the Register of Members’ Interests as of today, and it is the responsibility of Members to change the register.
Adrian McQuillan, councillor and MLA; Lord Morrow, councillor, MLA and Member of the House of Lords; Stephen Moutray, councillor and MLA; Robin Newton, councillor and MLA; Edwin Poots, councillor and MLA; George Robinson, councillor and MLA — [Interruption.] The register was not changed.
The First Minister is still down on the register as an MP, so he has got that wrong too; Alastair Ross; Jimmy Spratt, councillor and MLA; Mervyn Storey, councillor and MLA; Peter Weir, councillor and MLA. What a list of things Mr Weir just gave up in November. Had he not given them up in November, there would have been five wage packets on top of his MLA salary. Jim Wells, councillor and MLA; and Sammy Wilson, who gave up his council seat, MLA and Member of Parliament.
Thirty five names —
I am speaking. Of the 35 Members named on a petition of concern submitted at the Final Stage of a Bill about local government, 31 have a dual mandate, and the majority of them, all but two or three, are councillors. Only one Member of the party opposite declared an interest in this debate. It is absolutely shameful. There is a clear conflict of interest. We are debating a Bill that will end dual mandates for the Assembly and councils, and it is all councillors who have signed the petition of concern to stop the Bill. [Interruption.]
No, I am not giving way.
I make my point again: that is the clear conflict of interest. A group of Members can vote against a Bill or table a petition of concern to kill at Final Stage a Bill that has gone through every democratic process in this Chamber and in Committee. That party could have killed the Bill at Second Stage. Earlier, Mr Weir referred to the Victims and Survivors (Disqualification) Bill, which was killed at Second Stage because there were Members opposed to the principles of the Bill. That is why it was killed at Second Stage. [Interruption.] The DUP was opposed to this Bill from day one, but it did not kill it at Second Stage. [Interruption.] It waited until Final Stage, when the majority of Members and a majority on a cross-community basis support the Bill. It is an abuse of power and of the petition of concern mechanism by the DUP. It is an absolute abuse.
The petition of concern is a mechanism from the Good Friday Agreement that was designed — [Interruption.] You can laugh all you want, but you have worked every structure of the Belfast Agreement; you have enjoyed all the privileges of the Belfast Agreement; and you are sitting here because of the Belfast Agreement. [Interruption.]
We will see if they are still laughing in a minute. The Member clearly indicated that many of those who signed the petition of concern intend to stand again for local government. They have a direct financial interest in scuppering the Bill. Is the Member concerned about the failure of those Members to declare an interest and about the fact that they will be financially and personally better off if they scupper the Bill? Does she think that that needs to be referred elsewhere?
I thank the Member for his intervention. He makes the point very well. I do not think that some Members in the Chamber really get what a conflict of interest it, so it is worth repeating: a conflict of interest is unambiguously defined as a situation in which someone in a position of trust has competing professional or personal interests that may make it difficult for that person to fulfil his or her duties impartially. A conflict of interest exists even if no unethical or improper act has taken place, and, by definition, a conflict of interest arises if a person is merely in a position to exploit a situation for personal or professional gain. Signing a petition of concern is, therefore, exploiting a position for personal and professional gain, just as Mr Beggs pointed out.
It is important to address some of the issues that were raised during the debate. Mr Alastair Ross said that his party had led the way and done most to end dual mandates. That is absolutely right, and here is why: it ended most dual mandates because it held most in the first place. In fact, it holds most dual, triple and quadruple mandates, and that is why it had the most to do. If it is ending such mandates, it obviously thinks that it is right to do so. During the debate, the Member defended his decision not to support the Bill. However, his party must think that it is right to end dual mandates because it has made strides to do so. As I said, it has ended most dual mandates because it had most to end, and yet it does not support the legislation.
I thank the Member for giving way. Our position has been absolutely consistent throughout every stage of the Bill. We said that we favoured a voluntary, phased approach. The steps that my party has taken are totally in line with that position. Indeed, the amendments that we tabled at earlier stages of the Bill were in line with that. So the Member is totally wrong to say that there was any inconsistency in my party’s position.
Actually, I think that there is a bit of inconsistency in that message. Last Friday, Gregory Campbell said on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ that the DUP was in favour of legislation to end dual mandates in order to ensure that no party had an unfair advantage. How is that consistent with “We are phasing it out”? By the way, this Bill would ensure that no party had an unfair advantage. So, where is the consistency in that? It is a case of —
The Member is pointing out the inconsistency of the DUP’s approach. He talks about phasing out dual mandates, yet one of his party’s senior triple-jobbers talks about supporting legislation. Here is legislation that will ensure consistency right across the board, with no unfair advantage. Gregory Campbell was in support of legislation being introduced this year: 2011. This legislation is to be introduced this year — May 2011 — and the DUP has not supported it. There is no consistency.
No, I am not giving way.
There is no consistency in the DUP’s approach. The DUP referred to the electorate and to public voting. That point has been long rehearsed in all the debates that we have had on the issue. The public do not choose candidates; the political parties choose candidates. If Members want to move to primaries, in which the public select candidates, let us have a discussion about that. Let us see who the public would choose to be their candidates.
Alastair Ross raised my record on recorded votes. I need to repeat this —
Order. Please refer all remarks through the Chair. We do not want a tennis match between one Member and another. Throughout the entire debate, after Ms Purvis made her opening speech, she did not interrupt anybody else. I ask that Members give Ms Purvis the opportunity to make a winding-up speech on this debate.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I repeat that Alastair Ross referred to my recorded voting record. That is all that it is: a recorded voting record. I do not vote on the petty sectarian debates that take place in this Chamber. I have much more important issues to deal with for my constituents on a daily basis. I work hard for my constituents of East Belfast and represent them very well. I will not take part in any sectarian pettiness that comes from the other side of the House.
The amendments put forward by the DUP were not designed for compromise. If they had been, the DUP would have reached agreement with the other parties in the Chamber. The amendments were designed to kick the legislation into never-never land. They were designed to kick the legislation into touch. However, they were rejected outright by the majority of Members. That is the democratic process.
I referred to the use of the petition of concern, which, as I outlined, comes from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement that the DUP worked and has worked ever since quite well.
Roy Beggs talked about the changes in the Assembly and in local government. In particular, he talked about the additional powers that are going to local councils. He highlighted the conflict of interest, and I do not need to run through the Register of Members’ Interests again. He talked also about the use of the petition of concern. He said that the DUP had lost the vote and abused its power in narrow self-interest. He also pointed out, as did many Members throughout the debate, that being an MLA is a full-time job. Full-time. End of. Period. Full stop. It is not extra full-time, and it is not bigger full-time. It is a full-time job. Full stop. The point is not that being a councillor is a part-time job; it is that being an MLA is a full-time job. The public — [Interruption.]
The public deserve full-time representation from Members of the Assembly. Roy Beggs pointed out Gregory Campbell’s attendance at meetings. Of course, as we know, you only have to show up at the start, middle or end of a Committee meeting to be marked present.
The Member has spent some time emphasising that being in the Assembly is a full-time job. Should Margaret Ritchie resign from either the Assembly or Westminster? Should Alasdair McDonnell resign from the Assembly or Westminster? Should Martin McGuinness resign from the Assembly or Westminster? Will I go on? Is it just the DUP?
The First Minister raised it.
John Dallat stepped down from Coleraine Borough Council after 33 years. I am sure that he will be missed, but I also welcome the fact that a young woman was co-opted in his place. He referred to the many other offices that a councillor holds and said that it was extreme arrogance to exclude others and stifle voices. He thinks that DUP Members have wing mirrors on their shoulders and probably fear their own colleagues.
Brian Wilson declared an interest and said that he would not stand as an MLA again. He asked why, if double mandates are acceptable in other regions of the United Kingdom, they are not acceptable here. He got a bit confused. He said that he does not support the legislation and then insisted that MLAs should follow their counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom and resign from councils.
George Savage also declared an interest. He said that there is an issue with the public. He understands why, at one time, people wanted to hold on to two positions but said that that time and this place have changed. He said that there was strong support for the Bill in the community and that it was an opportunity to move forward. Patsy McGlone said that it was a good private Member’s Bill that would introduce consistency to prevent situations in which conflicts of interest may occur and allow us to devote ourselves to one office. He also referred to how well remunerated we are for that office.
Lord Empey paid tribute to all those who served in local government. I, too, recognised them in my opening remarks. He said that, in the past few years, there has been a campaign to break up political cartels. He said that it is not right, that it is recognised that it is not right and, indeed, that many of those present on the DUP Back Benches have benefited from the recognition that dual mandates are wrong, as many of them are here because they were co-opted. [Interruption.] Lord Empey said that it is fundamentally a conflict of interest and that being an Assembly Member is a full-time job. He said that national legislation will come forward very soon and that the DUP wants to continue a practice that he believes is unnecessary. He said that there was no shortage of people who want to fill vacancies on local councils. He is probably right, but they just do not want to fill DUP seats.
Peter Weir declared an interest. He said that there was an awful lot of hypocrisy in the debate and that he found his roles as MLA and councillor compatible. He said that the people should decide. They will. Peter also said that his amendments were a form of compromise, but he did not work with other parties to reach a compromise on them. His amendments were defeated by the majority of Members. He lost in the democratic process and has refused to accept the will of the House. Peter said that he does not accept that there is a conflict of interest. He mentioned job losses but failed to recognise that he seeks to protect dual mandates in dire economic times, which is outrageous.
There is a concentration of power. I referred to the petition of concern. If you need any more evidence of a concentration of power, you just need to look at it. You said that you had done most to phase out dual mandates. Again, that is because you had most double-jobbers.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Member to continually refer to another Member as “You”? You have asked Members on a number of occasions to speak through the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Member is continually referring to Mr Weir as “You”, and I presume that that is not in order.
You are quite correct: it is not in order for a Member to refer to another Member as “You”. However, I recall, on a number of occasions, the accuser being guilty of the very same thing.
I will make a few comments about Mr Farry. He declared an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council, from which he is going to step down. He said that he was opposed to the Bill and that his party’s opposition to it is consistent. I got a bit lost when he mentioned consistency versus absolutism, because I did not really know what he was talking about. He went on to criticise the DUP without naming them but was happy to name the UUP when he was accusing them. He said that the real conflict of interest was between being a Minister, a councillor, an MP and an MLA. During the consultation on the Bill, not everyone in his party agreed with his stated position. In fact, many of the councillors are opposed to dual mandates, and that may be why he is stepping down.
This is not the first country to ban dual mandates in regional and local government, and it will certainly not be the last. More countries, including the Republic of Ireland, are taking that step. Although there will be a few inconveniences now for parties, there will be benefits in the future. The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s 2009 report, which looked into the controversy over MPs’ expenses, noted that double-jobbing is
“unusually ingrained in the political culture”
of Northern Ireland. It is telling that an investigation into failures in government and the abuse of privilege by elected officials incorporated an assessment of dual mandates in Northern Ireland. It is so endemic that, frequently, I find that local journalists assume that I am a councillor when, in fact, I am not, nor have I ever been. The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that the Government ban multiple mandates in Westminster and the devolved Assemblies as of the 2011 Assembly elections. Do the same reasons not make it inappropriate for an MLA to be a councillor? I think that they do. Being an MLA is a full-time job, full stop.
I cannot control the choices that political parties make. I can only seek to influence them through the Bill. I hope that they will see that the Bill creates opportunities for growth and renewal for themselves. That, by its very nature, will force the incorporation of new voices. Those of you who have already been out canvassing and meeting voters cannot tell me that you do not detect a strong degree of scepticism and disconnect among the electorate. Levels of voter registration and turnout are down, and we are slowly failing to inspire the people of this country to feel that we have an important and compelling role in their life. That is a mistake that we cannot afford to make. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that we can continue to work together to ensure that we offer the people of Northern Ireland the best possible form of government.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Who is entitled to vote on this issue? In the past, I have been given advice that Members should not vote on an issue from which they will personally financially benefit. [Interruption.] This is a serious point. It is clear to me that, if a Member has indicated that he or she is seeking to stand as an MLA and as a councillor, they will financially benefit from voting against the Bill. Will you clarify, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether such a vote would be against the code of conduct? [Interruption.]
Order. I thank the Member for that point of order. Members have declared any interests in the Register of Members’ Interests. The motion before us is before the House, and all Members elected to this House are entitled to vote.
Further to that point of order, I have been given advice, when other issues were coming forward, that, if there were direct financial benefits to an individual, that individual should not take part in the vote. [Interruption.]
Mr Beggs, you asked the question; please listen to the answer. The advice that you have received is incorrect. Members’ interests are included in the Register, and all Members are entitled to vote. [Interruption.] Order. After three hours of debate and nearly 12 hours in the Chamber, I remind those Members who retain the will to live that the vote on the Final Stage will be on a cross-community basis.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 17; Noes 32.
Mr PJ Bradley, Mr Dallat, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Mr McGlone, Ms Ní Chuilín, Ms S Ramsey.
Mr Beggs, Lord Empey, Mr Gardiner, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Mr McFarland, Ms Purvis.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mrs D Kelly and Mr McFarland.
Mr S Anderson, Mr Bell, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Easton, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr I McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Ross and Mr Weir.
Total votes 49 Total Ayes 17 [34.7%]
Nationalist Votes 10 Nationalist Ayes 10 [100.0%]
Unionist Votes 36 Unionist Ayes 7 [19.4%]
Other Votes 3 Other Ayes 0 [0.0%]
Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).
Adjourned at 10.17 pm.