Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [ Lords]

Part of Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 11th March 2010.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party 3:21 pm, 11th March 2010

As a Member of this House who has also been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and sits there, I begin by declaring the appropriate interest.

The Bill is welcome because it will help to discharge the agreed wish of all the parties in the Assembly-to make sure that we move beyond the strict provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which obliges the Assembly to be responsible for setting its pay and pension arrangements, to appoint an independent body. Because the Assembly is bound by the 1998 Act, legislation is needed in this Parliament to enable the Assembly to do that. As the Minister indicated, that is the clear wish and intent. The Speaker of the Assembly and relevant officials have committed themselves to providing a Bill. We know that Bills are often promised and we commit ourselves to all sorts of reforms and schemes of legislation in Northern Ireland that are often delayed. I hope that that Bill will not be one of them, because it is important.

I recall the 1998 Act and the issues that determined the drawing up of the rules. Northern Ireland Office Ministers at the time felt that that was the way to do it. They did not want to open up other issues. They thought that setting up other bodies might be more complicated and could give rise to other questions. That was then. We are all in a different place now and are looking at the issues in the light of different considerations and different public attitudes.

This Bill has been given welcome amendments to make further moves on the question of the dual mandate. I stated my personal position in the Assembly as far back as February 2009, in a debate on dual mandates: if I was re-elected to this House it would be on the basis that I would stand down from the Assembly. I did not believe that the dual mandate was sustainable, particularly if we achieved the devolution of justice and policy and had a more complete and settled Assembly, freer from some of the duplication of business that goes through this place and also plays out in the Assembly. Such things gave rise to parties needing people to perform a dual mandate, with particular obligations on those in leadership positions to be in both the Assembly and the House at Westminster. The more the business in both Chambers becomes distinct, and the more complete and settled the process, the more the case for such transition juggling disappears. I set out clearly in personal terms that that was the case.

My party made those points in submissions to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee as far back as late 2007. We said that all parties needed to agree and commit to either a fixed date or a point in the electoral cycle when dual mandates should end. Unless we get a fixed position on that from all the parties, one party will use what another party is doing as its excuse for having to continue the dual mandate, particularly when leadership figures in one party have dual mandate and make that claim on the basis that there is some justification for it, by way of advantage or influence. Other parties would also feel compelled or justified in doing the same, so it needs to be set.

There have been motions and debates in the Assembly on this issue-not just the one in February that I have mentioned but another last November when the Ulster Unionist party tabled a motion that highlighted the Kelly committee recommendation that 2011 would be a desirable end-date for the dual mandate. My party supported that motion and opposed the Democratic Unionist party's amendment that 2015 should be the backstop, so we were saying that the dual mandate should be terminated sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party combined to go for the later date-the Alliance completely confounding the position that had been taken up on its behalf, based on its previous position, by the Liberal Democrats, including by Members of another place and this House who had raised that issue in early-day motions. So, the Alliance party confounded its position-all, as we know, in pursuit of other gains, offices and privileges. [ Interruption. ] It changed its position on that. We, at least, have been consistent on that issue and others, and we have not embarrassed our friends or ourselves in anything that we have done in that regard. I say that to Mr. Carmichael who is making remarks from a sedentary position.

The amendment tabled in another place to end the practice by which someone who has a dual mandate receives a third of the salary of an MLA if they are also an MP is welcome and we agree with it. Indeed, that is one of the things that we suggested as far as back as the submissions that we made to the AERC in November 2007. However, the steps to reduce the dual pay, or the fraction of dual pay, should not, of itself, be seen to deal with or discharge the question mark over dual mandates per se. For reasons that other hon. Members have touched on, I believe that the issue still needs to be clearly and cleanly resolved in its own terms.

The amendment perhaps does not go far enough, because although the Bill allows people to be Members of the Assembly and not be paid as MLAs, it still allows them to be Ministers or other office holders in the Assembly and to be paid as such. I believe that a Minister in an Assembly should be full time, accountable and available to that Assembly and should not also be in another place. That is my position and that is why I did not take up an appointment as a Minister in the current Executive when I could have done so when devolution came in 2007. Having been a Minister before, when I was not an MP, I knew the pressures, issues and difficulties of the work, so I made that choice. I still think that that is an issue to consider and I would welcome a further amendment to the Bill on that. If there were such an amendment, I would accept an exception, if Members wanted one, for the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which should of course be elected by the Assembly, although they currently are not in what is a departure from the Good Friday Agreement, under the St. Andrews agreement. If we were to revert to having the Assembly elect the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, then I would say, in the same spirit as the comments of Sir Patrick Cormack, that the Assembly should have the choice to elect whomsoever it chooses as a Member. Otherwise, there should be that restriction on the role of Ministers as a matter of principle.

People have been able to justify the dual mandate until now because of all the circumstances, transition and change. Some of us, including David Simpson, have been able to use our different roles in a complementary way-in changing credit union regulation, for example. We both used our positions on a Committee in the Assembly to address the issue there, and we are also using our positions here to take forward the other side of that issue. These are other examples about which we can say that we have been able to use the roles in a sensible and complementary way, but I do not believe that those good examples can be stretched any longer into a general rule of justification for dual mandates.

I believe that the business that will confront this House in the next term will be big enough and that it will touch on the lives of many people in Northern Ireland. It will interface quite heavily with devolution. I do not agree with my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay that there is such a neat and total separation between all the public business that is conducted in this House and the strict confines of devolution, given the budgets and laws that are set here. In many ways, they have consequential implications and direct impacts on the discretion and choices available to the Assembly and the Executive. However, I believe that we need to move into a situation where the people of Northern Ireland know clearly that their MLAs are full time, committed and active in the Assembly and its channels. The same must be true of MPs here.

Mr. Cash referred to this House's status as a sovereign Parliament. However, I must point out that legislation has been passed in this Parliament-not in this term, but during the peace process-to amend the previous restrictions that meant that a Member of this House could not also be a member of the Oireachtas, either as a TD or as a member of Seanad Eireann. The restrictions also meant that a person could not be a member of the Assembly in Northern Ireland and a member of the Oireachtas. They have been lifted, but the Bill does not deal with the question of what happens when a person is a member of the Assembly and of the Oireachtas. People are now legally entitled to belong to both, so what happens now? If we are going to look at things in their totality, that should be borne in mind as well.