Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [ Lords]

Part of Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 11th March 2010.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 3:32 pm, 11th March 2010

May I join others in expressing my pleasure at taking part in a debate on what is, for once, a fairly non-contentious piece of legislation? We have come through yet another period in Northern Ireland politics when the debate has been occasionally fraught and sometimes even febrile, so dealing with a Bill that is essentially the subject of consensus-among the parties, if not necessarily always within them, apparently-is indeed a pleasant change.

When he introduced the Bill, the Minister said that it was short and that he could be short in speaking about it too. I think that perhaps I can be even shorter. Along with others, I think that the Bill was framed and conceived to be permissive rather than directive, and that giving the power to delegate allowances from the Northern Ireland Assembly to a free-standing body is a sensible way to proceed.

That approach understands the nature of devolution. It would be entirely wrong for this House to start telling the Assembly what it ought to be doing. In any event, and for all intents and purposes, it is pretty clear that that is the intention of those who currently sit in the Chamber in Belfast, so it appears to me that we will all end up at the same destination, whichever route we take.

The only element worthy of some debate today is the question of dual mandates. I have long taken the view that the continuation of dual mandates is unsustainable; perhaps I am informed particularly by the fact that I represent a Scottish constituency. If the situation is unsustainable for a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Belfast, it must surely be unsustainable for a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Only one person holds such a dual mandate and I hope that after the general election there will be no others. As Mr. Robertson eloquently explained, it is simply not sustainable for people to seek to represent constituents in two separate Chambers at once.

There is a different issue in respect of somebody who is a Minister in Belfast and also represents constituents here-that much is understood. However, there is a distinction to be drawn. Being a Minister gives extra responsibilities to a person while they are in London, but being a Member in Belfast and London, or Edinburgh and London, requires people to be in three places at once, rather than just two-we have to add in the constituency at the same time.

As others have said, the situation arose for good and understandable reasons. It is a mark of the progress that we have made that we should now regard the Northern Ireland Assembly as sufficiently mature for the question of dual mandates to be able to be consigned to the history books rather than being a feature of contemporary politics. I agree with Mark Durkan that we should eventually look to an abolition de plano rather than merely the removal of the salary. However, the provisions represent a helpful and necessary first step; at the very least, there should not be a material advantage to those who seek to use the system to acquire a second or third job by being a Member here as well as in one of the devolved institutions.

There is very little with which we would take issue in the Bill. Perhaps some further teasing out of these issues will be allowed in Committee, but this is a sensible measure that commands a broad consensus. We are pleased to be part of that consensus.