I want to take issue with those who argue that reducing the number of Social Democratic and Labour Party members to three would solve the problem. Mr Initial Presiding Officer, you referred to the fact that Standing Order 15(2) restricts the membership of any Committee to 18 and gives a commitment that a party with two or more Members shall have at least one seat on each Committee.
The election could have resulted in our having several parties with only one Member each. In that event we would not have been able to include every party and take care of the Independents. If Nationalist as well as Unionist Independents had been elected — Mr Robinson has said that the three individuals in question have broadly similar views — would all the Independents be grouped? We appreciate the difficulties to which you, Sir, have referred.
Standing Order 15(2) also states that, so far as is practicable, the composition of the Committees should reflect party strengths. It was suggested that reducing the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s allocation on this Committee to three would meet that requirement. Each party with more than two Assembly Members has one Committee place. The Alliance Party, which has six Assembly Members, has only one representative on the Committee. Under this proposal, every party will get an additional seat for each further six Members. If the Alliance Party gets one member for six, Sinn Fein should get three for 18, the Democratic Unionist Party three for 20, the Social Democratic and Labour Party four for 24, and the Ulster Unionist Party four for 28. It would take 30 to qualify for five. It seems to me that six is an appropriate and fair index.
If the SDLP’s representation were reduced to three, the appropriate index would be seven. The Ulster Democratic Unionist Party’s number would be reduced from three to two, and Sinn Fein’s from three to two. We could not seriously argue that that was a fair reflection. The Democratic Unionist Party, with 20 Members, would get only two seats, and the Independents, who are elected disparately and separately, one. There is a notion that the SDLP’s membership should be reduced to make way for three Independents, who, by the way, are not making this case themselves.
We reject the notion that the way to solve this problem is to reduce the SDLP’s membership. That would go against the principle of fair reflection. If there were such a reduction the proportionality threshold would have to be changed, and other parties would be affected.