Procedural Consequences of Devolution

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5th October 1998.

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Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

I beg to move

That the Assembly takes note of the interim report prepared by the Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution.

At the meeting on 14 September 1998, the Assembly agreed to the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution. The terms of reference of the Committee required it to

"consider the procedural consequences of devolution as they are likely to affect the relationship between, and working of, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the United Kingdom Parliament, and by Tuesday 6 October to submit a report to the Assembly which, if approved, will be forwarded to the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons".

The Committee, in essence, was tasked to consider relationships between Westminster and the Assembly and, in particular, how procedures at Westminster may have to change to reflect the new arrangements here. The deadline of 6 October was set by the Assembly to comply with a request from the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons that we present a report to it by 9 October. The Committee has met on four occasions, on the first of which I was elected Chairman.

There are a number of issues upon which the Committee will seek to develop a view. These include the roles of the Northern Ireland Select Committee and the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. Under the arrangements for devolution, many matters which currently come before these Committees will come before the Assembly. This will have a knock-on effect on the workings and procedures of those Committees — clearly, something that this Committee will wish to consider.

Next, we must examine the procedures that relate to parliamentary questions.

How many of you will be aware of the 1923 ruling by the Speaker at both Stormont and at Westminster which stated that matters devolved to the Stormont Parliament should no longer be addressed from the Floor of the House of Commons because the Ministers responsible for such matters were in the Stormont Parliament? Should this ruling continue under the new arrangements?

The question of the proper scrutiny of public expenditure in the Northern Ireland Departments is overseen, at the moment, by the Public Accounts Committee at the House of Commons. If such matters are devolved to Ministers and to this Assembly, there may be a case for having a separate Public Accounts Committee in Northern Ireland answerable to the Assembly. These are matters that are likely to have a knock-on effect on how Westminster does its business.

There are different views on how European legislation should be dealt with. Currently it comes forward to Parliament, which legislates on behalf of the United Kingdom. Should that continue or should the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly look at the European matters on their respective Floors?

There is also the question of the role and views of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. The famous West Lothian question has been raised by Tam Dalyell, the Member of Parliament for West Lothian, and asks whether Scottish Members of Parliament will have the right to consider and vote in the House of Commons on matters that pertain to England when English Members of Parliament will not be able, after devolution, to discuss matters devolved to Scotland. If that principle were extended to Northern Ireland, it would clearly have an effect on what happens at Westminster.

The question is how to delineate the responsibilities of the Secretary of State, who will retain responsibility at Westminster, and the authority of the Assembly, and again there are ramifications on how Westminster is likely to do its business.

The next stage is for the Procedures Committee to consider some complex oral evidence and seek guidance from the Standing Orders Committee, constitutional lawyers and the Procedures Committee at the House of Commons itself. Initial discussions with the Procedures Committee shows that it would accept comments received by early November. The Committee is therefore seeking to renegotiate the deadline because of the complexity of the issues involved and the amount that Members need to learn. Although we have Mr McGrady, Mr McCrea and Mr McCartney, who are either serving or former Members of Parliament, and although I spent three years as a parliamentary assistant at Westminster, there are many members of the Committee who are not familiar with how Westminster operates.

There is also uncertainty about the Bill. Many clauses in that Bill may be changed completely by the time it comes in to law, so there may be ramifications there and, indeed, for the inclusive nature of the Assembly’s Standing Orders. There are three parts to this question: first, what will the Bill eventually say; secondly, what will the Assembly’s Standing Orders say; and, thirdly, how the Committee will view changes to Westminster’s role.

There is also curiosity about how the proceedings in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will operate. They will be different and, most importantly of all, they have not yet been elected. I understand that various teams have been liaising with the Cabinet Office to produce outline Standing Orders for them so that when they come into being, they will have something on paper. Clearly, because of the knock-on effects, it is likely that all three devolved institutions will want to have similar relationships with Westminster.

There are major constitutional implications, and the Committee believes that it would be wrong to rush its conclusions. The Committee is, therefore, seeking the leave of the Assembly to continue its work for a further month and report to the House by 6 November. I hope that the interim report has given a flavour of the challenge faced by the Procedures Committee and that an extension will be permitted.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 2:15 pm, 5th October 1998

I want to make several comments as a preface to my remarks on this report. The first is that there are some bad habits creeping in to our procedures. I did not receive a copy of the report until this morning when I arrived in the building and made an effort to get it myself. Any report which is open to debate and amendable should be with Members well in advance of our session.

I appreciate that the Committee had a deadline to meet, but I am sure that its Members were not working over the weekend, and presumably they had completed their task — in as far as it went — before the end of business on Friday. It would have been helpful if some way had been found to have it with us on Saturday. It had still not arrived when I left home this morning, and I now find myself having to speak on a report of which I have been able to give only a cursory look. I make that point as, I hope, a helpful criticism.

Secondly, I note that this is the second time that the Assembly has delegated a task to individuals or to a Committee, and it has not been fulfilled. I understand that this is a complex subject and that some Members will have to read themselves into it and become more acquainted with the issue, but no matter how many Committee meetings it takes, there is a duty on the Committees and on the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) to comply with the Assembly’s requirement and provide a report by the stipulated day. In saying that, I have no doubt made myself universally unpopular with colleagues in my party and in other parties who will, of course, indicate how much work has been done on that Committee.

Where a task has been set it must be fulfilled. Having said that, I support them in their desire to complete the job, and I hope that it will be fulfilled within the extended period. I want to encourage them. This is a part of the United Kingdom which has an elected body, and it is important that we play our full part. We should not — and I ask Members not to get to their feet on this one — become territorial on these matters whether we are in central government, regional government or local government.

We should not forget that our main purpose is to provide a service for people. If we say that we are not going to provide the information that people may need to do their job, then, ultimately, our constituents will suffer, and if Members of Parliament require information relating to devolved matters, we should not reasonably withhold it.

There is currently a procedure in the House of Commons whereby if I put down a Question, written or otherwise, for a Minister on a matter which might be the responsibility of, say, the Housing Executive, the Minister, although not immediately responsible, may, after speaking to the Chairman of the Housing Executive and obtaining the answer, place it in the library and thus make it available for all Members of Parliament.

Equally, a devolved Minister may feel that he is directly responsible to this Assembly — and so he or she would be — but if a Member of Parliament at Westminster wanted to have some information about a road scheme in Northern Ireland, it would be unreasonable for that Minister to refuse to tell him because he was not an Assembly Member. The answer should be provided through the Secretary of State, who can either reply directly to the Member or place the answer in the House of Commons’ library as a response from the Minister in Northern Ireland’s devolved Government.

We should remember that, ultimately, Ministers in this Assembly have a responsibility for whatever duties they carry out, and they should be answerable to the people. If somebody at Westminster feels that they have a pertinent question, they should have the right to ask it and get an answer.

I am sure that we in the United Kingdom family will want to strengthen our relationship with Westminster and with the United Kingdom as a whole, rather than try to put a wall around our procedures here and simply say, "We are answerable only to this Assembly and to no one else."

Photo of Mary Nelis Mary Nelis Sinn Féin

Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. Part of the The Ad Hoc Committee’s terms of reference was to comment on the press notice that was issued by the Procedure Committee at Westminster. It is premature for the Ad Hoc Committee to try to address the Procedure Committee’s comments. The Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee has said that the task of trying to comment on the procedural consequence of devolution presented great difficulties for the majority of Members. The Ad Hoc Committee was not initially in possession of all the necessary information. At the outset it was not in possession of any information at all. There were also problems due to Standing Orders not being completed.

It is perfectly understandable that the Ad Hoc Committee has not completed a report on its comments. The Assembly will have to take note of the procedural consequences when the North/South bodies are set up and the Assembly is directly engaged in a relationship with Dáil Éireann at Leinster House.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Mr Robinson spoke about "a report". In the words of Humpty-Dumpty, a report can be anything you want it to be. This report does nothing other than set out the problems that faced the Committee from day one.

The Committee could have reported by any date. It could have submitted a report stating "We have nothing to report". It could have said, "On the basis of the information that is currently available to us, it is impossible to make a report that would in any way be relevant to the consideration of the matters about which we are asked to inquire".

I was unable to attend the first two meetings of this Committee. Mr Cedric Wilson deputised for me. At the third meeting I discovered a peremptory order that a final report had to be delivered by today. I made it clear to the Committee that I would not in any circumstances lend my name to a final report that contained absolutely nothing of value. I do not criticise the members of the Committee because at this stage there is no reason why they should have any knowledge of the procedural esoterics of Select Committees and the like in the House of Commons. No member of the Committee, other than those with parliamentary experience, had, to use an Ulster expression, "a baldie" about what was going on. Such a situation came about because, in its press notice, the Westminster Procedure Committee said that it wanted our comments by a specific date. As a result there was minor hysteria in the Assembly about providing a report by that date.

A meaningful report could not be provided for the following reasons. First, the Northern Ireland legislation had not gone through all its stages in the Commons and the necessary substantial material was unavailable.

Secondly, in order to liaise and relate the Standing Orders of this Assembly with the procedural Standing Orders for the House of Commons, it would be necessary for the Standing Orders of the Assembly to be complete. They are far from complete — the Standing Orders Committee is still in existence.

Thirdly, it would have been necessary to have at least the substance of the provisions that will pertain between the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and Westminster in order to make meaningful and sensible comparisons between what was going to happen between Westminster and those bodies in circumstances not largely different from our own.

The result was that the Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution was not in a position to deliver anything of substance. Therefore the Committee agreed that it would produce an interim report which in essence says "We have nothing to tell you. Here, in layman’s language, is a list of the problems that we will address". However, in terms of addressing those problems or making recommendations, it says zilch. I doubt that there will be any significant improvement on the matter by November.

The Assembly should have responded to the House of Commons press notice by stating that it would be impossible to make any meaningful comments by the date suggested, and that when the Assembly is in a position to make comments, we will make them. Why was that not done? Why are we debating this issue today? In my submission this is filler. There is no reason why the Assembly’s time should be taken up with this motion, had it been properly addressed initially. The only reason it appears here is so that the public can see that the Assembly is doing something. The truth is that, on this item, it is doing virtually nothing.

The real issues to be addressed are the democratic foundations upon which this Assembly is supposed to operate. Will they be democratic or will they be controlled by the possession of weapons by a private army supporting one of the parties allegedly participating in the democratic process? That is what we should be talking about. We should be talking about the circumstances in which the North/South bodies are to be set up, if they are to be set up. We should be talking about the terms in which members of the Executive are entitled to be members of the Executive on the basis of any democratic principles. Instead we are talking about an issue that should not be considered at this stage. If anyone had addressed it with any logic and common sense, he would have replied that at this time, there is simply not available any of the most basic and relevant information that would enable us to make a meaningful report.

The interim report is largely a non-report. It is time this Assembly started addressing issues of substance, instead of manufacturing issues such as this.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 5th October 1998

I congratulate the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on the production of the interim report. I do not share the views expressed by Assembly Member, Mr McCartney. The reality is that the Committee was faced with an instruction from the Assembly to prepare a report within a certain time. It became evident that that would not be possible, but we endeavoured to fulfil the instruction given by the Assembly.

Given the time available and the resources at our disposal, in terms of expert advice and assistance, I believe that we have produced a good and fair interim report.

The report flags up in a straightforward and common-sense way the problems that will exist with the procedural consequences of devolution. It was designed specifically to assist and advise Members.

We decided not to rush into a definitive document — it would clearly have been impossible to do that — but in the time available it was our desire to give as many people as possible the benefit of the Committee’s discussions.

I will not repeat Mr McFarland’s meticulous and fair comments, which reflected the standard of his Chairmanship and the co-operation that exists on the Committee. I regret Mr McCartney’s remarks and, indeed, those of Mr Robinson, whose criticisms were petty and churlish and reflected poorly on the Member.

This is the best interim report that could be produced in the time available. Members will be able to learn quite a lot from it and investigate further the issues that have been highlighted so ably by the Committee.

Furthermore, at that Committee meeting it was agreed — albeit in Mr McCartney’s absence — that there would be a self-denying ordinance and that the Committee’s Chairman would move the motion asking the Assembly to take note of the report.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Does Mr Maginness accept that I was not present and that had I been, I would not have given my consent to any such self-denying ordinance? Furthermore, does the Member also agree that it was my suggestion that the report be an interim one and not a final one and that the relevant issues be set out in plain language?

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not know whether Mr McCartney would or would not have consented to the Committee’s agreed line, but I do know that he did not remain for the full Committee meeting. The fact that he was absent is for Mr McCartney to explain to his party and to the Assembly. If the United Kingdom Unionist Party had wanted to ensure that the Committee’s position was not the one that it adopted, it should have been there to ensure that.

Mr McCartney did raise the issue of an interim report, and that was easily agreed with the rest of the Committee. It was a common-sense proposition, and there was no dissent on it. We did not have to rely on Mr McCartney’s learned skills to come to that conclusion.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

While a Committee is quite entitled to say that it is not going to discuss a matter when it comes to the Floor, it cannot bind any other Member. The Committee is reporting to this House, and if it wants the Chairman to deal with the matter while everyone else says nothing, it is quite entitled to do so, but it is not entitled to stifle debate on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I was taking this as a point of order, and I am not sure that points of information can be taken at this time.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I want to show how reconciled I am with the Member and he can say what he likes. I want to give him freedom.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

That may well be so. Was that a point of order, Dr Paisley?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I cannot take a point of information in a point of order.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I had not finished my point of order.

I ask you, Mr Presiding Officer, to make a ruling. Mr McCartney said there were certain matters that we should be debating – and I believe we should be debating them. If a motion in respect of those matters were to be put down, would you accept it, and could those matters be discussed at a future sitting?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

This is not a point of order as far as this debate is concerned. Mr McCartney took a degree of licence in regard to the breadth of his comments. As far as the specific question is concerned, any motion may be brought forward and discussed by the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer which will look at the style of motions and their format. Up until now we have had what are called "take-note debates" — debates which are not amendable and for which the House will not divide.

That may not accommodate the concerns raised by Mr McCartney or Dr Paisley, but if motions are proposed, they will be considered.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I am entitled to put a point of order on something that you have allowed. You were lenient with the hon Gentleman, so I, too, am entitled to leniency. He must have been in order, and, therefore, I am entitled to put a point of order on what was in order.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

He was indeed in order; you have not gone out of order, and the next in the line of order is Mr Seamus Close.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

It would be fair to say, both literally and metaphorically, that this is ‘Much ado about Nothing’. The report caused difficulties for the entire Committee. Instead of sniping at Committee Members, people should recognise that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Committee Members should be applauded; they are saying that the task with which they were charged was impossible to complete in the allotted time for various reasons outlined by other Members — the Northern Ireland Bill has not yet been completed, the Standing Orders are not yet completed. We were charged with an impossible task, but we were big enough, bold enough and man enough to admit that.

Paragraph 11 of the interim report states

"The Committee is concerned about coming to hasty conclusions simply to meet the Procedures Committee’s deadline."

It would be a very foolish committee that accepted a deadline and said "To pot with the content; we will meet that deadline." This Committee is not going to fall into that trap; we need more time, we have asked for more time, and I expect that the House will give us more time in order to perform such an important task. We must all fully accept our responsibilities and not be slipshod in the face of a false and inoperable deadline.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 2:45 pm, 5th October 1998

The deadline was set not by somebody out in the back streets but by the Assembly, and I cannot recall the Members saying that it was unachievable. Before he sets a new deadline, as recommended in the report, is he satisfied that this Committee will produce a good report by that deadline?

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

I am hopeful that a full report, which will be educational for Members, will come to the House by the date set because it is wrong for any Committee to create an elitist little group which keeps to itself information that should be presented to all Members.

I disagree with the comments made by the Member for North Down, Mr McCartney. The Assembly should not be used, either now or in the future, to renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

It has been said that the report is not complete and, perhaps, that we have not carried out our duties. It is important that the Assembly and the wider public know that I and other members of the Committee learned two very important lessons from our meetings. The first concerns Mr Robinson’s remark about not being territorial. This was vital to our work. We are not alone in Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is going through an incredibly fascinating process of devolution, from which we must learn. We must also learn from these islands as a whole, from Europe and from the wider world. I am attempting to broaden the picture. We have examples of best practice in places like Spain, Belgium, Germany, America and Canada. We must learn from those examples and also from the mistakes which have been made.

The second lesson concerns education, the learning curve that was referred to. Mr Close suggested that we should not form an elite group which gathers information but does not disseminate it. Openness, transparency and speaking plainly in a language which is understood are vital, a language which is understood by, as we used to say in the BBC, "the man, the woman and the child on the Ormeau Road bus". We need to be understood by everyone, and that is very important. We do not want the report to be issued until it is complete because we want it to be an education for Members of the Assembly and everyone outside as well.

I commend the report to the Assembly.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP

One thing that we have learnt from this debate is that politicians are quite touchy, but the legal profession is equally so, and politicians who are also members of the legal profession are extremely touchy. Much of this debate has been taken up unnecessarily by people who are concerned about damaged egos.

The one thing which all the Committee members can genuinely say is that we have done our best to complete the task that we were set. We have not spent time unnecessarily contemplating the devolution label. Many of us, when we started, thought that the answers to some of the questions put to us by the Procedures Committee of the House of Commons could be easily and quickly answered.

As we took evidence we found that the issues were much more complex, and that there were more constraints than we had envisaged at the outset. The Committee cannot be faulted for not having done its work. As a teacher I had to make a distinction between people who did not do their homework and people who did not do their homework in the way that I thought it should have been done. The homework has been done, but perhaps some Members expected a different result. To date we have done the task we were required to do, and the report shows that.

We were constrained because the legislation is not yet complete. We were also constrained — as was pointed out by some of the people who gave evidence to us — by not having Standing Orders completed for the Assembly. That is not an excuse; it is a fact. As far as the Democratic Unionist Party is concerned — and this reflects the views of many other members of the Committee — the general principle is that the Assembly is an integral part of the governmental arrangements for the United Kingdom. We do not wish — it would not be possible anyway, as was pointed out to us by some of those who gave evidence — to make recommendations or push a line which would totally divorce this Assembly from the rest of government in the United Kingdom.

The House of Commons, which is the supreme authority on governmental arrangements within the United Kingdom, must equally have a say and responsibility, and its Members should be able to scrutinise and know what is going on in this part of the United Kingdom. To some extent we are guinea pigs, being the first regional Assembly to have the opportunity to make a submission on the matter; the Assemblies in Scotland and Wales are not yet up and running and therefore are not able to give evidence. That was a further constraint upon us — a kind of self-denying ordinance. There are things which may well be within the remit of the Assembly, but there must also be accountability at Westminster.

Another important factor which we contemplated at great length was the fact that, whether we like it or not, Westminster provides most of the funding for Northern Ireland and, therefore, it will require input and scrutiny on how those funds are spent, even though the matter may be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Close perhaps sat on the fence, as is his wont, when the question was put to him by Mr Robinson. In the end, I believe we will produce a magnificent report; the input from the Committee will be of quality, and we will approach the task with professionalism and diligence. Of course, it is just possible that when the final report is presented to the Assembly, my party colleagues may point in derision at it, but I do not think that will be the case. The Committee has not rushed fences or produced superficial recommendations. The final report which this Assembly will receive will be one which will be of use to the Procedural Committee of the House of Commons and will ensure good governmental arrangements between this region and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

I support the comments made by my colleague, so I will be brief. Most people will agree that this is an inconsequential report. Indeed, some Members’ comments have also been inconsequential. We would love to have a serious debate on the real issues facing this country. We would love to be debating the issue of decommissioning, or whether terrorists should be in the Government of Northern Ireland. We would love to be debating those issues which concern every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland. However, the point is that we have been asked to deal with a technical matter, and we should not walk away from that, rather we should make the best go of it and ensure that the Committee brings forward a report.

Unfortunately the position outlined repeatedly in the Committee by Mr Wilson is not the one that his party appears to have adopted today, but I am sure that when we go back to the Committee we will find that the position is not as stark as it appears.

Turning to the content of the report, I think it is important that a principle is established. Indeed, many Unionist Members have already referred to it.

This is Westminster’s responsibility. We are an integral part of the United Kingdom, and it is up to the Government to determine our relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom.

However, it is fair that Westminster should say to the Assembly "Give us your advice. Tell us how you would like the procedures to operate." We have an opportunity to have an input into the Westminster Procedure Committee’s thinking about how devolution and the procedures of devolution should operate. I look forward to conventions and procedures being established which do not tie and restrict either this body or Westminster, which are durable and flexible and workable and which allow this Assembly, in terms of its relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, to function as best as is possible. It is important that we have the opportunity to scrutinise and, where Westminster deems us competent, to legislate. We must urgently establish a channel of communication with Westminster so that we have full access to information — for example, draft European legislation — and that we are able to give advice from a Northern Ireland perspective. I ask the Assembly to let us go back into Committee and prepare a more comprehensive report by 6 November which makes our views clear.

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

I am reminded of the story of the tourist asking for directions who was told by a local "If I were going there, I would not start from here." The Committee has worked hard, but concern was expressed as to whether we would be able to report in time. As I understand it, the position of the legislation will be fairly clear by early November, which should give us time to reflect upon it.

I am encouraged by the comments of the Democratic Unionist Party and by those of Mr Wilson, whom I thank for his support. The Committee was goodhumoured and, apart from some noises off, it has worked well. I also thank the Committee Clerk for producing all sorts of background material. He rarely got home before 8.00 pm. I urge Members to support the motion and the time extension.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Assembly takes note of the interim report prepared by the Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution.