The report of the Committees on Standing Orders is in two volumes. The first volume gives the essential detail, the remit, membership, what we did, how we did it and what we recommended, and so on. The minutes are appended.
The second volume contains the recommended Standing Orders. At our last meeting one might have expected that we would have agreed a cut and dried report — not so. The Committee was actively making changes to the report right up to the final bell.
Members should have also received the inevitable errata that accompanies this type of document. I would like to pay tribute to Denis Haughey, my joint Chair, who has done a marvellous job particularly on those occasions, one of which Members heard about last week, when the Committee found itself all at sea. At all times he has shown scrupulous fairness and a concern to keep the Committee together. I would also like to thank the Members of the Committee and the many substitutes.
Standing Orders is not an easy area for many people — indeed, it is not even an interesting one — but it was an essential area that had to be covered. All those involved, including the observers, must have been totally bemused at times. Our thanks are also due to Murray Barnes and Denis Arnold for all their hard work and support.
The Committee first met on 6 July 1998. We have held 22 meetings and, bearing in mind the diverse make-up of the Committee, we have achieved much in bringing together this agreed report. When Denis Haughey and I were elected as joint Chairs of the Committee we resolved to proceed on the basis of consensus, as far as possible. The documents before the House today are there as a result of consensus.
Party size and the voting power that comes with it was not used to push things through. The smaller parties will testify to this and agree that their concerns were taken on board in a fair way. The Committee had its ups and downs, but everyone, including the substitutes, contributed in a constructive and helpful way. In the minutes Members will see that the 19 strong Committee was well attended at all meetings.
We began by looking at the Standing Orders of different assemblies — the European Parliament, the Commons and the Dáil. In the absence of any guidance, we decided that the best basis on which to proceed would be to look at the Orders of the 1973 Assembly. We considered these, armed only with our knowledge of the agreement. We also looked at Initial Standing Orders and considered how we could adapt them.
We reported our progress to the Assembly on two occasions. Of course, all of this was overtaken by the Bill and the need to base many Standing Orders on this. The business of devising Standing Orders by committee is not an easy task. For a time some reliance was placed on officials to get on with the job and consult when necessary. The hastily drafted Bill underwent major amendment, as is usual, particularly during its passage through the Lords. Therefore complete clarity could not be expected until it was enacted. Standing Orders are, above all, procedures. Some of these are prescribed in the Act. The rest were devised by the Committee after lengthy deliberation.
We have produced 71 draft Standing Orders over a relatively short period. This compares with the Welsh who have drafted their Standing Orders in advance over a year. The Scots are also in the process of doing something similar. The advantage in our case is that we, the elected politicians, will have had a hand in producing our own compendium and that will result in a greater feeling of ownership.
The Standing Orders in the compendium are divided into nine sections dealing with all facets of the Assembly. The first section deals with preliminary matters that must be addressed at the beginning of any assembly. These Orders stick rigidly to the requirements of the Act, and there is little scope for any fundamental change.
The next section deals with the day-to-day business of the Assembly, and it owes as much to an updating of the 1973 procedures as to anything else. The Clerks at Westminster have been consulted on the updating process.
In respect of voting, we have adopted the Westminster-style Division system. This is not to say that we are against modernisation, and we can certainly look at alternatives in the future, but we have decided to opt for what we believe is a tried-and-tested methodology. For the time being, I believe, this is the safest route to take.
The next section deals with legislation. Once again we have proceeded according to the Act, and because this Assembly is unicameral we have decided to build in safeguards. Bills will normally undergo a five-stage process, which will include a full Committee stage, during which the statutory committee will consider the Bill in detail and may, if necessary, take evidence on the matter. In addition, the Assembly will have the opportunity to examine the legislation in detail. Should issues of equality arise, provision has been made for such issues to be referred to a special Assembly committee and, where necessary, to the Human Rights Commission. Again, these are requirements of the Act and of the agreement.
There may be incidences where primary legislation has to be passed quickly — for example, on social security matters where the Assembly will want to maintain parity with Great Britain — and so provision has been made for a process we have called the accelerated-passage procedure, which will enable Bills to be enacted within a relatively short period. However, this very necessary mechanism must not be abused. It should be used in exceptional cases only, and a considerable onus will be placed on Ministers to justify using it at all.
We have also given consideration to subordinate legislation. The agreement envisages a role here for Statutory Committees, and we have had to take account of this. But Statutory Instruments are generally of a technical nature. In many ways, they are best dealt with at a technical level, and we recommend the appointment of an examiner of statutory rules to assist the statutory committees in this field. We believe that the provisions of these Orders are capable of dealing with the full range of legislation — including financial legislation — that is likely to come before the Assembly.
The legislation section is followed by a short section on Ministerial appointments. You will note that there is no reference in the compendium to the appointments of the First and Deputy First Ministers. There is no need. Where the Act itself stipulates procedures, we have not repeated these in Standing Orders. Members may be surprised at the structure of the Standing Orders in this section, but I should point out that, like other Orders, they must be read alongside the Act. Here we differ from Westminster. The Westminster Parliament is sovereign, and we are not.
The next section deals with Committees. In addition to the Statutory Committees, we envisage having what we have called Standing Committees; examples of these are given in the compendium. These named Committees will include a representative from each party. We believe that in an Assembly of this type this is important.
There will also be other types of standing Committees in the future. These may be less central to what we do, and we recommend that, like the statutory Committees, they have a fixed membership of 11.
We also see scope for a further type of Committee which we have simply called "ad hoc Committees". Such Committees would be set up to deal with issues over a specified time and would then be stood down; the present Ad Hoc Committee (Port of Belfast) may well be an example. The Committee membership figure of 11 was arrived at following much debate, and the Committee considered using the matrix at the back of Volume 1 of the report — the impact that different sizes of committees would have on parties. We believe that the Chair and Deputy Chairs of Statutory and Standing Committees should be appointed using the d’Hondt system, but it will be up to the Assembly to decide on the appointment of Chairs to ad hoc Committees.
There is another issue to do with committees which I must mention. There is no Statutory Committee for central functions. There could be a non-statutory Committee with powers to call for persons and papers, but the Act does not allow for any Statutory Committee. I could say more about Committees, but time is against me.
The next section deals with order and is self-explanatory. The only point I want to make here is that the Keeper of the House, a functionary whom we equate, in some respects, with the Serjeant at Arms at Westminster or the Captain of the Guard in the Dáil, will not have the full powers that are deemed to be necessary in the Standing Orders until the Assembly legislates on this matter. This should not present any problems.
Last week the Assembly adopted the proposals on Members’ interests. I will say something about that because it is a matter for Standing Orders. Ideally the Assembly should have its own Commissioner on standards. This will be the case in Wales and probably in Scotland, and it would be appropriate here also. The Commissioner would have duties similar to those of the Commissioner at Westminster and would report to the Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges. This committee’s principal officer would be the Clerk of Standards and the custodian of the register of Members’ interests. This is the structure envisaged, but, as pointed out by the other joint Chairman, a deeper consideration of the whole issue will have to await the formation of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
The last section of the report is called "Other Orders". It contains two late entries on language and the Commission. The language Standing Order is the briefest in the compendium, and its conciseness belies the time spent by the Committee on it.
The Committee has worked for inclusiveness, as is borne out by its decision to recommend that the much over-burdened Commission be given the assistance that is due to it. We suggest that five-a-side is far too strenuous a game for the elderly quantity surveyors, and we recommend a full team of 11.
I understand that Members have not yet received copies of the amendment that is about to be moved. I have asked, somewhat unusually, that the Doorkeepers make themselves available to distribute it in the Chamber. As soon as we have the full list of marshalled amendments, I will arrange to have it distributed as well.
I beg to move the following amendment: At the end of the motion add
"and further notes that the Standing Orders, once approved by the Assembly, shall be renumbered where necessary, punctuated and proofed to ensure consistent language".
As someone who never darkened the door of the Standing Orders Committee, it falls to me to be the first person to welcome the publication of its report. I congratulate the Committee on the very substantial task that it has performed. I would also like to point out that the 70-odd amendments that are down in my name are not meant as a criticism. It is inevitable that any substantial document listing Standing Orders is open to amendment.
Most of the amendments are of a tidying-up nature. The amendment to this motion is of a general character, and there is no party-political edge to it whatsoever. It simply allows me to do what it would otherwise have taken another 200 amendments to do — it is one catch-all amendment.
There is a series of punctuation errors and a proliferation of instances where different terms are being used for the same activity. For example, "lodged" and "deposited" both appear, as does "left with" on one occasion, and there are many similar references. There needs to be consistency. And if any of the amendments are passed, or if any of the initial Standing Orders are deleted, there will have to be a renumbering.
I have no emotional capital tied up in the wording of any amendment. They are there to show that there is a gap to be filled or that a change is required. They can be concluded in whatever terms Members wish. I do not know — and this is a question for the Initial Presiding Officer — what the procedure would be in the House if Members wanted to change the terms of an amendment. I know that Members still have not seen the amendments. They may, however, agree with the thrust of an amendment but find its terminology awkward or unsatisfactory. Will they be permitted to table a manuscript amendment, or is there another way of dealing with such a case?
In the last two meetings of the Assembly we have been dealing with matters that are of equal importance to every Member. The normal party political divisions did not take place, the pro- and anti-agreement factions did not take different sides. That should also be the case in relation to Standing Orders. Although some of us may not have recognised it yet, we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the Standing Orders we produce this week are reasonable, fair to everyone and can stand the test of time.
When we propose an amendment to a Standing Order, we do not know whether it will eventually be used in our favour or against us. At this stage we can only judge what is right and proper and create a set of Standing Orders that ensures we regulate our business in a fair and reasonable way.
The amendments in my name, in general, will not need to be debated. Most of them are self-explanatory and I hope they will be accepted. Most of them are meant to be tidying-up measures, but some might be described as probing amendments. It could be that, in debate, the Committee will be able to show that the substance of an amendment has been dealt with elsewhere, in which case I shall be content to withdraw. However, should we discover that the matter has not been dealt with, I will obviously wish to move that amendment.
As I said, some of my amendments are intended to fill gaps. On some occasions these are gaps that we are required to fill by the Northern Ireland Act. Where the Act requires us to bring in a Standing Order on a particular matter, we must do so. In some instances the first draft of the Standing Orders fails to do this. There are also one or two areas where I have raised new issues. Members will take a view on these as they are raised.
I am concerned about the premise that our Standing Orders must be read alongside the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Belfast Agreement. This means that every good Assembly Member is going to have to go around with three documents tucked under his or her arm. We could get to the stage where one consolidated document, even if it only imported the language of other documents which are referred to in it, became a consolidated volume of Standing Orders.
As the Standing Orders Committee has recognised, there is an ongoing role for that Committee, particularly in the early stages of any institution, and no doubt after today, as we work through the Assembly, we will have many occasions on which Standing Orders need to be framed, and the Committee will be able to do that. I hope that in doing so it will also attempt to get a consolidated volume.
In moving the amendment, I was not sure if there was some confusion on the part of some of the officials of the Assembly or of some of the members of the Standing Orders Committee about the process that has to be followed. My concern about that arose as soon as I was handed a copy of the list of errata. An errata list is quite acceptable if one gets it along with a report or printed document that is not amendable, but if it is an amendable document the only changes that can be made to it are by way of amendment, and that has to be done in the Assembly.
Indeed, the reason there is an amendment to the take-note motion is to ensure that: no one outside the Assembly can tamper with the end product of our deliberations after Tuesday evening. That can be done only by ourselves unless we instruct somebody specifically to carry out a task in relation to it. So, in case no amendment was moved by the Committee to agree the errata as a change, one of my amendments is to do just that. However, there should have been an errata to the errata, because there were some errors in it.
Other amendments take account of some matters that should have been included. Whether or not there was a misunderstanding about the process, the only change that can take place to the published document is by way of an amendment during the course of this debate or subsequently in the Assembly.
I should indicate that the general issue behind these amendments is to provide the Assembly with a document that does not require to be amended after each meeting of the House. It is undoubtedly the case that we will have to define further many of the Standing Orders that we are producing or allow the Speaker certain discretion in their interpretations or accept Erskine May or some other volume as a mechanism whereby we can adjudicate on issues not covered by the Standing Orders.
A Chathaoirligh, I acknowledge the work done by the Standing Orders Committee and pay tribute to the officials who have serviced that Committee over the last eight months. The task given to the Committee last July was not an easy one in view of the political importance that is attached to the rules which govern the conduct of the Assembly and the diversity of political opinion around the table. An early indication of this came with the number of meetings that it took to elect the people who eventually became the joint Chairpersons.
Further problems were created by the timescale in which we had to complete our business and by the fact that the legislation, which had a direct impact on the Standing Orders, was processing through Westminster during this time. This caused our deliberations to be suspended for at least two of the eight months during which we were sitting.
Despite all that, in the main the atmosphere in the Committee was constructive and businesslike. There was a great deal of agreement on most issues. We were able to reach compromises on many other issues, although it is a matter of regret that compromise could not be achieved on the recognition of the Irish language within the Chamber. That matter will be dealt with by my Colleague.
I should like to deal with an issue that caused great concern to the entire Committee and which is reflected in paragraph 7 of the report. It is the issue of a statutory committee to scrutinise the executive functions of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. When the Committee discussed on 11 February the appointment of statutory committees I raised the question of a statutory committee to scrutinise the executive functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers. On my proposal, the Committee agreed to add the phrase from paragraph 8 in strand one of the Good Friday Agreement which states
"There will be a Committee for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration."
That became part of the Standing Order. At the subsequent meeting on 17 February, we were informed that provisions in the Northern Ireland Act prevent the establishment of a statutory committee for the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers because they are not considered to be Northern Ireland Ministers. Standing Order 44 (1)(a) was rewritten to reflect the requirements of the Act, and removed the word from the Good Friday Agreement. The detailed explanations for that are in the appendix to the minutes of the meeting on 17 February.
Therefore the Committee on Standing Orders has been rendered powerless by the Act to provide the Assembly with the range of scrutiny powers of executive functions that was envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. What can benignly be interpreted as a serious flaw or gap in the drafting of the legislation contradicts not only the wording of the agreement to which it was to give legislative effect, but has serious consequences for the ability of the Assembly to provide completely open and accountable government.
Regrettably, that is not the only derogation from the Good Friday Agreement by the British Government. The flying of the Union Jack on this building today is in direct contravention of paragraph 5 of the section on "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity" in the agreement. We intend to bring the matter to the notice of the Secretary of State.
If the full impact of this legislation on the Committees had been evident during the negotiations on the departmental structures in December, there would be considerably fewer functions in the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. The only slight relief to be drawn from this situation is that the argument to locate Finance and Personnel in the centre did not succeed.
Important executive functions such as those of the economic policy and equality units, liaison with other institutions, international relations, legislation progress unit, office of the legislative counsel, public appointments policy, freedom of information, victims, Nolan standards, public service office, machinery of government, emergency planning, women’s issues, policy innovation unit and an Assembly ombudsman are not, as it stands, subject to the scrutiny of a proper statutory committee. That should not be accepted by the Assembly.
I have heard it suggested that issues such as equality and community relations could be covered by non-statutory committees, but those do not have the same powers of scrutiny as statutory committees, and those two functions are only a small part of the remit of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
It has also been suggested that a single statutory committee would be inappropriate for such a range of executive functions. The Assembly will note that the recommendation from the Committee on Standing Orders is not prescriptive. If a number of committees are needed, so be it, but it is in the interests of the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Assembly and the electorate to ensure that there is proper scrutiny of all the executive functions of this administration.
The Committee has not proposed how this matter will be addressed or who will address it. It may require an amendment to the Act. If that is the case, the Assembly should speak with one voice on the issue to ensure that any such amendment is dealt with as a matter of urgency by the British Government.
The Committee has also expressed the view that its work should not end with the adoption of the report, but it may be the best vehicle to ensure that this issue is dealt with satisfactorily. Whatever the decision of the Assembly this is one issue that should not be allowed to go by default, and we intend to return to it as often as necessary until it is resolved.
The adoption of the report from the Committee on Standing Orders, which I support, is another significant step in the preparation of the Assembly for the transfer of powers from Westminster. The way in which the Committee completed its task with every party in the Assembly represented at the table, with many disagreements — sometimes heated but more often in a constructive atmosphere — is firm evidence of the ability of all parties to agree the way forward. It is further progress in the establishment of the institutions that were envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. There is no reason why that task cannot be completed in the near future.
Sinn Féin does not have a problem with Mr Robinson’s amendment. The document was produced in a rush so that the Committee could meet the deadline. Perhaps that is an example to both Governments. It was inevitable that there would be minor flaws in the document, and we are not opposed to the tidying up of its text. Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh.
It was eight months ago that we set out to produce this compendium of Standing Orders for the good governance and conduct of the House. Today, let us hope, we have fulfilled that task.
It would be remiss of me, on behalf of the Alliance Party, if I did not extend my thanks and congratulations to the co-Chairmen for assisting all of us in the business of this difficult task. As Mr Cobain has said, the devising of Standing Orders and the drawing up of a compendium of Standing Orders is a somewhat tedious and, at times, rather boring task. Thanks to the co-Chairmen’s humour and cohesiveness, we managed to get on with the job and produce a report which, I hope, will receive the support of the House.
I also wish to pay a special tribute to the Clerks, and particularly to Murray Barnes and Denis Arnold, who worked, it is fair to say, far beyond the call of duty. The fact that there are errata is no fault of theirs; rather these are the result of the enormous amount of work that they were endeavouring to do in meeting rather strict and at times rather false deadlines.
While I have not seen the amendments, their large number gives me some cause for concern. I hope that they are of the nit-picking variety, the tidying-up type which, essentially, reflect the fact that we were operating under strict and difficult deadlines. If some commas et cetera have been left out, that is perfectly understandable.
The Committee would obviously have been well-served if Mr Peter Robinson had found time to come on to it. The Democratic Unionist Party had five substitutes, as well as their three members, over the 22 meetings. They were well-represented. But it would have been very helpful, and it would have facilitated the speedy agreement of the report, if the Member for East Belfast had graced us with his presence on some occasions and helped us not to make so many mistakes. However, since one of the Standing Orders permits me now to use the language of my choice, errare humanum est — we are all human, and we all can make mistakes.
Most of today’s debate will be taken up by Members who were not on the Committee and who will want to have their say — and that is right — but there are a number of issues that I would like to flag up.
The first one is in reference to Standing Order 3(7), which refers to designation. I recognise that this cannot be changed strictly through Standing Orders — we will have an opportunity to do that if we review the Good Friday Agreement — but we have always felt that designation represents the institutionalisation of tribalism and that having it in Standing Orders does not augur well.
We have flagged up the problems with designation before, and we will continue to do so, with the ultimate goal of having removed the necessity for people to be bunched into the little tribes of Unionists, Nationalists or Others. To perpetuate tribalism does not help our society.
The other issue that I want to flag up has already been referred to. It is in relation to Standing Orders 42 to 44, which refer to the statutory committees. I was surprised to learn that the functions Department of the Centre will not be, or could not be, subject to statutory scrutiny. It could be that this omission was an oversight when the legislation was being passed, but I question that. Given the number of amendments that were put forward to the Bill on its passage through Westminster, such an obvious and glaring omission suggests a degree of deliberate intent rather than merely oversight.
If I am wrong — and I have already said that to err is human — the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) will join with the rest of the Members and ensure that a change in legislation is brought about quickly so that there can be proper scrutiny by the House of the Department of the Centre.
When we were discussing the various functions to be held by the Department of the Centre it struck some Members that an attempt was being made to suck too many functions into that Department. Efforts should be made either to withdraw some of those functions from the Centre or to bring about a change in the legislation to enable there to be full scrutiny of that Department.
The final issue that I wish to flag up — and I know that some of my Colleagues will be referring to this by way of an amendment — is the number of members on these committees. It is only fair that there should be the widest possible representation of all Members on the committees of the House. Members from four parties will form the Executive, and it is up to the rest of us to scrutinise fully, with the best possible representation, all the functions that are retained by the Executive. For that reason the number of members on the statutory and other committees should be increased, but this will be discussed later.
The overall job was done well. It will stand the House in good stead, and I look forward to the debate on the various amendments when we are able to see them.
While congratulating the Committee on Standing Orders, it does seem that an opportunity may have been lost to remedy what is a fundamental fault in the Belfast Agreement. In the agreement we have on the one side the all-Ireland institutions, the North/South Ministerial Council, the implementation bodies and the Intergovernmental Conference. On the other side we have the Assembly, and the link between those two is the Executive.
The North/South Ministerial Council and, indeed, all those institutions appear to have two fundamental features. First, they are embedded in international law. This means that it is absolutely beyond the competence of the Assembly ever to remove them once they are set up. Second, there is something extremely ambiguous about the functioning of these institutions in relation to the Assembly. Paragraph 13 of the Belfast Agreement states
"it is understood that the North/South Ministerial Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly are mutually inter-dependent, and that one cannot successfully function without the other."
Whatever that statement means, it does not mean that one cannot function at all without the other. There is a distinction between what someone would perceive as successful functioning and no functioning at all. So this statement does not mean that in the event of the Assembly’s being deadlocked or collapsing the institutions would cease to function. That raises the issue of what control the Assembly can have over the all-Ireland dimension of the agreement in the event of these institutions being established and, in particular, in the event of their starting to function.
The key issue is what control the Assembly has over the Executive, because the Executive is the link between the Assembly and the all-Ireland institutions. There are two points of contact between the Assembly and the Executive in terms of control. One of them is the capacity of the Assembly to vote annually on a programme of government presented by the Executive, and the other potential area of control is through the statutory committees. The problem with the Standing Orders is that they specify that the statutory committees are simply to advise and assist each Minister. In other words, they are to be as weak as they possibly can be.
Once this mechanism is up and running, there will be a fault line between the Assembly and the all-Ireland institutions that means that the Assembly will have virtually no control over the all-Ireland aspect of the agreement, and to some extent the opportunity to remedy that situation has been entirely lost by the Committee.
I commend the report and the work of the joint Chairmen — Fred Cobain and Denis Haughey — and our very capable Clerks.
A two-day or three-day debate on Standing Orders would not inspire the most intrepid political scientist, let alone our friends in journalism. However, it is important that they stop and read between the lines. This simple, unassuming report is, in fact, a document of tremendous significance as it outlines the rules and regulations that will govern the making or the breaking of new laws in Northern Ireland. The report outlines the procedures to be followed to guarantee that every piece of legislation is in accordance with anti-discrimination, equality and human-rights legislation.
These Standing Orders exist to ensure that every check is balanced and that every balance is checked. It is simply the translation of the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act into the conduct of business on the Floor of the House.
However, there is an important difference. These Standing Orders were agreed by representatives from every political party in the Assembly. In fact, the Standing Orders Committee is possibly the best example so far of all parties working together for the common good. Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists, Republicans and "Others" sat side by side on the Committee, and together they wrote, rubbed out and rewrote the rules for the operation of the Assembly.
I thank Mr Boyd for that point of order.
Things started to look good from the outset when it was agreed that the UUP and the SDLP should jointly chair the meetings. At almost every meeting there was an obvious sense of people listening to and learning from each other. It surprised the Committee that political adversaries backed each other on several occasions. It has already been mentioned that there was only one occasion on which the deliberations became uncomfortably tense. That was at the second last meeting, about a week ago, when the sensitive issue of language was broached. At the last and possibly the best meeting, there was a very definite sense of compromise and agreement on the need to move forward.
This is our rule book. Mr Cobain has said that we got here by looking at what happens in Parliaments in London, Dublin and Strasbourg and at what happened in the last parliamentary body in Northern Ireland and by choosing the bits that suited us best. We have in this rule book the potential for a thoroughly modern Assembly. It will place human rights and equality at the very top of the agenda, and cronyism at the very bottom. It will be open and transparent and will allow for a system of government which will be a role model for other Parliaments.
One great achievement, of which we in the Women’s Coalition can feel proud, is the decision to end sittings at 6.00 pm. I was, however, disappointed to learn this morning that a decision could be made to change that, because of the task that is before us, for this sitting. The reason we decided to end sittings at 6.00 pm was that this would represent a family-friendly working day. The problems that have been caused in other Parliaments by the need for Members to stay for late sittings or overnight sittings have been obvious. This applies not just to women with families but also to men with families. We can leave at 6.00 pm and get home to our families, which is very important. In fact, I understand that the Scottish Parliament will be following our lead in this respect.
I am also especially pleased on International Women’s Day — and let me repeat, for Members who may not have heard, that today is International Women’s Day — to see that the language of the Standing Orders exhibits gender consciousness through the use of "he/she" and "his/her". I am also pleased to note that Members exhibit a similar consciousness when they are speaking in the Chamber.
I have referred to the tremendous potential which the Assembly has to create a unique system of coalition government, which could be the envy of the world. However, it must be based on the principle of inclusion, which means including the smaller parties as well as the larger ones. Those of us in the smaller parties have demonstrated that we are ready to roll our sleeves up and work hard. We should not be squeezed out of Committees to which we can make a valuable contribution by way of constructive opposition and as another voice that adds breadth to their deliberations.
Mr Cobain, in his opening remarks, said that he felt that the concerns of smaller parties had been fairly considered. However, we in the Women’s Coalition still have some concerns about this, some of which have already been raised by other Members. Standing Orders 43 to 45 refer to the principle of proportionality in the make-up of Committees which will enable them to reflect party strengths in the Assembly. However, if these Committees are to have only 11 members, this will not happen. Number 23(2)(b) of the draft additional Initial Standing Orders drawn up by the Secretary of State says that proportionality will apply to "each Committee" rather than to "all Committees", as set out in these Standing Orders. Mr Close has said that this matter will be discussed further. Inclusiveness must apply to everyone.
When the Assembly approves this report we will be ready to open for business. The foundations have been laid, and the bricks and mortar are in place. We will have our rule book, and we will be ready, at last, to roll up our sleeves and start working. We have fulfilled our legal obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. It is now up to us to fulfil our moral obligations to the people of Northern Ireland.
One of the key issues, as identified by a number of Members, is the relationship that will exist between the Assembly and the Executive. It is very evident from its behaviour that another Executive is becoming increasingly indifferent to the views of Parliament and that the influence which can be exercised by elected representatives on the Government is diminishing. Indeed, it has almost become a habit for the Government to release to the media what they intend to do before bringing it to the House of Commons. I therefore share the views and anxieties expressed by some Members about the control, if any, which the Assembly can exercise over the Executive.
From the earliest meetings of the Standing Orders Committee, which I attended, I made it evident that there should be a strong committee system to control, insofar as it can be controlled, the work of the Executive. That is particularly so when one realises that the composition of the Executive in the Assembly is rather different from that in most democracies.
We have consensual arrangements here. Consensual arrangements have certain benefits, and they have particular benefits to those who actually exercise power under those arrangements. Put bluntly, that power will be exercised by the larger parties, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, who will have a majority of members on the Executive. Other parties, such as the DUP and Sinn Féin, will have a smaller membership. What is very important is that the activities of the Executive can be controlled — and controlled effectively.
I therefore have a degree of sympathy with the arguments that have been put forward for a committee to control the activities of the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). These Ministers will have a great deal of power outside the remit of the specific statutory Committees. It will be a power over a broad range of issues of important and extreme significance, yet, in formal terms, there is no committee to which these Ministers will be directly accountable. I appreciate that there is no statutory provision for such a committee and that therefore it was not within the remit of the Standing Orders Committee to create a committee specifically charged with the supervision and control of the offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I also appreciate that, subject to that omission, it was necessary for the Standing Orders Committee to make whatever arrangements it could for the control of the powers exercised by the First and Deputy First Ministers. Those Ministers represent the two largest parties, and Members must avoid, in an arrangement which is supposed to be a consensual one for the exercise of power, power being effectively exercised by the two largest parties without a formal means of control.
This principle applies whether one is a Nationalist or a Unionist, though doubtless Nationalists would want different objectives controlled than Unionists. Mr Roche has quite properly pointed out some of his worries and anxieties, which I share, about the Executive’s role as the link between the Assembly and cross-border bodies and about the general influence by another independent sovereign state on the internal governance of Northern Ireland. Those are very important matters and were quite properly addressed.
I also have a deal of sympathy with the views expressed by Sinn Féin about the absence of a specific statutory committee. Doubtless it would have very different objectives from those which I share with the pro-Union community, but the essential element that Members must ensure is that the Executive come under the control of the Assembly. The Executive must be fully accountable to the Assembly, even if it is engaged in activities considered to be inimical to the objectives of the pro-Union community or to those of a more extreme Nationalist view. It must be under control. I share the view, which has been expressed by some Members, that there should be some change in the legislation to ensure this element of control over the two Ministers who will, in effect, exercise more individual power than anyone else.
It is a curious anomaly that even the power of junior Ministers — and I am talking not about junior Ministers within the definition of the Act, whom I once referred to irreverently as the ministerial piglets, but about Ministers who will be in charge of the Departments — will be much more limited than those of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Presumably the First and Deputy First Ministers — representatives of the largest parties — will have the greatest overall input into the preparation of the annual policy document which the Assembly will subsequently be required to ratify as the Executive’s policy objectives and functions for that year. They will be at the centre of power.
In terms of a wheel with 10 spokes, all the Ministries will be accountable down to the central hub, which will be the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. As the hub of that governmental wheel, they will control the office which is in touch with all of those Ministries, yet that hub will not be subject to any statutory committee, upon which all parties should have representatives, that could have a direct input and exercise direct control over what those Ministers are doing.
In terms of the matters that were raised by Assemblyman Roche, it seems that the area, functions and powers of the North/South Ministerial Council and of the implementation bodies are necessarily painted in rather vague terms. I was amazed to hear the First Minister (Designate), on the radio programme ‘Inside Politics’, refer to me, saying "Poor Bob does not seem to realise that international treaties are not written in plain language." Mr Trimble ought to know, because if ever there was an exponent of obscure and obscurantist language, of circumlocution, of fudge, of any form of language that is particularly utilised to ensure that his listeners have not got a damned clue about what he is talking about, it is the First Minister (Designate).
A proposal to set up a committee to ensure that the gobbledegook of the First Minister (Designate) is analysed and examined and turned into plain language that not only the Assembly but the entire electorate of Northern Ireland can understand would be well worth implementing. For the benefit of all parties, whether Republican, Nationalist, Unionist or Loyalist, the Assembly should have a degree of control by way of a strong central committee over the activities of those who will exercise more power than anyone else.
Everybody on the Committee agrees that a tremendous amount of work was carried out, not just by its members, but also by Mr Denis Arnold and Mr Murray Barnes. I am happy to join my Colleagues in paying tribute to them and also to the joint Chairmen, who guided the Committee. I also want to pay tribute to my party Colleagues who, on occasions, substituted for some of us who could not attend — people such as Mr Sammy Wilson, Mr Jim Wells, Mr Mark Robinson, Mr Paul Berry and Mr Edwin Poots. They made a considerable contribution to the Committee, and I thank them.
As the joint Chairman said in his introduction, the original intention was that we should report by 14 September last year. We always thought that this was somewhat optimistic and, as events have turned out, meeting even today’s deadline was a bit of a rush, although the interim report, issued on 26 October, dealt with some of the issues contained in the final report. It must be stressed — as it was by the joint Chairman — that not all the issues that the Committee spent much of its time on eventually ended up in Standing Orders. Some ended up in the minutes, some in notes which will accompany the Standing Orders —
An enormous amount of work was done, not all of which is reflected in these documents we have before us. We have had to deal with the fact that the Northern Ireland Bill was going through its various stages in Parliament at the same time as we were trying to draw up Standing Orders. There was a period when we were not sure what the legislation would say about the Standing Orders. This lead to the suspension of the work of the Committee in its plenary form, although officials carried on working behind the scenes. That was one reason why the Committee was not able to progress its work as quickly as some of us would have liked.
The Committee also had to deal with additional Initial Standing Orders, sent by the Secretary of State. At the beginning of September, we spent some time debating the draft additional Initial Standing Orders, and we returned them to the Secretary of State. She commented on our recommendations, but we have not heard anything about those additional Standing Orders since. Some of us asked what had happened to them. We queried why, at a crucial time in its work, the Committee was burdened with having to deal with these additional Standing Orders when nothing ever came of them, but to this day, the Secretary of State has not given the Committee a satisfactory answer.
We will be dealing with the Committee’s work section by section. There will be specific amendments, and we can, at that time, deal with some of the minutiae and some of the individual Standing Orders as they come along.
I want to make some general points about the more significant issues. Mr Close mentioned the issue of changes in designation. We had this debate, I think, at the 26 October Assembly meeting. Mr Close still maintains that it is a nonsense to have people divided up into tribes — Unionists, Nationalists and Others. He has argued this point in Committee. The difficulty for him, of course, is that he and his party signed up to this designation, this division of people into tribes, under the terms of the agreement.
As we tried to point out on a number of occasions, it was a bit late expecting the Standing Orders Committee to argue about this when the Member had already agreed that tribalism should be enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and, therefore, in the Act itself. There was nothing we could do about it, and the reality is that we now have a system of voting which ensures that we have these designated blocks for ever within the lifetime of the Assembly — Unionist, Nationalist and Other. That is the way in which votes will be taken on key issues.
The Initial Standing Orders which we were given by the Secretary of State included a provision to enable Members to jump from one designation to another — from Unionist to Nationalist and then the following week, if Members so decided, to Other and then back to Nationalist or Unionist. Some Members actually argued in the Committee that we should continue with that — astounding though it may seem.
I am glad that common sense prevailed and that Standing Orders say that while it is possible for someone to change once during the term of the Assembly, it will be once and once only. There will be none of the nonsense that was intended by the Secretary of State and encouraged by some parties here of Members being able to change their designation with seven days’ notice in order to influence a vote in the House. We were successful in deleting that piece of nonsense from the Standing Orders.
The matter of language raised its head in the Committee on numerous occasions, and we had exchanges on this subject at the meeting on 26 October. No special recognition is now given in the Standing Orders to any foreign language that may be used in the Chamber. The Standing Orders provide for Members to speak in any language other than English should they wish to do so, but there is no provision for translation, simultaneous or otherwise, and no special recognition or place is given to any particular foreign language.
I thought that the purpose of debate was to try to influence how other Members vote or think by having one’s voice heard and opinions expressed. But if some Members are so discourteous that they want to speak in a foreign language that others do not understand, that is a matter for them. If they want to waste their time in that way, that is a matter entirely for them.
Ms Morrice said that she was glad that the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition had achieved a family-friendly time for sittings: 10.00 am to 6.30 pm. However, I am disappointed that it is a woman Secretary of State who has told the House to meet until 10.00 pm both today and tomorrow in order to get through its business. I am sure that the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition will be taking this up with the Secretary of State, and I hope that they will be as vehement in raising that with her as they are about other issues.
As I understand it, however, this was not an issue. Members from other parties will agree that this was something that found broad agreement among all parties. We all agreed that we should have a sitting arrangement which would be family-friendly and family-orientated — this was not something that just the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition wanted. Indeed, the only dissenting voice on this, as reported by the joint Chairman, was that of the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party, who proposed that the Assembly meet at 2.30 pm each Monday and finish at 10.00 pm. I am glad to say that the Committee unanimously rejected that view. I do not know whether there is to be an amendment on this or not, but we will wait and see.
A problem has arisen regarding the scrutiny of statutory committees of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and this has caused the Committee a great deal of concern. I will not rehearse all the arguments. I agree with the arguments that other Members have made about the importance of this issue. It is absolutely unacceptable that the important executive functions of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers will not be subject to scrutiny by the appropriate statutory Committee. This is a very significant matter. We must address it, and one of Mr Robinson’s amendments does just that. The Assembly will have an opportunity to do something about this later in the debate.
There are other issues that I could raise, but I will reserve some of my comments until later when we deal with some of these amendments in detail.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer — I hope within the next few days to be able to address you as Mr Speaker — I was not a member of the Standing Orders Committee, but, because of the busy nature of the work that the three Members from my party had to attend to, I attended as a substitute on no fewer than six occasions. Indeed, so regular was my attendance that one set of minutes recorded me as a member.
Like many others I am alarmed that the legislation does not enable the Standing Orders Committee to establish a statutory scrutiny committee to examine the powers exercised by the First and the Deputy First Ministers. I am extremely suspicious about how this happened because, while the Standing Orders Committee was meeting, a huge raft of new powers were added to that Office, and it would be total negation of democracy if there were not some controls and checks on that work. There is unanimity in the House on this: if the rights of all parties and the rights of all minorities are to be protected, there must be a brake on the powers, on the almost absolute powers on some very important matters, of the First and the Deputy First Ministers.
The message from the Assembly to the Secretary of State this morning is that new legislation is required on this crucial issue. It is no good saying that we can establish a committee if that committee does not have the power to require the presentation of papers or to request the First and the Deputy First Ministers to come forward and answer questions. It is really a bit of a sham. We must have the same powers as the statutory committees have over the Office.
I am certainly not reading.
I wish to speak on an issue which I have raised before —the speeches in the Assembly. I am glad to note that under Standing Order 17 this is addressed, but I think it is worth rehearsing the points that I made in the Committee. The present way in which we deal with speeches is strangling this body as a debating Chamber. A Member, unless he is proposing a motion, has 10 minutes in which to speak. The crucial point is that interventions from anyone on the Floor of House are included in that 10 minutes. The result is that Members are encouraged to get the head down and rattle through their speeches at 100 miles per hour because they have to try to squeeze in the maximum amount of material they can in the 10 minutes.
I got a lot of flak a few weeks ago when I suggested that people glanced at their notes while they were speaking. An all-party delegation came to me and told me that my remark was totally unacceptable, that it was scurrilous, and I was asked to apologise. If I caused offence, I apologise. I now realise that people glanced at their notes not to read them but to try to get as much material as possible into 10 minutes. Benefiting from this were the ‘Mourne Observer’, the ‘Strabane Weekly News’ and ‘The Londonderry Sentinel’ because as soon as a speech is made, the text is rushed by fax machine to the local papers. I am confident that if I miss a speech in the House I will always pick it up in the local papers.
The problem with the 10-minute rule is that people are encouraged to rattle through their speeches at great speed and, because interventions are included in their time, there is no incentive for them to give way. Why would anyone give way, although I always do? Members will not give way because they will lose precious time —
One of the problems about reading or giving a prepared speech, as opposed to an extempore speech, is that the reporters and journalists who cover the Assembly do not write down what is said. They rely on scripts. Some of the Member’s remarks should be aimed at the media’s reporting of the Assembly rather than at individual Members.
That is a valid point. One solution to that problem would be to cut the communication links to the rooms that the media have in this building and force them to sit in the Press Gallery and listen to the debates. A speech never seems as good in cold print as it did on the Floor of the House.
The hon Member for East Belfast, Sammy Wilson, is one of the best speakers in this Chamber. Others are, of course, Dr Paisley, Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell — to name a few. [Interruption] I certainly do not fall into that category.
We are blessed with some Members who speak outstandingly well, but in cold print in Hansard their speeches do not read as well as one typed by a research assistant who dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.
This House must act as a debating chamber, where Ministers and Committee Chairmen stand up and are called to account by the Members. If we do not allow interventions during speeches all we will get is a series of monologues. We might as well stand out in the corridor and hand our speeches to the press. There is nothing to be gained by standing and reading 10 minutes of prepared text at great speed.
I proposed in the Committee — and I hope it will become the policy of this Assembly — that an intervention by someone not from the Member’s own party should not be included in the 10 minutes and that an intervention by someone from his own party should. I suggested this because there could be an abuse of the situation — for instance, someone representing the DUP could allow 19 interventions.
It could happen, and it would be abuse. If that is allowed to happen that Member could, effectively, have a 29- or 39-minute speech, which would not be acceptable. I suggested in the Committee that interventions, no matter who they are from, be limited to one minute. Any point raised can be made in that time. If it comes from an opponent it does not count, if it comes from someone in the Member’s own party it does count.
I bow to the greater experience of the hon Member for East Belfast. I thought when I included him among the best speakers in the House he would have let me have an easy ride, but he has not.
The point is that it is a maximum of one minute. Some of the highlights of Westminster parliamentary debate have been the cutting intervention which have sometimes floored the argument of an opponent, completely smashed it, or enabled the Member speaking to consolidate his argument. We do not want to go down the road of the Dáil.
Occasionally when my TV aerial turns the wrong way and I pick up RTE I have noticed Members in the Dáil reading their speeches. The former Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds was one of the worst examples of this. He would get a sheet of paper, put his head down and read very fast in a totally unintelligible accent. We do not want our Chamber to turn into that. We want to be much better than the Dáil. We should have the same standards as Westminster where some of the best debates ever recorded have occurred. People like Michael Foot, Tam Dalyell, Tony Banks, the Minister for Sport, are able, with a cutting intervention —
And Cecil Walker. They are able with a cutting intervention to completely wrong foot their opponent.
The point is that no one listens to a speech that is read. However, a speech that is not read is often listened to. Let us turn this into a debating chamber so that people can turn on their television sets, see this Chamber and say "Those people that we elected are debating. There is cut and thrust. They are worthy of election. They are not simply forced to read."
This amendment, if carried, would affect Standing Orders and there therefore has to be a cross-community vote. In respect of the amendment, if there are no dissenting voices I will take that as giving cross-community approval, but when we come to the vote on the motion that we take note of the report as a whole, I will have to take a full cross-community vote.
I cannot speak for the Committee, but I will try to reflect the kind of consensus that we achieved. Members will have to speak for themselves if they differ from that. I can only make personal observations on the matters raised this morning.
I would like to pay tribute to Fred Cobain, Denis Arnold and Murray Barnes and, indeed, to the members of the Committee. The working of the Standing Orders Committee has been an example of what can be achieved when people put their best efforts towards achieving consensus.
To refer to the points raised by Mr Peter Robinson, the amendment which he put down and which has just been carried is perfectly sensible and not contentious. He referred to the incorporation of relevant sections from the Act and the agreement into a consolidated volume of Standing Orders. Again, a perfectly sensible and appropriate suggestion which, I imagine, we will follow up.
In relation to the errata which were circulated, he is proposing that they should be agreed as a single amendment. That is also sensible. I am not entirely sure that it is necessary, since the errata are part of the Standing Orders agreed in the Committee and reported to the House. However, this will put the matter beyond any doubt and is not unduly burdensome.
Mr Murphy raised the matter of the scrutiny of the Department of the Centre, and a number of other Members subsequently referred to the matter. Because of the nature of the Act, this is an extremely complicated matter which needs careful consideration. The Standing Orders Committee has properly reported that this issue gave rise to concern, and the Assembly needs to look at it. The point raised by Mr Murphy about flags on this Building is not a matter for the Standing Orders Committee, and that was one of the things we rushed to agree at the very beginning.
Mr Close also raised the issue of the scrutiny of the Department of the Centre. I should point out to Mr Close that amendments to the Bill were taken in the House of Lords. Perhaps he might look within his own party for procedures for dealing with that. My party unfortunately cannot deal with the House of Lords.
Mr Roche suggested that Standing Orders should provide the Assembly with a means of controlling North/South bodies. No doubt he has put down an amendment to that effect, and the House will have an opportunity to consider it.
Ms Morrice raised the question of gender consciousness. A proper appreciation of gender consciousness is, I think, reflected throughout this report. Where it is not, the report can be properly amended under the procedure which has now been adopted subsequent to Mr Robinson’s amendment.
Ms Morrice also raised the question of the concerns of the smaller parties, particularly in relation to the composition of Committees. I have to say that strict proportionality could be achieved only if every Member were a member of every Committee. Other than that, it is a question of trying to get proportionality in a manageable way within each Committee. In relation to the statutory Committees it would be an extreme burden, particularly upon the larger parties, if membership of those Committees were to reach a point where the smaller parties would be able to cover every standing Committee. It just would not be possible.
A membership of 11, which was generally agreed in the Committee, will give every Member a fair opportunity, insofar as it is possible, to be a member of a Committee.
Mr McCartney raised the question of the control of the Executive, and he referred to the situation in the House of Commons by way of illustrating his point. However, the situation here will be different in that, first of all, we will have a Committee system which will give a certain degree of control of the Executive, and the Executive Committee itself will give a degree of control over the functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers. The Committee did not find that entirely satisfactory, and this is something that we will have to come back to.
I should also say that, obviously, the First and Deputy First Ministers would have to have won the confidence of their own parties in respect of any proposals they intended to make; they would also have to have won the support of the House. So the First and Deputy First Ministers will not be free agents, able to conduct business as they please; they will have to have the support and confidence of the House.
I would like to thank Nigel Dodds for his kind remarks, particularly in relation to Denis Arnold and Murray Barnes, whose work has been outstanding. The House owes them a debt of gratitude.
Mr Dodds also referred to the additional Initial Standing Orders which the Committee looked at but which disappeared — I think there will be more about that shortly.
In relation to the parallel-consent requirement, I believe that that flows naturally from the agreement, and I can deal only with the Standing Orders aspect of that. I think the Standing Orders we have adopted properly reflect what was agreed in the Good Friday Agreement.
If, in his remarks about foreign languages, Mr Dodds intended to imply that Irish is a foreign language for all Members, I would regard that as unfortunate. Obviously it is not, and if he did intend to imply that, he is making foreigners out of a great many Members.
Nigel Dodds also raised the question of the functions of junior Ministers and the need for their functions to be scrutinised. He pointed out that Committees set up by the Assembly itself will not necessarily have the same powers as the departmental Committees. We need to look at that in some detail and come up with proposals which can be put before the House.
Jim Wells raised the question of extempore speaking in the House, and, in a remarkable tour de force, covered the whole question of speaking from notes and the impact of time limitation on speeches. Over a period of time, convention and usage will lead to a much more satisfactory situation than the one that has arisen from time to time when Members get up and read from prepared scripts. I do not regard that as particularly satisfactory, but you will remember, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, that I and the other joint Chairman, Fred Cobain, raised this matter with you. It is extremely difficult to know how one could legislate for that in Standing Orders.
However, I promise not to breathe a word to anyone — and I think everybody will undertake to do the same — about Mr Wells listening to RTE.
Main Question, as amended, put.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Dr Joe Hendron, Gerry Kelly, John Kelly, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Donovan McClelland, Barry McElduff, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Danny O’Connor, Ms Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Mrs Sue Ramsey, Ms Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
Dr Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Joan Carson, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Rev Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Boyd Douglas, Sir Reg Empey, David Ervine, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Robert McCartney, David McClarty, Rev William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mrs Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, George Savage, Jim Shannon, Rt Hon David Trimble, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Mrs Eileen Bell, Seamus Close, David Ford, Kieran McCarthy, Ms Jane Morrice, Sean Neeson.
Eighty-four Members voted for the motion, and none against. This being a majority of Unionists, a majority of Nationalists and the majority of the Assembly as a whole, the motion is overwhelmingly carried.
Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.
This Assembly takes note of the report by the Committee on Standing Orders and further notes that the Standing Orders, once approved by the Assembly, shall be renumbered where necessary, punctuated and proofed to ensure consistent language.
It was my intention, as usual, to suspend the sitting at this point until 2.00 pm, but I must seek some guidance from the House because Members have not yet received the marshalled list of amendments. The staff are still working to put them in proper order, and I am advised that they will be available by 1.00 pm. Suspensions can only be by leave of the Assembly, so we must all agree on whether we wish to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm or perhaps until 2.30 pm or to 3.00 pm. The later time would provide an opportunity to study the 87 amendments in some detail. Larger parties in particular may be able to give guidance to their members.
I propose that we suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm. It is preferable that the entire House have copies of the amendments and have at least half an hour to consider them. That would enable us to continue without the interruption of distributing material.
We will not have the 87 amendments until 1.00 pm. Some of us eat lunch, and I suggest that at least another hour up to 3.00 pm would be required to do any sort of justice to understanding the 87 amendments, some of which may be quite complex. I suggest suspending the sitting until 3.00 pm.
The House should bear in mind the fact that additional time at this stage will have to be added at some other stage. It should be possible for officials to provide within the next 15 minutes or 30 minutes a marshalled list of the amendments for the first six Standing Orders. While we are proceeding with those they can prepare the rest. If that were done we could recommence at 2.00 pm.
I regret to say that I disagree with Mr McGrady. Waiting until 3.00 pm would lose too much time. I would be quite comfortable with 2.00 or 2.30 .
If Mr Robinson’s suggestion can be progressed, 2.00 pm is feasible. If not, and we are waiting for the entire marshalled list, we will have to go with Mr McCartney’s position. However, waiting until 3.00 pm would leave us desperately short of time.
It should be possible to have the full list of marshalled amendments within the next half-hour. Having put them all down, the staff have to proof read them. That is time consuming but it is virtually complete. The printing will take a little time. It should be available to Members by 1 o’clock.
With regard to saving time, I accept the points made by the Member for East Belfast and by Mr Trimble. Some 70 of the 87 amendments are in Mr Robinson’s name and, although he already knows what they are about, we have no knowledge of them whatever. That is a substantial advantage. I am prepared to withdraw my proposition on the clear understanding that should the complexity of the amendments make it awkward for my party fully to assess their potential, I will move for a further adjournment.
We have several propositions. I need to seek the leave of the Assembly and there must be agreement or there will be no break for lunch. That would be a tragedy.
I propose that the sitting be suspended until 2.30 pm. The marshalled list of amendments should be available by 1.00 pm, and if at any point in the consideration of the Standing Orders and the amendments it is clear that there is a problem about complexity or other matters, I will accept requests for adjournments of up to 15 minutes in respect of any particular problem.
The sitting was, by leave, suspended from 12.33 pm until 2.30 pm.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. My original proposal that the sitting be suspended until 3.00 pm, which was rejected, was based on the premise that we would receive the list of amendments by 1.00 pm. In fact, we did not receive details of the amendments until 2.05 or 2.10 — an hour later. I therefore request a further suspension of at least 30 minutes to give us a chance to study the list. Given that we have 87 fairly complex amendments, even that time may not be sufficient.
Further to that point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I would like to assure Mr McGrady that most of the amendments are of a nit-picking nature or relate to minor textual changes. We should be able to work our way through them fairly quickly.
The sitting was, by leave, suspended from 2.31 pm until 3.01 pm
I trust that all Members have now received the marshalled list of amendments and the groups. The amendments are numbered in the order in which they were received by the Business Office, but they are marshalled in the order in which they relate to the Standing Orders. The first amendment on the list is number 42, and it comes first because it relates to Standing Order 3(5) and there are no amendments in relation to Standing Order 1 or 2. The marshalled list will be worked through in the order that is shown, albeit the numbers of the amendments refer to when they were received by the Business Office.
Further to that ruling, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I thought that you might have more time to consider the matter of the errata. You say that Standing Orders 1 and 2 have no amendments attached to them, but they do under the errata. Standing Order 2 has a change, but if it is covered by the amendment that was made part of the substantive motion this morning, I think Members could accept it as having been passed — depending on your ruling.
I am content to rule that the amendment that was passed in respect of item 3 will subsume all those matters that are referred to in the errata, which were supplied with the Committee’s report. All the amendments in the errata will therefore be accepted and actioned on the basis of the amendment to item 3.
The groupings of amendments, which Members have received, refer to the groups of Standing Orders in the compendium. I have not sought to produce any new groupings but have simply taken the sections in the compendium and grouped the amendments so that they relate to the groups of Standing Orders. They are ordered in relation to the individual Standing Orders.
Group 1 covers the first six Standing Orders relating to preliminary arrangements. The amendments which relate to those are amendments 42, 85A, 85B, 41, 40, 38 and 39, and they form the first group on the list of groupings of amendments. Any Member not having a list of groupings can obtain a copy from the Doorkeepers in the rotunda.
When we debate each group of amendments which refers to the group of Standing Orders, the proposers of amendments should speak in the order called. I would request proposers to refer to as many amendments as possible — in some cases it might be possible to refer to all of the amendments in that group. For example, Mr Robinson, in addressing group one, will speak first to amendment 42, but it may also be possible for him to deal with amendments 41, 40, 38 and 39, or to as many of them as is possible. Mr Neeson, or one of the other proposers may speak to both 85A and 85B if it is possible for them to do so.
I do not rule that Members must address all of the amendments in a group. While that may be possible in group one it is very unlikely that it will be possible in group two or in the group of amendments that relate to the Standing Orders of Committees, where there are very substantial numbers of amendments. It would simply not be possible to deal with those within the 10 minutes.
If Members feel that they can speak to the amendment for which they are called at that point and also to two or three other amendments, which may not be substantive amendments, within the 10 minutes, which is the limit to which they can speak at any one point, then so be it. If it is not possible for the Member to deal with it then it would be better if they stood down at that point and were then called later when the other amendment comes up. If I do not deal with it in that fairly flexible way we will find ourselves having a debate on each of 87 amendments, which is not a helpful way to proceed.
Conversely, it would be just as unhelpful if Members only had 10 minutes to deal with all of the amendments in a particular group. In the case of some Members, particularly the Member who has raised the question, and in respect of a number of the groups, that would clearly be unsatisfactory and unfair.
I am trying to encourage Members to get as much as they can into each speech. It is to be hoped that we will deal with things in a thoughtful and flexible manner.
Before putting the Question on any Standing Order where there is an amendment I will ask "Is the amendment moved or not moved?" This will give Members an opportunity to treat their amendment as a probing amendment or to be influenced by the tenor of the debate and to either to withdraw or not move their amendment.
If the amendment is moved and there is any dissent I will have no option but to let the House divide so that we can measure the level of cross-community support. It is very difficult to do anything else if dissent is expressed at the point where an amendment, or indeed a Standing Order, is being voted upon.
I intend to try to enable the Assembly to have completed the approval and consideration of the Standing Orders and amendments up to and including those that relate to ministerial appointments, that is, up to and including Standing Order 41, before suspending today’s proceedings and resuming at 10.30 am tomorrow. We will then have dealt with about half of the Standing Orders and amendments. I trust that that will encourage us to proceed as best we can. The sooner we get that far along the road the sooner we can suspend today’s sitting.
Amendment No 42 is as follows: In Standing Order 3(5) after "Chamber" insert "during sitting days".
I am not going to waste any time on dealing with what are simply tidying-up amendments. They stand on their own feet.
I assume that the amendment simply states what was intended by the Standing Order. The Standing Orders regulate the Assembly’s life not just when it is sitting, but when it is not sitting, and therefore the present terms of paragraph 5 could be construed to mean that the Roll of Members is in the Chamber all the time. There are visitors to the building, and we do not want other people signing the Roll. It might be a good idea to have it taken away between sittings. This is a straightforward simple tidying-up amendment.
Amendment No 85B in the name of Mr Neeson contains a mistake. It was probably correct when it was received by the Business Office. I assume that "other" should be "Other" as in the legislation. The effect is to suggest that any other designation can be entered and that, of course, is not what the agreement proposed. It is not what the Act requires, and I suspect that we would be acting outside our legal competence.
That presents a difficulty because that is not what is stated. There are two mistakes here, and there are errors in other amendments. We shall point them out as each amendment is moved. I saw at least two in our amendments. Amendment No 41 contains mistakes that were not there originally. It requires the notification to be in writing, which I suspect will be a safeguard for the Speaker or any subsequent Speaker.
Amendment No 40 indicates the practice of the Assembly to date. Members may change their affiliation at any time, and if they do so they must give seven days’ notification. It puts into our Standing Orders what has been our practice. It is particularly important to do that because elsewhere in the Standing Order there is reference to the identity designation and a time period of 30 days. There might have been a tendency to assume that the party affiliation should follow the same timescale. The amendment makes it clear that the period of seven days that we have applied thus far would continue to apply.
The other two amendments relate to the position of the Speaker. They are probing amendments if either of the joint Chairmen or any member of the Committee wanted to report on the thinking of the Committee on the issue. My reading of the Standing Orders is that only on the first day of the sitting is it designated that the Speaker, if returned, shall be in the Chair. In his absence there can be a Deputy Speaker or the eldest Member, and there will always be such a person. But they will act only for the business to be transacted in the first day, and the Standing Order does not show a continuing role.
There may be assumptions about that, and the amendment seeks to remove them and make the provisions more solid. If we cannot agree on the election of a Speaker, we can elect a Deputy Speaker or Speakers and they, in turn or the Deputy Speaker could take the Chair until a Speaker is elected. If we cannot elect either a Deputy Speaker or a Speaker, we are down to the eldest Member. Perhaps I may put your mind as ease, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, by saying that those circumstances relate to the procedure at the first meeting of a new Assembly. We are dealing with what happens after the next election.
It is necessary that we be fairly clear about the procedures. We do not have a satisfactory set of circumstances at present. If we do not define the procedures clearly we could have a less satisfactory set of circumstances where we could not elect a Speaker and would have no procedure to deal with the business that the Speaker would transact, apart from presiding over Assembly sittings. I think that that covers everything in the first section. Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I am looking for assurance. If that is the case, I will formally move the first amendment.
I gave my name this morning, but I suspect that it has been lost among all the paperwork.
I want to refer briefly to the amendments which stand in the name of Mr P Robinson, and in the spirit of charity with which he referred to ours I would like to give my party’s full agreement to his first three amendments. We have some doubts about the issue of getting a Speaker by the back door. After the next election there is a danger that the oldest Member might find himself stuck in the chair for longer than might be healthy for him. However, given that Mr P Robinson has described those as probing amendments, we shall listen with interest to any response which comes from Standing Orders Committee.
I want to speak to what I thought was one amendment and now stands as two amendments — 85A and 85B. The net effect of those would be to leave out four sets of inverted commas, but those inverted commas go to the heart of our problem, which is the whole issue of identity and each person’s right to define his or her identity. We have already had a minor row about how some Members designated themselves. The Standing Order is based on the Good Friday Agreement. Paragraph 6 of strand one refers to nationalist, unionist or other, with lower case letters and no quotation marks.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 refers to designated Nationalist and designated Unionist, with lower case "d", capital "N" and capital "U" and no quotation marks. The Initial Standing Orders from the Secretary of State similarly use capital letters but no quotation marks. The difference between the word "Other" without inverted commas and the word "Other" with inverted commas, as it appears in this draft Standing Order, is fundamental. The Alliance Party believes that every Member has the right to define herself or himself. This is quite clear in the Agreement, in the Act, in the Initial Standing Orders and in the current draft, as long as one defines oneself as either Nationalist or Unionist.
It might be thought slightly bizarre that Members of the House, elected on behalf of Sinn Féin or the SDLP, can designate themselves Unionist but that is their right. Similarly, any Member of one of the many parties with "Unionist" in their title can designate himself or herself as Nationalist. That is the current position, but the right of self-designation is no less than the right of self-determination. Every Member must have the right to designate his or her own identity. It is a gross insult to Members from my party and, indeed, other Members who do not put their primary identity in terms of the ancient quarrel to say that we cannot choose our own designation but must adopt the meaningless and offensive term "Other".
Are we to be regarded as what South Africans used to describe as "non-white" because we are neither orange nor green? It is not only Alliance Members or others in the centre who will be affected. Some Members have already designated themselves as Nationalist/Irish Republican, and in the future some Members may wish to define a particular form of Unionism. Neither would be permitted under the draft Standing Order which specifies a single word. Anything other than the single word "Nationalist" or the single word "Unionist" could not be regarded as fitting that designation.
The proposed Standing Order is, however, more than just offensive to some of us. In demanding the use of the term "Other," it contradicts the Good Friday Agreement and also the Act, which is specifically for the purposes of implementing the Agreement. The Agreement and the Act lay down circumstances in which votes are counted which depend upon the votes of Nationalists and the votes of Unionists. There is no specific counting of the votes of those who do not fit into those two designations.
Therefore there is absolutely no reason to specify how other Members should designate themselves if they do not wish to be regarded as Nationalist or Unionist. Attempting to specify how others designate themselves appears more than a little arrogant.
The draft Standing Order is contrary to the European framework convention on the protection of national minorities which was ratified by the UK in January 1998 and came into force in February of that year — that is before the Good Friday Agreement.
If this draft Standing Order is approved by the Assembly, the next Alliance Member to take a seat will have no choice but to force a determination of the legality of the Standing Order. Standing Orders, I repeat, can only be made within the bounds set out by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Act uses the terms "designated Nationalist" and "designated Unionist", which are defined in Chapter 47, clause 4(5). It does not use the term "Other", either with or without inverted commas, and the use of the term "Other", with a capital letter and in inverted commas, in the draft Standing Orders is therefore inconsistent with the Act. It is wrong, and it is ultra vires.
It would hardly be an advertisement for pluralism and new relationships in Northern Ireland if this Standing Order were held to be illegal under any aspects of human-rights legislation, whether domestic or European, because a few inverted commas infringed the rights of a minority of members. I urge Members to amend this Standing Order of their own volition to bring it into line with the agreement rather than wait for the courts to do so.
I have received no further requests from Members to speak on the amendments in the first group. We will therefore proceed to vote on the first group of Standing Orders and amendments.
Standing Order 1 (The Speaker) agreed to.
Standing Order 2 (Notice of First Meeting of New Assembly) agreed to.
Standing Order 3 (Procedure at First Meeting of New Assembly).
Amendment (No 42) made:
Amendment (No 85A) proposed:
May I have order, please. Will Members please refrain from speaking during Divisions except when responding to their names and make sure that those responses can be heard. It is not always easy for the Clerks to hear what is being said when Members are speaking in different languages.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Ms Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Michelle Gildernew, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, John Kelly, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Seamus Mallon, Donavan McClelland, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Malloy, Conor Murphy, Mrs Mary Nelis, Danny O’Connor, Ms Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Mrs Sue Ramsay, Ms Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
Mrs Eileen Bell, Seamus Close, David Ford, Kieran McCarthy, Ms Monica McWilliams, Ms Jane Morrice.
Dr Ian Adamson, Fraser Agnew, Ms Pauline Armitage, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Mrs Joan Carson, Wilson Clyde, Fred Cobain, Rev Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Sir Reg Empey, David Ervine, Sam Foster, Oliver Gibson, Sir John Gorman, William Hay, David Hilditch, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Robert McCartney, David McClarty, Rev William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Maurice Morrow, Dermot Nesbitt, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mrs Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, George Savage, Jim Shannon, Rt Hon David Trimble, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
You have raised the question. A number of issues are involved in this. Even when the Assembly takes its vote, that is not, in itself, a determination of the Standing Orders prior to devolution. You can take it for granted that I will be asking for legal advice myself, but that does not preclude you or any other Member also seeking legal advice. Legal advice, of course, is what it says — advice, not a determination.
Amendment (No 41) made:
Amendment (No 40) made:
"A Member may change his or her party affiliation at any time. Any such change takes effect 7 days after notification in writing is submitted to the Speaker." — [Mr P Robinson]
Standing Order 3, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 4 (Election of Speaker)
Amendment (No 38) made:
"Where the Assembly is unable to elect a Speaker under the foregoing provisions of this Standing Order, but where a Deputy Speaker has been elected by virtue of Standing Order 5, the Deputy Speaker shall act as Speaker. In the case of more than one Deputy Speaker being elected they shall act in turn until a Speaker is elected."— [Mr P Robinson]
Amendment (No 39) made:
"Where the Assembly is unable to elect either a Speaker, under the foregoing provisions of this Standing Order, or a Deputy Speaker, by virtue of Standing Order 5, the Chair shall be taken, until a Speaker or Deputy Speaker is elected, by an Acting Speaker, who shall be the eldest Member of the Assembly."
Standing Order 4, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 5 (Deputy Speaker) agreed to.
Standing Order 6 (Procedure when Office of Speaker becomes vacant) agreed to.