Yesterday Mr David Ford asked whether the draft Standing Order referring to "Unionist", "Nationalist" and "Other" might be in contravention of Her Majesty’s Government’s undertakings internationally. I have sought legal advice on the question, but it may well be that clear legal advice will not be forthcoming prior to our having to take a vote at the end of today’s proceedings.
If such advice is forthcoming I will at a convenient time bring it and, insofar as I can, its consequences to the attention of the Assembly. If such advice has not been received by the time the Assembly votes, the Standing Orders that we will, I trust, approve will not, by dint of that, be determined. They will go to the Secretary of State, who will then make the determination in advance of devolution.
As it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility, as far as I understand it, to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government’s international obligations are maintained she will be scrutinising the Standing Orders that we put forward. If it is her belief that one of them is in contravention of international obligations, she would be within her rights were she to make a determination different from that of the Assembly, either in favour of the Alliance amendment or otherwise. In any case the matter will go to the Secretary of State following any decision of the Assembly.
Of course, if definitive legal advice comes to my attention before we come to the vote, I will at a convenient point bring it to the attention of the Assembly.
This amendment deals with how the Committees will operate when they are considering matters in relation to, for instance, a Bill brought to them by the Assembly. The words whose removal I am suggesting —
"to be made to the Bill" — indicate something that definitely will occur. I am suggesting they be replaced by words which indicate that a Bill may be proposed. That would give an option. I imagine that this Committee will make a series of recommendations, which may, indeed, become proposals for amendments, but I suspect that, as the purpose of the Committee is to advise and assist a Minister, it would be a very foolish Minister indeed who would not take the recommendations of his Committee and consider them very seriously.
At that stage he might well agree to adopt some of those amendments as part of the Bill and therefore there would be a Government amendment relating to them. There may be others which he might be able to convince the Committee should not be accepted in the way that it has suggested, and the Committee may decide not to move the amendment.
Amendment No 22 provides for that degree of flexibility which will allow a Minister to adopt Committee recommendations and for the Committee, on reflection, to accept whatever argument is put by a Minister. As it stands at the moment, the amendments have to be made. I am not sure if the word "made" is appropriate. The word "moved" would be more appropriate if one were to stick with the original text. The amendment should allow more flexibility in the working of the Committee system.
I need not spend much time on amendment No 21. A Bill is set down "on" and not "in".
Amendment No 20 seems to have been caused by an error in the typing of the report or in its compilation. With the erratum being applied to Standing Order 31, the heading is "Public Bills: Human Rights Issues". The heading for Standing Order 32 is "Public Bills: Equality Issues". However, in No 32(1) there is reference to "human rights" instead of "equality requirements". Amendments 17, 18 and 19, whose purpose is to remove the words "and observance of human rights", are consequential. Legal advice is that if the original Standing Order is clearly wrong some further tidying up might be required, and the Committee might want to look at that. Indeed, it might fall within the context of the catch-all amendment that we had to the notice of motion, which allows some tidying up to be done.
With regard to Standing Order 32(1), the point which has been made regarding the reference to "human rights" and its replacement by "equality requirements" is one that is well taken. However, with reference to the following amendments that the Member is proposing, would he not accept that all references to "human rights" might well be required, given that all equality measures may not be covered simply by a reference to "equality rights"?
It is my understanding that the Standing Orders Committee was attempting to divide human rights and equality issues, recognising that a particular statutory responsibility for human rights has been placed on the Human Rights Commission. There is a real legal difficulty if an Assembly Committee seeks to take over responsibilities which have been given to a statutory body, the Human Rights Commission, no matter what one might think of the present composition of it. I am quite happy that the lawyers look at it and tidy it up in whatever way is necessary. It is not that I want particularly to take out the reference, but we may be getting into legal difficulties if we give a task which has to be performed legally by a Human Rights Commission to a Committee of the Assembly.
Would Mr Robinson be prepared to withdraw the amendments Nos 17, 18 and 19 on the basis that he has properly brought the House’s attention to what may require some legal expertise? If he were to withdraw them it would save us having to vote them down in order that they go back and be reconsidered. I would be glad to give such an undertaking as joint-Chairman of the Committee on Standing Orders.
I am comfortable with Mr Haughey’s proposal. As I have said, I have no emotional capital tied up in the wording of the Standing Order. We need to deal with it, but I would not like to keep it in and find that we are in conflict with the law. That is the last thing I should want.
Amendment No 16 seeks to replace "bill" with "Bill". I hope that there is no controversy over that proposal. Amendment No 15 is similar to an earlier amendment, inserting "on" in place of "in".
Amendment No 14 requires "main" options to be considered. I suspect that when a Department is preparing a Bill it considers a plethora of options. Some of them might not be seriously considered, but if the Department were required to include all the options the Bill would be a very untidy document. Simply to include the main propositions seems sensible. For consistency, a change is required to brackets in Standing Orders 37 and 38. I have not referred to those specifically as they should be included in the catch-all amendment at the beginning.
With regard to amendment No 13, there seems to be an assumption on the part of the drafter of the Standing Orders that there must be more than one reason for everything, because throughout the Standing Orders we have to give reasons. It should be "reason or reasons" in case there is only one reason. I am sure that the Women’s Coalition will applaud me for amendment No 12, in which I am being gender-sensitive. Mr Sammy Wilson helped me to word the amendment.
Regarding amendment No 11, it is not the responsibility of a Committee to "require" Departments to do anything. The person who is responsible for a Department is a Minister, and the Committee has direct control of the Minister, as the Assembly would. The amendment should tidy up the Standing Order.
Those are all the amendments in my name, and I beg to move them.
I have no requests from Members to speak on this group of amendments, so we shall simply take decisions on them and on the relevant Standing Orders.
Standing Order 27 (Public Bills: Introduction and First Stage) agreed to.
Standing Order 28 (Stages in Consideration of Public Bills) agreed to.
Standing Order 29 (Public Bills: Second Stage) agreed to.
Standing Order 30 (Public Bills: Committee Stage)
Amendment (No 22) made:
Amendment (No 21) made:
Standing Order 30, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 31 (Public Bills: Human Rights Issues) agreed to.
Standing Order 32 (Public Bills: Equality Issues)
Amendment (No 20) made:
Standing Order 32, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 33 (Public Bills: Consideration Stage) agreed to.
Standing Order 34 (Public Bills: Amendments)
Amendment (No 16) made:
Standing Order 34, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 35 (Public Bills: Final Stage)
Amendment (No 15) made:
Standing Order 35, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 36 (Public Bills: Reconsideration) agreed to.
Standing Order 37 (Public Bills: Explanatory and Financial Memoranda)
Amendment (No 14) made:
Standing Order 37, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 38 (Public Bills: Special Scheduling Requirement)
Amendment (No 13) made:
Amendment (No 12) made:
Standing Order 38, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 39 (Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland)
Amendment (No 11) made:
Standing Order 39, as amended, agreed to.
Paragraph (1) of Standing Order 40 ends with the words "are as follows". Either the next two paragraphs must be incorporated into this one or we must make the reference contained in amendment No 45. It is simply a tidying-up amendment.
Standing Order 40 refers to the "Northern Ireland Act". It should be the "Northern Ireland Act 1998". I do not believe that there is any substantial point there.
Amendment No 46 proposes that after Standing Order 40(2)(e) we insert a new subparagraph.
There are a number of areas where it is necessary to provide cover in this Standing Order. There is a gap or a route back into an Executive for those who are determined not to be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, for those who are found not to have fulfilled the pledge of office or carried out the task which they were to perform. There was a way of filling a position when a vacancy occurred by retirement, resignation or death. There is no way back.
I shall give some examples of what might arise from a principled decision. None of the examples should be taken as an intention. A party might decide that the Assembly needed a much stronger constitutional and legitimate Opposition, and might decide to move into Opposition rather than remain in the Government. That would be a principled decision. Will the members of that party be given fewer rights than those who were put out of the Government because they were involved in violence or because they broke their pledges? That would be wrong, particularly as all the parties that supported the agreement say that it was about inclusive government. My proposal seeks to fill a gap in the Standing Orders.
Amendment No 47 is necessary because 40(2)(e) is inaccurate. It is prefaced by Standing Order 40(2), which states
"Ministerial offices must be filled by applying the procedures set out in section 18(2) to (6)".
However, in the circumstances referred to in 40(2)(e) the nominating officer does not go through the procedure set out in 18(2) to (6). He simply appoints a replacement. The amendment corrects that inaccuracy.
I now turn to amendment No 49. Standing Order 40(3)(b) refers to asking
"the Assembly to extend that time limit, and gives reasons for so asking".
Again, plurality is required by the Standing Orders, though there may be only one reason.
In Standing Order 41, the removal of "(1)" is simply for tidying up. As there is only one part, there is no requirement for "(1)".
Amendment No 61 is a tidying-up exercise. The reference in the Standing Order to "Minister" should be to "Ministers".
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. There are two elements to amendment No 46, and Members may wish to vote differently on them. I ask you to rule that the two elements can be separated and that separate votes may be taken on them. The first element is to leave out Standing Order 40(2)(e), and the second is to insert a new paragraph (f).
There is a legitimate argument for these two matters to be taken separately. On occasions, amendments have been separated into sections because they could legally be taken as separate matters. I accept that these could be taken as two separate votes. We will take these as amendments No 46(A) and No 46(B) — 46(A) being "Leave out Standing Order 40 (2)(e)", and 46(B) being the insertion of a new subparagraph. Given that change, Mr Robinson may wish to comment on the difference that it would make.
I do not object to the change. I am not sure whether I had them separated when I submitted them. The request is slightly disturbing because it suggests that people might deal with them in a different way. If that is the case, it would be a remarkable shift in SDLP policy. I hope that if there is a policy shift we will be given an explanation for it.
Our view is that it would be proper to accept Mr P Robinson’s amendment to the existing paragraph (2)(e), as that provision runs contrary to the provisions of the relevant legislation. We would support that.
It seems to us that the second part of amendment 46, which relates to the rerunning of the d’Hondt system in circumstances where the nominating officer did not exercise his rights under the legislation when the Executive was formed but wishes to do so subsequently by notifying the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Speaker of his intention to do so, requires further thought. If it is left open in this way, it will be open to abuse. Therefore we would wish to consider this matter further and will not be accepting the amendment in its current form.
As I have no further requests to speak, I propose that we proceed to the voting.
Standing Order 40 (Appointment of Northern Ireland Ministers — Time Limits)
Amendment (No 45) made:
Amendment (No 48) made:
Amendment (No 46A) made:
Amendment (No 46B) proposed:
"(f) the nominating officer of a party who did not exercise the power conferred by section 18(2) notifies the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Speaker of his/her intention to do so." — [Mr P Robinson]
Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Robert McCartney, Rev William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mrs Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Mrs Eileen Bell, Seamus Close, David Ford.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Ms Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Michelle Gildernew, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Dr Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mrs Mary Nelis, Danny O’Connor, Ms Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Mrs Sue Ramsey, Ms Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
Dr Ian Adamson, Ms Pauline Armitage, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs Jnr, Billy Bell, Esmond Birnie, Mrs Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Rev Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Sir Reg Empey, David Ervine, Sam Foster, Sir John Gorman, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Dermot Nesbitt, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Peter Weir.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment (No 47) made:
"Where the office becomes vacant as mentioned in section 18(10) the nominating officer of the party on whose behalf the previous incumbent was nominated shall nominate a person to hold the office within a period of seven days." — [Mr P Robinson]
Amendment (No 49) made:
Standing Order 40, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 41 (Junior Ministers)
Amendment (No 44) made:
Amendment (No 61) made:
Standing Order 41, as amended, agreed to.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. This is a point that I should have raised yesterday, but it only occurred to me a while ago. I have not discussed it with either Chairman of the Standing Orders Committee. I am thinking of a vote where the cross-community aspect was important to either side. If a Member were suffering from a chronic illness and unable to attend the Chamber, he or she could come by car, as happens in the House of Commons — and you will be aware of this — to the precincts of the Building. An officer appointed by the Speaker could go out, see the person and record his or her vote. That should happen here. I am not proposing an amendment, but could the Chairmen of the Standing Orders Committee take that on board for the future?
Your remarks, while strictly speaking not a point of order, raise a useful question of procedure. Since the matter is now on the record, I am sure that it will be given consideration by the joint Chairmen.
We now come to the section on Committees — a substantial section from Standing Order 42 to, I think, 56 — and there is a considerable number of amendments. There may be matters arising which we will have to address.
I want to draw Members’ attention to amendments 3A through to 3E, which were submitted as a single amendment. They have been divided up for ease of reference as Members go through the Marshalled List, but I will take them as a single amendment.
Amendments 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 refer to precisely the same matters as amendments 3A to 3E. When we come to the vote — and it makes no difference in terms of our consideration of the matter — I will take amendments 3A to 3E as a single vote. If Members are agreed on that, amendments 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 will therefore not be moved as they will have already been agreed.
If, however, Members do not agree to take amendments 3A to 3E on the first and single vote, then amendments 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 may, if the proposer wishes, be moved separately, and there will be a separate vote on each of them. I trust that this is clear. When it comes to the vote, I will draw it to Members’ attention again in order to avoid confusion.
The first amendment in this group is No 60, which stands in the name of Mr Peter Robinson.
I will not try to speak to all of the amendments in my name in this section. It might make more sense if I were simply to address the issues relating to the establishment of Statutory Committees in Standing Order 44 and resume my seat at that stage. There is a substantial piece of business to be transacted on that single Standing Order, and it might be appropriate for Members to look at this one — even to vote on it — before coming back to the others.
Of the amendments that I have, the substantive one is No 59, which is to do with the setting up of a Special Scrutiny Committee to deal with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The other two or three amendments immediately surrounding it on the list of groupings are consequential amendments.
This subject was discussed during our meeting yesterday, and considerable concern was expressed at the gap in the legislation in relation to the setting up of the Statutory Committees. It is clear — and cannot be disputed — that the legislation specifically requires the Assembly to set up statutory committees dealing with all the subjects that are the responsibility of Northern Ireland Ministers. I think that the legal advice correctly defines them as being the Ministers responsible for the 10 new Departments. Therefore there is no statutory requirement — I use the word "requirement" advisedly — to set up a committee in relation to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Having looked at the synopsis of the legal advice given to the Standing Orders Committee, I am not clear if the legal adviser was asked if a Statutory Committee was one which was required by statute or one which was permitted by statute. I have no doubt that, under the Standing Orders provision contained in the Act, permission is given to the Assembly to set up committees of whatever shape and variety. Whether it is a statutory committee because the statute so permits, I am not legally competent to answer. I have asked those who should be legally competent, and they are unsure as to the position.
Therefore instead of tabling an amendment, which I think I could have done, stating that a Statutory Committee is one that is permitted rather than required by statute, I have taken the softer option, which is not to attempt to call it a Statutory Committee but to set up a special scrutiny committee. We are empowered to do that by the legislation. That committee will have all of the powers and functions of a Statutory Committee and will look at the roles of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, and junior Ministers within their Department. It is a Statutory Committee by another name, but it is within the Assembly’s legal competence.
Being charitable, I imagine that the wise owls in London who drafted the legislation made a mistake when they did not insert a clause to cover this matter. Perhaps they never considered such a possibility. It could be that they did not expect the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to grab so many functions and place them in the central Department. As it stands, the First and Deputy First Ministers, who have the authority to issue determinations, could take more and more responsibility to the central Department. Without scrutiny, they could take key government issues away from the eyes of Members and the public.
I cannot imagine anyone being prepared to state publicly that the actions of the First and Deputy First Ministers are such that they should not be scrutinised. In a general acceptance that there should be scrutiny, the only two not fighting hard for it would be those two Ministers. They might enjoy the chance to justify their actions to a committee. A more malevolent view creeping around the Assembly is that we are witnessing part of a conspiracy. It is said that it is impossible for legislative draftsmen not to have foreseen the possibility, and that there was a deliberate exercise to ensure that there would be no scrutiny, or inadequate scrutiny, of what the First and Deputy First Ministers are doing.
I do not need to take sides on this issue. It is sufficient to say that the amendment suggests a mechanism by which we can fill this unfortunate gap until such times as the legislation may change. The Assembly has the power to do that. I hope that the committee wants to do it and that there are no vested interests in the Assembly that would seek to protect the First and Deputy First Ministers from scrutiny. There will certainly be matters under the control of the central Department that will need to be scrutinised. The equality agenda will clearly require scrutiny. Those who are the guardians of equality would place themselves in a weak position if they were not prepared to have their actions scrutinised.
There has been an attempt to withdraw powers from the Department of Finance and Personnel, especially in relation to the Economic Policy Unit. That key government function — the strategy for the Northern Ireland economy — will be determined by that body. Is it conceivable that the Assembly would be unable to scrutinise such an important function? There is a clear requirement to scrutinise, and my proposal allows the Assembly at least a stop-gap measure until the legislation is corrected.
There are one or two other amendments in my name in relation to the setting up of the Statutory Committees. Standing Order 44 requires the speaker to supervise the establishment of Statutory Committees. The word "given" in 44(2) suggests that Members must accept, but that may not be what every Member wants. Amendment No 57 seeks to insert the word "offered", which would allow Member to decide whether to accept.
Also, the Speaker should be excluded from being a member of a Statutory Committee, yet the Standing Order does not specifically indicate that. That is normal practice and that should be reflected in the Standing Order.
Standing Order 44(5) says
"For the purposes of paragraph (4) a nominating officer has a party interest in a Committee if it is established to advise and assist a Minister who is a member of his/her party."
The present thinking of the current First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) is that there may not be junior Ministers in Departments, but the Standing Orders that we are devising are not simply for the first term or for the duration of their tenure. They will go beyond that, and it is conceivable that, in the future, the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) will change their minds and there will be junior Ministers in Departments. I do not believe that any party should nominate a Chairperson or a deputy Chairperson to a Committee if it has a junior Minister from its party in the Department that that Committee is to scrutinise. This amendment is not for immediate use, it is for the future .
That covers all the amendments in my name to Standing Order 44, and I beg to move them.
My comments refer to amendment 59. A situation has arisen that means that some areas are not going to be scrutinised because of the legislation which was passed in November 1998 before the parties’ negotiations in December 1998 which led to an agreement on 18 December 1998 to move various areas of responsibility from Departments into the centre. That is the reason for this anomaly.
This is not a simple issue. It is complicated in that the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) will clearly have a view on this. While I agree that there are areas that appear to require some degree of oversight by the Assembly, it would be sensible to discuss this with the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate), obtain their views and reach an agreed outcome. This is something that requires further scrutiny and should be referred back to the Committee.
The SDLP feels that with regard to amendments 60, 59, 56 and 55, which have to do with oversight of the Executive functions carried out by the First and Deputy First Ministers, there is a lack of clarity in the Act. Whereas the Good Friday Agreement makes reference to the need for scrutiny of the main Executive functions of the new Administration, it is not clear how this can be done in a way that is consistent with the legislation. I agree with Mr McFarland that this is a matter which requires further study to enable us to come up with a formula which would accomplish the purposes of the Assembly.
The SDLP also feels that amendment 54 is a matter that needs to be looked at more carefully. As the amendment is currently drafted, it could be restrictive and, in certain circumstances, impracticable.
That is fine. I was going to put on record our position. We supported 11 but were prepared to go to 14 to accommodate the smaller parties such as the Women’s Coalition and the PUP. The amendment, as suggested, would accommodate the Alliance Party but not these smaller parties.
On amendment 52, proposed by Mr P Robinson, the issue is whether committees should be forced to suspend their business when a vote is being taken in plenary session, or whether they have discretion. Members may be stuck dealing with a vital vote in a committee when there is also a vital vote in the plenary session. Our opinion is that committees should retain discretion in such cases. Our experience is that most of the committees have operated sensibly to date. If there are vital votes being held in plenary session, Members should be allowed to leave.
There are a number of amendments regarding deleting the reference to membership of non-statutory committees. We will not support these, on the understanding that the issue will revert to the Standing Orders Committee who will deliberate further on it and that it does not go back to 11.
I support Mr P Robinson. Mr McFarland felt that the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) would have a view on this matter. I am sure that they do. Human nature is such that their view would be that they will not want to be scrutinised. They will want to hide behind the privilege of being able to control a huge section of the Government of this Province without being subject to adequate scrutiny.
No one will want to be brought to account before a Statutory Committee of this Assembly. That is the nature of politics. If they have a view on the subject, they will have realised weeks or months ago that this issue was going to come up. They have had plenty of time to consider their view. The matter came up several times at the Standing Orders Committee when I was present. They will have seen that there are a whole series of amendments on the subject, and they should be in the Chamber to give us their considered view.
My concern is that if we take up the suggestion made by Mr McFarland and Mr Haughey — if we sideline this issue and go on — an attempt will be made quietly to forget it. This is our opportunity to get the Standing Orders that this Assembly needs and to get them right. This was one of the most debated issues in the Committee and one of the most important matters that we discussed. We cannot allow a huge section of the Government of the Province to be controlled by those who are not accountable to this body.
I concur with what the Member says and with the sentiments contained in this amendment. Given that it says there will be a committee for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration — and that wording means that there must be — does the Member share my concern that if we set up a committee which is different from the statutory committees it will be a diluted committee, that it will not be a committee with the proper standing? Given the speed with which the political development Minister was able to put proposals before Parliament last evening, should we not wait for proper legislation?
The hon Member for East Belfast is reading from the agreement, not from the Act. It is the Act which gives us our statutory powers to scrutinise the work of the various Departments. My view is that this issue will be gently pushed aside, and we will not have an opportunity to get it right from the start.
Mr McFarland made the point that various powers were added to the central control of the First and Second Ministers; that is true. That happened — very conveniently — after the establishment of the Standing Orders Committee and before the issue of its final report. I wonder if that happened by chance. Did they realise, as the legislation was going through, that they could get away with not having a statutory scrutiny committee? Did they, therefore, take the opportunity to add on as many powers as they could to their control so that they had absolute authority on a whole range of issues?
Now, not only have we to be fair in the Chamber, but we have to be seen to be fair. We have to be able publicly — and it is very crucial that it is publicly — to bring the First and Deputy First Ministers to book on issues and guard the rights of minorities. This is the first opportunity we have had to address this issue, and it may be the only one we will have.
The hon Member is showing his inexperience. Scrutiny committees are there to see that justice is done for everyone. We as a party have never stood in the way of adequate scrutiny of the Executive. During the last Assembly from 1982 to 1986 we were the strongest proponents of scrutiny committees. The rights of every party in the House have to be guarded, and, as things stand, if we do not have some form of control over the central Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, they will be able to ride roughshod over the rights of all the parties in the Assembly except their own.
I am deeply suspicious when Mr Haughey and Mr McFarland, who are known to be the lieutenants, the right-hand men, of the two Gentlemen concerned, are quick to their feet to say that we must wait for the considered views of Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon. It is only about a three-minute walk from their offices to the Chamber, so let us have them here, hear their considered views and vote on this important issue.
It is clear from comments that were made earlier, particularly by the Members who moved this list of amendments, and from the number of Members who want to speak that there is very considerable interest on the part of the Assembly in addressing this matter.
The proposition was made that we would speak to this matter rather than consider the whole raft of amendments for this section on Committees as one piece and then vote on all of them right at the end. It does seem to me that that proposition has some merit. We are going to be debating for some time, before and after lunch, and then voting later on.
I therefore rule that we will now take all the speeches on the set of amendments up to amendment 54, that is the amendments to Standing Orders 42 to 44. A substantial number of Members have indicated that they wish to address those matters. We will then vote on them and then continue with the rest of the amendments to the section on Committees.
If we do not do this we will be debating backwards and forwards on a whole series of matters and then voting on them very much later in the day.
I find myself in total agreement with the sentiments that have been expressed by the Member, Mr Peter Robinson, particularly on amendment No 59. There is a responsibility — indeed, a duty — on all Members to ensure that all areas are subject to proper scrutiny. I hope that there will be no dissent from that view. It should be a matter of principle on the parts of everyone that all Ministers, be they the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister, be subject to the utmost scrutiny by all elected representatives who operate on behalf of their constituents. I have no difficulty with amendment No 60 at all.
While agreeing with the sentiments, I do have a difficulty with the proposal that this special scrutiny committee should have the same powers and perform the same functions as a Statutory Committee. I question if that is not ultra vires in respect of Standing Orders.
I am not legally qualified, and I recognise that I speak in the presence of people who are qualified in law. However, it is my contention, and I am subject to the correction of those eminent lawyers in the Chamber, that to try to give the same powers to a scrutiny committee that have been given by the Act to another type of committee is really cutting across the point of the Act itself. Why have an Act at all, if, through Standing Orders, we can give the same powers to committees as those set up and empowered by the Act?
I have difficulty with that. I want the centre to be scrutinised, and it must be subject to exactly the same scrutiny as all other Statutory Committees. I share the concern of Members who question whether this was some sort of an accident or an oversight. I am on record as saying that I believe that it is probably deliberate.
I think that I am right in saying that he is a member of a district council. District councils decide their own standing orders, and can draw up whatever standing orders they want, provided they do not conflict with legislation. We are in exactly the same position. Section 41 of the Act allows the Assembly to determine its Standing Orders, provided it does not go beyond its powers. By carrying out the job that the Act asks us to do, we can hardly be ultra vires.
I understand Mr Robinson’s point. Section 29 of the Act gives the statutory powers for the establishment of the committees. If we try to establish committees that have the same powers as those Statutory Committees, I question whether we would be operating ultra vires the Act. Perhaps we both require legal advice on that matter.
Section 29 requires the Assembly to do something. Nowhere does it try to stop it from doing something else. It is a requirement, but it does not take away the permissive powers within the legislation for us to set up committees.
The provisions in the Act relating to the establishment of the Statutory Committees are mandatory. Those committees must be established. Mr Robinson is referring to the fact that although it states that some must be established and therefore cannot be done without, that is no bar to the creation of others should the Assembly, under its inherent statutory powers, decides to do that.
I know when I’m bate — to use a well-known Ulster expression. I do not propose to take on an eminent QC.
I share the view that the utmost scrutiny should be applied to those who will be at the centre, and they should not run away from that fact. If amendment No 59 enables that to happen, I shall be content to go along with it. If it is ultra vires, I will have difficulty with it.
I understand that on the completion of our discussions on the report it will be subject to full legal scrutiny. In that context, I am prepared to go along with it because I feel strongly that there must be power to scrutinise the centre. Neither I nor any member of my party believes in dictatorship, be it benign or otherwise. The more power that is sucked into the centre, the more difficult it will be to hold people to account without proper Statutory Committees.
On the clear understanding that the report will be subject to legal scrutiny and advice, my party can go along with the amendment.
In my speech yesterday I referred to the balance between the legislative process and control of the Assembly and the Executive. This has, to a degree, been recognised in the legislation itself, in as much as the Act provides that the 10 Ministries be subject to the scrutiny of 10 committees. As I have already indicated, the fact that the Act requires, in a mandatory fashion, that committees be established to supervise and scrutinise each of the 10 Ministries recognises the principle that there must be control by the legislature and by Assembly Members over those exercising executive power.
It follows inevitably from that principle that there should be a scrutiny committee for members of the Executive, as they are collectively exercising more power than any Minister of a Department. Whether one believes in the conspiracy theory or in the "cock-up" theory, it may be that it was originally intended no such scrutiny committee would be required. It may not have been envisaged that the First or the Deputy First Ministers would have control of a specific department, but rather that their work would be more like that of a Prime Minister, supervising the whole range of Cabinet activities under other Ministers. However, during the passage of this legislation, the Centre was clearly given a full range of powers over some very fundamental and essential areas of government.
It is an established principle of democratic government, no matter where it is practised, that the legislative process, the judicial process and the executive process should be subject to a series of checks and balances, a principle already recognised in the legislation that set up the 10 Ministries. Members must realise that we have one thing in common in this Chamber: we are all elected representatives and Members of the Assembly as a legislative body before we are members of individual parties. It is as a Member of the Assembly, rather than as a member of a party, that I strongly recommend the amendment that would create a scrutiny committee specifically to check the activities of the two Ministers who will exercise the most central and fundamental power in the Executive.
It is an established principle in the United States that the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary all have to be totally independent in order to work. Indeed, the French political philosopher Montesquieu misunderstood the British constitution, which in a sense is flawed in this regard, in that he believed that the British legislature and its Executive were separate. We know that Labour, with a majority of 176, can control the legislature and can make it nothing more than a rubber stamp, that the Executive is currently triumphant and virtually uncontrolled in the House of Commons — save for the intervention of the fourth estate, and even that safeguard has been seriously weakened by the partnership between Mr Murdoch and Mr Blair.
We must not make that mistake here: it is vital that a scrutiny committee be established to check the activities of the First and Deputy First Ministers. These Ministers have significant executive power over areas, such as equality, that are likely to be the subject of conflicting views and interests. The Assembly, if it is dedicated to the equality agenda in the way that has been suggested it is, should also have control of these areas.
Some Members may feel that equality is being sidefooted for political expediency. Others may think that servicing another political agenda is thrusting further into the agenda of our politics than is required. In either event it is an area that ought to be scrutinised and brought within the control of the Assembly. If we fail to do that we shall throw away one of the few elements of control that lie within the Assembly.
Members should seriously consider whether they are content to be treated as lobby fodder for the SDLP or the Ulster Unionist Party. Independent voices must be raised, not only in the smaller parties within and without the Executive, but by those of independent mind who have a specific and honourable view which may not, in all circumstances, be shared by their party leaders. The only place where their voices can be heard is within either the Assembly or in a scrutiny committee that can call to account all those who will exercise executive power.
Members voting on this amendment should vote as democrats, as individual elected Members of the Assembly. They should bear in mind that their duty is to the entire people of Northern Ireland, and that we must serve their interests. Those may not necessarily accord with party interests, should they conflict with a broader, wider and much more important public interest.
I rise not as a piece of lobby fodder, but as one who subscribes fully to the principles of accountability which, having formed the approach to the establishment of the committee system, will be very much at the heart of the operation of the Assembly.
I wish to dispel any notion that the First and Deputy First Ministers do not want to be accountable. The present holders of those offices would certainly want to make themselves fully accountable to the Assembly in all aspects of their responsibilities. I also wish to dispel the notion that the office of the First and Deputy First Ministers has been endowed with powers and functions that will enable it to minimise the powers and functions of Departments that will be established by the Executive.
There is a danger of Members exaggerating the range of powers and functions that will rest with the First and Deputy First Ministers. As my Colleague Denis Haughey has said, we recognise that we need to address the accountability gap which became apparent to the Standing Orders Committee in respect of some aspects of the work of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. We have highlighted on a number of occasions our intention to ensure that the issue of equality is adequately scrutinised and addressed. We want a committee established with responsibilities for that.
We do not want all the detail of the First and Deputy First Ministers’ responsibilities to be subject to the type of scrutiny that is implied by the proposal. Again, I emphasise that that is not to say that they will not be accountable. Indeed, the Act itself prescribes just how accountable they will be on some matters. For example, on matters relating to the North/South Ministerial Council, matters that excite and concern some Members, the Act clearly lays down the manner in which the First and Deputy First Ministers are to be accountable to the Assembly. Part 5, section 52 of the Act states the manner in which some of that accountability is to be discharged.
We need to look carefully at how we can ensure that the main Executive functions which now lie within the Offices of the First and the Deputy First Ministers can be subject to scrutiny, but the manner in which they will be subject to scrutiny should be much more discrete than that which is proposed by this catch-all amendment.
The Ministers will ensure full accountability to the Assembly and to the Executive in general. With regard to discrete functions — and I highlight equality in particular — the House can ensure, by way of a dedicated committee, that such responsibilities are adequately and effectively subjected to the type of scrutiny that we all wish to see established.
As a member of a "No" party, I have always suggested that the agreement was fraudulent. I am not surprised that Members from the "Yes" camp are trying to avoid scrutiny of the First and Deputy First Ministers. Not all the "Yes" parties are trying to do that, but the two main proponents, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, are. I am peeved about that since for years the Ulster Unionist Party has talked about accountable democracy. I have already raised this in the House: if the people of Northern Ireland are to believe that we carrying out our duties effectively, accountable democracy is essential.
From the beginning of the Assembly, the areas of responsibility of the First and Deputy First Ministers have increased and it has been agreed that they should appoint junior Ministers. It was noted that on 18 December 1998 and on the 15 February 1999 the main increase in departmental responsibility was in the Department of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I ask the Assembly, the Members from the Ulster Unionist Party and from the SDLP, why the Ministers for Regional Development or the Environment or for the Culture, Arts and Leisure need to answer to a scrutiny committee when the First and Deputy First Ministers do not have to? Open and accountable Government should start at the top. The First and Deputy First Ministers must be held to account for the decisions they make. Their reasons should be made public, and nothing should be decided behind closed doors.
Those decisions will be made by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister without reference to the Assembly. Therefore I support Mr P Robinson’s amendment establishing this committee to scrutinise the work of those two Ministers. Much of what they do will be supported by the Assembly, but there may be things which will cause concern to my party or to other parties, so it is essential that this scrutiny committee be set up.
Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. I wish to speak against amendments Nos 60, 59, 56 and 55, relating to the formation of a committee to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The creation of a scrutiny committee would only create another tier of committee work. It is the view of Sinn Féin that what is required is an amendment of the relevant legislation to create a Statutory Committee, or committees, to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Such a committee would have full powers of scrutiny and would ensure that there was accountability and transparency in relation to the work of the Offices of Trimble and Mallon.
The proposed amendment may not be sufficient to scrutinise the work of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers. Therefore this amendment should be referred back to the Committee on Standing Orders to allow it to analyse and assess whether or not it provides the level of scrutiny envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. I am greatly concerned that the kind of detailed scrutiny envisaged in the agreement for the work of other Departments will not apply to the central Offices.
I am particularly concerned that matters relating to the rights of women and gender equality issues are to fall within the remit of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers. This will mean that Trimble and Mallon will have carte blanche to decide whether or not to act on a particular issue, and there will be no safeguard in the form of a scrutiny committee. I fear that issues relating to the rights of women will be placed far down the list of priorities if they are left in the hands of these two Gentlemen.
As evidence for this, I would like to remind Members that yesterday I hosted a discussion in the Long Gallery, attended by women from all sectors of society, the purpose of which was to acquaint the Assembly with their concerns and aspirations. Each delegate had a number of issues to which they felt the Assembly should attend. These included matters as diverse as health, education, violence against women, telecommunication masts situated close to homes and schools, childcare, poverty, prisoners and hospital closures.
With the exception of my Sinn Féin colleagues, no male Members of the Assembly attended. The fact that neither the First Minister (Designate) nor the Deputy First Minister (Designate) attended gave a very clear message to those hoping to address them that they were of little or no consequence. In the limited time available to us, we agreed some very valuable points. However, most of those at the meeting were already converted, and our discussions would have been of most benefit to those on the other Benches.
The disregard shown to this gathering of women, on International Women’s Day, gives us an indication of the importance attached to gender equality by the Assembly. This is why I am arguing strongly against amendments Nos 55, 56, 59 and 60. I want to ensure that adequate attention is given to the rights of women, victims, minorities and to the whole issue of equality.
Any body with responsibility for scrutinising the work of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must have real powers to protect the rights of the individual. There is a great need for this scrutiny, and we cannot accept a half-hearted attempt at this. We must get it right, and we cannot allow this issue to be sidelined. We must ensure that the necessary structures are in place to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
Go raibh maith agat.
I would like to remind Members that we should refer to each other using whatever title or office is appropriate, in whatever language, and not just by surnames alone.
As someone who, to use the analogy used by the Member for South Down, was not so much a lieutenant as the defendant in a recent court martial, I feel that I can bring a reasonably independent perspective to this issue. Some might suggest that I found myself with a weapon by my side, but that the police are not investigating any suspicious circumstances.
I find a great deal of merit in the proposals that have been put forward in terms of amendment 59. I take on board the comments made by, among others, Mr McFarland and Mr Haughey that there will be a re-examination of the issue. I welcome that. The amendment, as drafted, is perhaps not perfect, but in the absence of any other specific proposals on the matter the Assembly should support it.
The Assembly represents a rather unique form of government, which is designed to include some 80% of Members in a "Government party". That has its merits and also its problems. One of the weaknesses with the Government’s being so overwhelmingly supported in the Assembly is that there is a lack of coherent opposition. The Alliance Party, with the greatest respect to it, is the largest opposition party in the Assembly, and I am sure that it will provide constructive opposition, but it is only a very small party.
Therefore the only way in which the normal notion of government and opposition can operate is by a very strong committee system, with strong Back-Benchers exercising control over the Ministers. It is utterly illogical to suggest that the vast range of functions, spread over the ten Departments, will be scrutinised — as they should be — while no method has as yet been put forward to scrutinise the most important Department, that of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
If the situation were akin to that at Westminster, and the First and Deputy First Ministers retained essentially only the role of Prime Minister, one could perhaps see a degree of logic in not having a specific scrutiny committee. However, there have been allocated to the First and Deputy First Ministers, I think with some logic, powers over issues such as equality and certain finance matters. Given this, it is equally logical that there should be proper scrutiny of these issues.
For example, there are grey areas between the economic policy unit of the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers and the responsibilities of the Minister for Finance. It would be entirely illogical to scrutinise fully a function of the Finance Minister but not to scrutinise that same function if it were performed by the junior Minister in the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers. In the latter, it would either receive no scrutiny or perhaps, under the proposals that will come forward, a lesser degree of scrutiny. To use the classical analogy, no one should be above suspicion, not even Caesar’s wife.
To go down the route suggested by the Standing Orders, and not have direct scrutiny of the First and Deputy First Ministers, is to leave a very black hole.
As Mr Weir said, this is going to be a unique form of administration. That being so, it is not appropriate to import notions of government and opposition. Members here will belong to parties which are in the administration and, in a sense, also in opposition. The scrutiny committees may well take a form that will result in Ministers getting a rougher ride from members of their own party than from members of other parties. That would constitute an opposition process.
I agree that we should not import certain things from elsewhere. At Westminster there is no Select Committee to deal specifically with the Prime Minister’s affairs. Members are in a different situation here, and there should be proper scrutiny of the issue.
In terms of opposition, there needs to be proper scrutiny. While some degree of opposition will be created by parties which are also in government — perhaps in different Departments — we need to strengthen that role so that Back-Benchers can ensure that proper democratic scrutiny takes place.
As I have indicated, if proposals come forward — and I will certainly accept the thinking that even this amendment is not perfect — we should look at them. There may well be members of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist parties who feel that the current arrangements suit them in some regards because that is their parties’ position at the moment. However, in addition to what has already been said about ensuring that there is proper scrutiny and that the Assembly should be able to tell the public that all matters are being properly considered, I caution those members of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP who feel that these arrangements suit them to take a more long-term view.
At the moment the First Minister (Designate) is a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) is a member of the SDLP. However, no one can guarantee that that will be the position in the future, and that is not to draw any conclusions about future events. If any Member can tell me precisely how everything is going to go over the next five to ten years, I will let him complete my lottery ticket on Saturday.
The reality is that none of us can foretell the future, and any party, whether it be Unionist, Nationalist, Conservative or Labour, that assumes that it will always be the largest party in any bloc is taking a very arrogant view of its electorate, and parties that do that can head for a fall. We should look at the situation in which one or other of the main parties was not the largest party. If the Ulster Unionist Party turns out not to be the largest party in the future, and this goes for the SDLP as well, it will be extremely difficult for either party then to say that there should be a proper scrutiny committee for the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers. Power will then have passed to another party.
I caution Members to look at the long-term objective. We have to be fair in order to ensure that we do have proper accountable democracy. There has to be proper scrutiny of the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers, whether it comes about by means of this amendment, which is the best one available at the moment, or whether it comes about by means of other proposals which will come forward via the Committee on Standing Orders. We must not have the black hole of an unaccountable Government.
I find it very suspicious that all the lieutenants have been dragooned into supporting the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). Are we going to hear the views of any of the Ulster Unionist or SDLP Back-Benchers? Why is it that we only hear from the "Yes" men in both camps?
Thank you, Jim. This is the first occasion on which I have actually sat on the Front Bench, and not on the basis of being a "Yes" man — that is not a precondition for my getting here. I prefer to sit on the Back Benches. As everyone knows, that is where I always sit in the Chamber.
Let me address the issues raised. Is there a need for scrutiny? Yes. There is no doubt or argument about that. All Members supported amendment 27 which provides that any Member of the Executive Committee — not a departmental Minister — responsible for a matter which is the subject of an Adjournment debate shall respond to it. That will include the First and Deputy First Ministers. If we were minded to say that everything that was done by the First and Deputy First Ministers was entirely up to them and not subject to any reference to this House, we would be opposing that amendment.
Standing Orders also provide for weekly question times. The balance of those question times is obviously something which we are going to have to look at and determine. One would think that very regular and significant scrutiny, and questioning, of the First and Deputy First Ministers will form part of that.
I suggest that the Member should not speak too loudly about his desire to remain on the Back Benches; it might be the wrong time to do so.
He identifies one mechanism, and there are many within Standing Orders, which would allow scrutiny of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the House. But is that a satisfactory way of doing it? It is a most untidy way. It would be far better to have it all contained within a committee.
If the Member would allow me to continue, I have been generous in giving way so far.
That is one area. The allegation has been made that we have been trying to keep the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister immune from any check, any scrutiny, any accountability. I am simply pointing out that that is not so.
Secondly, with regard to functions remitted to the First and Deputy First Ministers, most of what they do relates to the particular operating needs of the Executive Committee and those requirements that arise specifically from the Committee. Any other function will be discharged on the basis of approval of the House. That should be remembered and recognised.
Thirdly, an argument has been made that all sorts of functions have been "hoovered" to the Centre. However, when one looks at those functions, they are seen to be the normal functions of the Centre. If one tries to identify the functions that have come from existing Government Departments, one finds that only a handful are currently remitted to specific Departments. The case has been made that all sorts of things were brought in, but one would be very hard pushed to find more than a handful of functions that have been taken from particular Departments into the Centre.
One is the issue of equality, which is currently discharged by the Department of Economic Development. We have already seen legislation passed elsewhere that gives much wider terms of reference and application than could ever have been covered by that Department. The idea of equality now encompasses more than employment and the provision of goods and services. It would have been wrong in those circumstances to have allowed the issue of equality to remain with the Department of Economic Development or its equivalent.
Similarly, community relations came under the Department of Education where it did not fare too well in the eyes of many people working in that area. That Department has now been broken up and reorganised, and no strong argument can be made for that function remaining there. It should move to the Centre.
Public appointments policy is another area which properly lies in the Centre and, indeed, was there previously. Most of the functions that lie with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister relate to the requirements of the Centre and of the Executive Committee. We argued in the negotiations for and stand by the concept of the Executive Committee as an inclusive exercise. We want it to be inclusive on a proportional basis. We want the Executive Committee to work as a committee. We want it to be a live and significant entity. That was the difference between many of the parties during the talks.
We argued very strongly for a significant Executive Committee. The circumstances of the negotiations required that part of the compromise was that particular functions and responsibilities for the co-ordination and operation of the Executive Committee be discharged by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Thus in that sense they are accountable to the Executive Committee and through the Committee to this House.
If we were to say that there has to be a specific scrutiny committee for the functions of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, that would be grand. That would make it very easy for those parties who say "We will take ministerial office but not sit on the Executive Committee. We will send our people to the scrutiny committee to try to kick the traces through every matter that is before or is coming before the Executive Committee."
Yes, who would do that? I just wonder.
I cannot believe that I am the first to suggest that any such thoughts are creeping into the minds of any of the Members in that corner, but that is precisely what this scrutiny committee would be used for. Those parties that were not content with being able to scrutinise the business of the North/South Ministerial Council through the relevant departmental Ministers could use it to undertake a wholesale challenging exercise. It could be used, for instance, to frisk the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on details concerning the Civic Forum. That would be an abuse of such a scrutiny committee.
We have agreed the necessity for particular functions to come within the remit of the Centre and that they be subject to dedicated scrutiny committees. For example, we have already agreed that that is what must happen with the issue of equality, and when we talk about a scrutiny committee on equality, we mean one that is additional to the special committee on conformity with equality requirements referred to in the Standing Orders. That is a separate procedural device provided for in the agreement that allows for equality readings for measures that are before the House. So we are talking about there being two different committees in respect of equality issues, not none as some seem to be suggesting.
There are other issues — the Public Service Office, for instance — that rest with the Centre. The scope of that office, which will be encompassed within the Economic Policy Unit, may also be a very suitable function for a scrutiny committee to address.
Many of those functions are being placed at the Centre, not so that they will be with David Trimble and Seamus Mallon but because the Centre, rather than a specific department, is the appropriate place for them.
That does not mean that the ministerial responsibility for those functions cannot be discharged by other Ministers. The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 specifically provides for the fact that a Minister, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, can delegate authority in respect of certain functions to another Minister or junior Minister — functions in relation to women’s issues, for instance. There is nothing to prevent the First and Deputy First Ministers designating another member of the Executive Committee to be responsible for women’s issues.
Under The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, it can be done. The allegation has been made that all these issues are left with Seamus Mallon and David Trimble alone, but that is not the case. Junior Ministers can be appointed, and there is nothing stopping the First and Deputy First Ministers appointing other Ministers to discharge certain discrete elements of these functions. In that case, the idea of one scrutiny committee dealing with, potentially, a number of Ministers simply would not stand up. This deserves further and deeper consideration than the amendment allows.
Mr Durkan did his chances of being promoted permanently to the Front Bench a power of good with that speech in support of his Deputy First Minister. I am glad to follow him and Mr Weir also, who forecast the future in a very interesting fashion.
However, he makes the point — the serious point — that we are setting the permanent Standing Orders for this Assembly and we want to get them right, no matter which party they may apply to. When Mr Robinson introduced the debate, he said that in many cases Standing Orders can be used for a party and against a party, and we do not know what circumstances may prevail on any given day.
We want to try to draw up Standing Orders that are in the best interests of individual Members, and I think that this whole issue of scrutiny goes to the very heart of the Assembly’s work. Many of today’s speeches were all for scrutiny. In his speech, Mr Durkan was saying "yes" to scrutiny, but the rest of it seemed to be a list of arguments as to why, at this stage, we should not proceed to set up a scrutiny committee.
Reference was made to the fact that as a result of the amendment which was agreed yesterday, Ministers can and will be called before Adjournment debates and will be asked to give answers. However, that is no substitute, in any shape or form, for having a scrutiny committee; all a Minister will do in a 10-minute speech will be to answer the points raised. Members need to be able to call them or not, as the case may be. They need to have the opportunity to call for papers, to examine in detail what Ministers are doing, and that includes the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I was surprised to hear Mr McFarland and Mr Haughey suggest that we should leave this to allow for consultation with the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). This issue has been kicking around for some time. On 11 February, it was raised in the committee, and it was raised again on 19 February when the joint Chairmen undertook to discuss it then with the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). On 26 February, it was reported that it had not been possible to arrange a meeting with the First Minister (Designate), but that some discussion had taken place with the Deputy First Minister (Designate). He had agreed that there was a problem and said that his officials would look at it.
To date we have had no comeback from the Office of the First Minister (Designate) and no further comeback from the Office of the Deputy First Minister (Designate). We have now reached 9 March — one month on — and this is an issue which is extremely important to the workings of this Assembly. Almost all-party concern was raised about it at the committee meetings. Some Members are understandably reluctant to have this issue taken back to the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate), the ones most affected, or to wait for a committee on procedures to deal with it.
I am concerned by Mr Ervine’s suggestion that we should await legislation. It is true to say that when the Government wish to do so, they can rush legislation through very quickly, but there are other occasions when they do not wish to move so quickly, and in these instances it can be very difficult to find a slot in the timetable.
We have been given to understand that this legislation has been gone through with a fine-tooth comb by Mr Trimble’s party and by Mr Hume’s party, so we are understandably suspicious about how the problem arose in the first place. It cannot be by pure accident that we have been left with this problem, with the fundamental job of scrutinising the Executive functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers being messed up in this way and with no proper legislative base to enable us to set up a statutory committee to deal with the matter.
I do not believe that this was an omission or a mistake. I do not believe that parliamentary draftsmen would be guilty of this kind of mistake had they been correctly guided. We need to try to fill this gap and not simply leave it in the hope that in due course things will be put right. We have the opportunity now to try to do something. Perhaps this is a stop-gap measure, but it is better than having nothing at all in place. This is what Members need to consider.
I was staggered at the attitude of Sinn Féin. It was vehement on this issue in the committee but today one of its members said that she did not wish to support the amendment. The amendment states that a committee, such as the one proposed by Mr Robinson, shall exercise the same powers and perform the same functions as a Statutory Committee. Sinn Féin’s attitude is that we should wait until we get a Statutory Committee.
Does the Member agree that it is even more strange that Sinn Féin, which had called for a separate equality committee, a function now of the Department of the First and Deputy First Ministers, is suddenly content that that Department, with its equality role, should not be scrutinised at all?
The Member’s point is a good one. It exposes the hypocrisy of some Members who have said that they intend to vote against this proposal which would ensure that there was scrutiny from day one of the range of functions in the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Is it not also strange that in the six meetings of the Standing Orders Committee that I attended, the Sinn Féin representatives fought this issue tooth and nail and raised it constantly? They said that they were going to table an amendment at this stage calling for a scrutiny committee to deal with the powers controlled centrally by the First and the Deputy First Ministers. Why have they changed their minds?
I thank the hon Member for that intervention.
I want to deal with the issue that Mr McFarland raised. He said that some functions had been taken into the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister after the Act had been published. This is precisely the point. It is even more suspicious that this should have happened after the Act was published. The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, in article 8, paragraph 1, makes it clear that
"The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, acting jointly, may by order —
(a) assign to any Department; or
(b) transfer to any Department from any other Department, such functions that appear to them to be appropriate for such assignment or transfer."
The reality is that even the functions that have been assigned to Departments at present can be taken out of those Departments by order of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and taken into their Offices. It would be quite wrong to have this power residing in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister without having, from day one, the scrutiny mechanisms set up and in place. Junior Ministers who may be appointed can be in those Offices as well, and their responsibilities will not be subject to scrutiny either.
It is essential that we do something about this. It would be incomprehensible to argue, on the one hand, that we agree there should be scrutiny and, on the other, that we do not want it yet. Let us have scrutiny from day one and when the Committee on Procedures is set up it can look at it again to see if improvements and changes need to be made. Why leave a vacuum? Why have a situation where every other Minister is subject to proper Statutory Committee scrutiny except the First Minister and Deputy First Minister?
It is simply illogical to say "We believe in scrutiny, it is so important, it is vital, but we are going to have a gap, wait for legislation, wait for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to come back to us on this — if they ever do — and then act." Why not act now? Why not put in place arrangements which will kick the issue off and allow us to get down to work as soon as there is some sort of devolved Administration and when the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister start to exercise these powers?
There are still several Members on both sides of the argument who wish to speak, followed by the votes. I seek leave of the Assembly to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was, by leave, suspended from 12.33 pm until 2.01 pm.
Mr P Robinson’s proposed amendment is timely. I welcome debate on the issue of a scrutiny committee of the Assembly to advise, assist and possibly to moderate the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the discharge of their Executive functions. The House must examine how the Government are to operate and take decisions given the individual and collective views of the Members.
The statutory departmental committees will be a vital element of our new political structures, critical to the success of the Assembly. The all-party committees in particular will give Back-Benchers a positive, constructive and meaningful role in policy formulation and in examining the performance of Ministers. They will provide for a more inclusive and collective Assembly view of the discharge of each Department’s functions on behalf of the people.
The Executive Committee, comprising the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the 10 departmental Ministers, will be, in effect, a four-party body made up of the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP, Sinn Féin and ourselves. Surely this Executive Committee will have to function in a collective way. Surely the DUP Ministers, or the Sinn Féin Ministers, or indeed any other Ministers, will argue a strong case in that committee to make sure that fair and equitable decisions are taken.
If they do not question the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and make them think seriously about the consequences of any initiatives they take, we will have a major problem even before we get this new political vehicle on the road. I have every confidence that the Executive Committee will function effectively, without the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister having to contend with a specific, statutory committee of the House. The collective decisions of the Executive Committee could be torpedoed by a statutory scrutiny committee of the Centre, and that would be dangerous and troublesome.
A Minister could argue his case through his departmental committee, and then through the Executive Committee, and have his proposal accepted as Government policy.
However, the committee to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister could then decide to tackle the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister and disable the whole policy decision. At best this could be cumbersome and awkward, but I am afraid that it could be very destructive to the Government’s performance. I firmly believe that a scrutiny committee as proposed by Mr Robinson could end up strangling the effective operation of the entire Executive Committee’s decisions.
We all know that individual Ministers must act in the best interests of agreed Government policy, made, in our case, by way of collective decision making. It would be farcical if Back-Benchers on a scrutiny committee of the Centre tried to overturn the Government’s collective decision through a strong challenge to and decision against the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister. I understand the sentiments of those who would like to see a specialist scrutiny committee, but as we embark upon setting up these new structures it would be stupid to strangle the effective operation of the new Government that we are trying to establish.
I know that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have been given certain functions at the Centre, but some of those, as was said earlier by my Colleague, could eventually be directed to some other Ministers. Some Ministers, for example, could be charged with the responsibility of looking after women’s affairs. I am quite confident that within the departmental committees there will be strong and effective discussion, but the vital committee for the overall functioning of the Government will be the Executive Committee.
The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have to act in co-ordination and reflect the collective decisions of the Executive Committee. Every Minister in that Committee will argue the case strongly, and I hope that a collective decision will be made. If we impose another committee purely to examine the functions and deliberations of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, we could make this whole operation unworkable.
I have some disquiet about this and hope that the Member will share it. I thank him for giving way.
I am a member of the Standing Orders Committee. There was a serious debate on this issue in the Standing Orders Committee. We spoke for a long time about a formula of words that could be incorporated in the Standing Orders showing Members that, because of the legislation, there is a gap in our provision. It is not there, and one wonders why it is not there, given that it was agreed by the members after long deliberation that a formula of words would be found and incorporated. That lends people to the belief that there may be those who do not want full scrutiny of the First and Deputy First Ministers’ Offices.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I was not a member of the Standing Orders Committee so I cannot answer for what took place or did not take place there. I am looking at this from the outside, as a Back-Bencher. Many commentators, conscious that we are setting up a smooth functioning Government — and this is a completely new experiment — keep asking me and others if this new system will work. I keep saying to them that it will work.
However, it is a new model of government that we are setting up here with a new way of taking decisions. It is an all-party system of government. Let us not shackle the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister at the outset. I feel confident that there are enough checks and balances with the statutory committees at the moment to make sure that nobody will over-exercise his executive responsibilities.
With regard to the point that my Colleague is developing and Mr Ervine’s intervention, may I point out that I chaired the last meeting of the Standing Orders Committee, and we agreed in precise terms the wording of paragraph 7:
"Concern was expressed by the Committee that important discrete executive functions of the office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister would not, under current legislation, be subject to the scrutiny of a Statutory Committee. The Committee recommends that this matter be addressed as soon as possible by the Assembly".
I am grateful for the clarification. This is a good debate about this issue, and I thank Mr Robinson for bringing forward many of these amendments.
This one, however, is in danger of suffering from an acute case of "Committeeitis". My worry is that were we to set up this committee, we could shackle the discharge of duties at the Centre.
The Economic Policy Unit (EPU), which is at the Centre, has no statutory function as laid out in the report of the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). Essentially it has a servicing role in relation to its work as part of the Executive Committee. Indeed, the Executive Committee itself will, I am sure, have to carry out a critical examination and formulate an effective role for the EPU once the Executive is up and running.
I support amendment 59. Mr Close referred to the sentiments expressed by Mr Robinson. In fact, Mr Robinson put forward very powerful and compelling arguments for a committee to scrutinise the core — the most powerful part of the Executive — and that is the Department of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
In the absence of any normal Opposition in the Assembly, it seems to me that that form of scrutiny is crucial. That was the point made by Mr Weir, and the only reservations I have about what I now accept as Mr Weir’s very sound judgement on most matters under discussion in the Assembly is that he seemed to be designating the Alliance Party as the nearest thing to an Opposition that we have. The problem with the Alliance Party is that since it is absolutely impossible to determine what it is either for or against, it is difficult to see how it could fill that role. If I had to speak —
Another important consideration in respect of the type of committee suggested by this amendment is that it could remedy what I described yesterday as a fault line between the Assembly and the all-Ireland aspects of the agreement. This committee could help to give the Assembly some real influence over decision making within the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers in relation to the all-Ireland aspects of their policy.
Mr Durkan commented on that point, but it struck me that his speech consisted of comments that were entirely irrelevant to the issue. He spent a considerable amount of time outlining why the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers have the functions they have, which is not what we are discussing. We are discussing how, given that they have those functions, the Assembly can carry out an adequate scrutiny.
He expressed something that is crucial to his position, that within this scrutiny committee, there could emerge some real opposition to the all-Ireland aspects of the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Given that he wants to prevent that opposition from emerging, and that the facility for that type of opposition and the scrutiny that would be involved is crucial to any authentically democratic Assembly; the trade-off is to try to minimise the democratic aspects of the Assembly in order to maximise the all-Ireland aspects.
Is the Member saying that he might want to use the sort of scrutiny committee that is proposed to inhibit the exercise of the functions of the North/South Ministerial Council, irrespective of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people on this island, North and South, endorsed the co-operation between both parts of the country that was envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement?
They have not endorsed the detail of the working out of the agreement. The scrutiny committee would simply scrutinise, and it could cut two ways. It would enable the Assembly to exercise a real influence over the policies that were being pursued by the Department of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I should stress that Mr Durkan’s proposal was an attempt to minimise the Assembly’s democratic aspect in order to maximise the Nationalist thrust of the Department in question.
There is some political timidity by the Assembly with regard to the scrutiny committee. Members’ reservations about the scrutiny committee are based on the failure to distinguish between what an Act requires and what it permits. In the initial stages of establishing the authority of the Assembly, we should use what legislation permits to maximise the status of the Assembly in relation to the Executive.
Mr Farren made the amazing suggestion that Members should not only wait until the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister had time to consider the matter, which implies allowing them to make the decision for us, but that we should trust them to ensure full accountability. That is not the role of the Assembly. The Assembly should maximise its authority in relation to the Executive. Now is the time to do that. We should not rely entirely upon the Executive somehow to police itself, which, I think, is what Mr Byrne was saying. Members have an opportunity to establish the full authority of the Assembly in relation to the Executive, and the means of achieving that is contained in amendment No 59.
I listened to the comments by Jim Wells before lunch. I am a Back-Bencher, and the only other person to speak from the Back Benches on this issue was also a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. I assure the Member and my electorate that I am able to assess issues for myself and wish to ensure that I can carry out the necessary, responsible scrutiny as a Back-Bencher.
I agree that there is a need for scrutiny of the centre. Originally, there were very limited statutory functions at the Centre, and according to the Act, there would have been no need for scrutiny of the Department of the Centre. However several additional functions have been transferred to the Centre, and there is a clear need for scrutiny of those functions.
On a wider issue, I wish to highlight the need for more frequent periods to be set aside for questioning of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Once every three or four weeks, as currently envisaged, is not sufficient.
Amendment No 59 does not propose particular scrutiny; it is much wider than that. There are no boundaries to its scrutiny. Tony Blair, my Prime Minister, does not have a committee scrutinising his every action. A scrutiny committee is needed, but it should have clear guidance on the areas of its operation. The issue of scrutiny of the Centre should go back to the Standing Orders Committee so that a new amendment may be prepared for our consideration.
This issue is not one that divides the Assembly into the "Yes" and "No" camps. This is not about that at all. There are those who have opinions, conscientiously and with conviction, about the agreement. Our genuinely held views about the matter under discussion differ from the views of those who hold the same opinion as we do about the agreement. They differ from us on the matter of scrutiny of the Offices of the First and the Deputy First Ministers.
The heart and crux of the matter is open and accountable government. It never ceases to amaze me how the foot soldiers of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP have been shuffling around, even squirming at times, with the Front Bench having to help some of its Members through their difficulties when any awkward question is asked. They faithfully try to save the faces of their First and Deputy First Ministers, and many do not believe what they are saying. Many of them in their heart of hearts believe in open Government, so how can they honestly say that they are trying to ensure that this is what we are getting?
Some Members have said that this will strangle the effective operation of the First and the Deputy First Ministers. The Member from West Tyrone came out with that sort of weak statement — he did not say it with conviction. If he is saying that scrutiny will shackle the First and the Deputy First Ministers, and that that should not be, should we then have shackles upon the other Ministers? Should we have shackles upon the Minister for Agriculture? Should we have shackles upon the Minister dealing with education? Or is it only certain individuals who are lacking in confidence or conviction that should not be scrutinised? That is a very weak argument, and, as the hon Member for North Down pointed out, many could find that the positions that they are trying to hold today are ones which they will want to change in a short period of time.
The Member for West Tyrone is speaking against the agreement that he heralds as the best thing that we have had since tatie bread. The agreement, as Mr Ervine pointed out earlier on, clearly requires scrutiny of every function of the Government, so he is not only attempting, rather lamely, to prop up the First and Deputy First Ministers, but, in doing so, he is railing against the agreement that he supports.
I agree with my hon Friend. There is embarrassment — you have only to look at some of the faces to see it — because they have not a leg to stand on. They genuinely do not believe in what they are saying.
I will not attribute that to the hon Member at all. The SDLP Members and certainly the Ulster Unionist Members have not spoken with conviction. They have spoken like sheep, totally devoid of conviction. They have not presented their case well, and it appears that they really do not believe what they say. They have to save the faces of the First and the Deputy First Ministers who are unwilling to grace the Assembly with their presence. They feel strongly about this issue, yet they cannot come and present their views to the Assembly.
The Member from East Antrim, who has now disappeared, said "Tony Blair is not subject to scrutiny, so why should Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon be?"
What Department does Tony Blair run? Is he the Minister of Education? He is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and we are not, therefore, comparing like with like. Do not bring false arguments into this. Let us face the issues as they really are.
Mr Farren talked about a gap in the position — there is gaping hole here. He knows what the legislation and the Standing Orders are devoid of. He is suggesting that we ask the First and the Deputy First Ministers to go away and then come back and tell us how they would like to be scrutinised, but he does not want us to put too much pressure on them or ask difficult questions that they might not have an answer to. I have never heard of anything so ludicrous in a debating chamber.
Then the Members on the Front Benches are attempting to justify — [Interruption]
The hon Member has already spoken, and he made a mess of that. He should not attempt to justify that which is unjustifiable.
It does not matter whether people said "Yes" or "No" in the referendum, and those who are attempting to bring the referendum into this are trying to create a division that is not here. We are talking about open and accountable Government.
The real gem from the debate has come from IRA/Sinn Féin. It does not agree with the amendment by my hon Friend, Mr Robinson. It wants to do away with the scrutiny committee that would help with women’s rights and help other individuals who believe that they need assistance. I am amazed at the rationale behind such thinking. Nevertheless, I suppose muddled minds can only come up with muddled suggestions.
This is something that should not be divisive. Here is an opportunity for the open and accountable government that the people of Ulster expect and have a right to. This amendment would certainly help to bring that about.
Many of the points have already been covered well. I asked to speak because, having listened to the last two speeches from those who oppose the amendment, I was bewildered by one and amused by the other.
I was bewildered by the speech from a member of the SDLP. The more he spoke, the more he seemed to be taking a position which was totally contrary to the position which was adopted in the committee by his party, by the co-Chairman from his party and, indeed, by other Members. This afternoon is the first time that I have actually heard anyone oppose the idea of scrutiny of the First and the Deputy First Ministers’Offices.
We heard people making excuses this morning, along the lines that we should have scrutiny but not now, or not until we have had time to think about how it should be done, or not until after we have asked the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) how they would like their work to be scrutinised. Those are the arguments which we heard this morning. This afternoon, having had a little chat over a good lunch with the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate), they are now questioning the whole concept of scrutiny of the Offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Those of us who wish to see such proper scrutiny are now being told that to do so would gum up the whole process of government. That is what the Member said, and that is totally contrary to what we heard this morning. No one spoke then of gumming the process up; it was simply a case of trying to find the best mechanism. We are told now that the effect of setting up structures to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would be to gum up the process of government, but it has not been explained why this should be so.
I find it strange that anyone should suggest that there is no merit in having proper structures for scrutiny, given the amount of power which the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) have assumed.
I see that Mr Beggs has left the Chamber again. That is a pity, as I wanted to address some of the points he made. I appreciate Mr Beggs’s position within the Ulster Unionist Party. He is regarded as a bit of rebel; he has given Mr Trimble some headaches. Indeed, I understand that Mr Trimble has had to sit down and produce written assurances for him. Nonetheless, he is going a bit far in ingratiating himself with his party Leader by defending him over an issue on which his position is indefensible. One of the points made by Mr Trimble, in defence of his decision to sign the agreement, was that
"This agreement will allow us to have accountable government in Northern Ireland."
Yet, we see members of his party defending the idea that the First Minister should control a Department which would not be subject to scrutiny by the Assembly. I would have thought that if you were trying to wheedle your way back into the party fold, as Mr Beggs is trying to do, you could have chosen a better issue upon which to make a stand than this.
Rev William McCrea has already addressed the point made by Mr Beggs that the Prime Minister is not subject to scrutiny, and he pointed out that the Prime Minister does not have a Department. Between the presentation of their first report and their second report, the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) doubled the extent of their remit.
Let us look at the areas that will not be subject to scrutiny — the economic policy unit and equality. At one stage, Sinn Féin was so exercised about the issue of equality that it was demanding a completely separate Department, including a Minister and a scrutiny committee. Now it has no Department, no scrutiny committee, yet it is going to vote against this amendment. We should ask ourselves what the real motives of the pro-agreement parties are.
We must look at the areas that are now not going to be subject to scrutiny. They include the Economic Policy Unit, equality, liaison with the North/South Ministerial Council, liaison with the British/Irish Council, liaison with the Civic Forum, liaison with the Secretary of State on reserved and excepted matters, European affairs and international matters, the Policy Innovation Unit, Information Services and community relations. There will be no scrutiny in any of these areas, and that is only half the list — I cannot remember the other ones.
All those areas of the Government are not going to be scrutinised properly, yet the First Minister stood on an electoral platform saying that he was all for accountable Government. Now he, his party, the SDLP and Sinn Féin are all saying that they do not want that part of the Government to be accountable to the House.
I find that very strange. This morning’s excuses have been scraped away, and Back-Bench Members from both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP are saying —
I thank my hon Friend for giving way. When matters arise within the remit of the First and Deputy First Ministers which affect constituents, and the constituents believe that the issues have been wrongly dealt with, how will these Members justify the lack of scrutiny to their constituents?
They will have no defence, and they have already admitted in the committee that it is important that they should have a scrutiny role. But now, between the meetings of the committee and today’s Assembly meeting, something has changed. Who has nobbled them?
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. He has referred to the committee. Is it his memory as it is mine that members of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP were in favour at one stage of the Assembly’s meeting twice a month, thus indicating the importance, or lack of it, that they thought the Assembly had to the activities of the Executive?
That is quite right, and their emphasis at that stage was that the work would be done through the scrutiny committees, but there will be no committee to scrutinise the work of the First and the Deputy First Ministers.
I have no doubt that this vote will be taken strictly on party-political lines. But, as was pointed out by Mr McCartney this morning, if Members were to vote on this amendment from the point of view of giving sound and accountable government rather than pleasing the party Whips and ingratiating themselves with the party Leader, I have no doubt that this amendment would be carried.
Before getting into the detail of the debate, there is a broader point which needs to be made. Members are discussing scrutiny mechanisms for the Chamber and the Government, but one of the issues which the Assembly will ultimately have to address is "the people’s scrutiny mechanism". That will require a Freedom of Information Act to enable the people whom Members are elected to serve to have their own methods of scrutinising the work of the Assembly, the work of all the other institutions of Government in the North, and the work of the public service generally.
I find some DUP comments rather superficial. If Members thought more broadly for a minute they would realise that the pro-agreement parties, which created the Good Friday Agreement, and the pro-agreement community, which endorsed the agreement, endorsed, among other things, the building into the political society that we are creating of fundamental scrutiny mechanisms. I am referring to the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
It is somewhat superficial and obvious to criticise people who have a different view on how that scrutiny is carried out. Those same people struggled over many weeks and months to create an agreement which included scrutiny mechanisms for equality, policy, practice and human rights generally in the North.
That is the starting point for all the pro-agreement parties on the scrutiny of Government, human rights practices and equality issues. The anti-agreement parties were hostile to the agreement and those specific proposals, and it is somewhat obvious, cheap and superficial now to criticise us when we speak about scrutinising mechanisms.
Does the Member not appreciate that the commissions to which he refers, will be scrutinising policy after it has been made, and that the purpose of a scrutiny committee would be to scrutinise those who are making the policy that those commissions would subsequently deal with?
With all due respect to Mr McCartney, his intervention reveals that he does not understand that the Human Rights Commission has the power to review draft legislation and not just that which comes from the Chamber and the House of Commons. In that regard the role of the Human Rights Commission is above that of the Assembly and the Commons in terms of legislation which affects the quality of life in the North. Mr McCartney should read the powers of the Human Rights Commission and come back to me when he has done so.
To some degree, Members miss the point. While we are discussing how we will scrutinise Government, which is a very proper objective, the Civil Service, that other government in the North, is not subject to scrutiny in relation to fundamental decisions that will affect the quality of people’s lives over the next four to five years.
The Northern Ireland Civil Service is currently conducting a so-called consultation exercise in relation to the next tranche of structural funds, and that so-called consultation is not subject to public or political scrutiny or to any meaningful public or political input. As I have said before, if we are not mindful, the victory that we won in the Good Friday Agreement will be reclaimed by the old men who will remodel it in the image of the old order that they knew and loved. They are doing that at present in many ways, not least in respect of future European structural funds in the North of Ireland.
I have three points about the debate. First, in an interjection on his Colleague Mr Wilson, Mr P Robinson correctly invoked the Good Friday Agreement when he correctly said that it requires the scrutiny of all functions of government. He somehow translated that into meaning a scrutiny committee in the terms of his amendment. There is no mention in the Good Friday Agreement of the word scrutiny meaning a scrutiny committee. It is mischievous and misleading to suggest, as Mr Robinson suggested to his Colleague Mr Wilson —
No one denies the principle of scrutiny. We are debating the method. As those who oppose the amendment have said in substantial detail, in addition to the use of existing mechanisms, which were detailed earlier by Mr Durkan, the matter can be revised and reviewed to ensure that legitimate concerns can be legitimately expressed. It is incorrect to translate the agreement’s use of the word scrutiny into scrutiny committee.
The second point is that a scrutiny committee, which would deal more substantially with the matter, should act as both sword and shield. It should fulfil both purposes. As a sword it should result in the exposure [Interruption]
Order. I draw to Members’ attention that it is usually accepted that when a Member is named and his views expressed through the mouth of the Member who is speaking, some opportunity ought to be given for that Member to respond. I have already made it clear that I have taken all the speeches that I am prepared to take on this matter, and in any case, Mr Robinson is not entitled to speak again because he has spoken already. Therefore I draw to the Member’s attention that in the balance of his time — and we are, at present, on a point of order, so no time is being used — he might wish to take that into consideration.
I am very grateful to Mr Attwood for giving way. I simply want to put on record that he is completely wrong in his remarks. Paragraph 8 of strand one of the Belfast Agreement says
"There will be a Committee" —
Committee, specifically —
"for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration."
Is he arguing that equality is not a main function? Is he arguing that the Economic Policy Unit is not a main function? The agreement continues
"Committees will have a scrutiny … role."
No one is denying what the agreement says. But what [Interruption]. If you want to listen, listen; if you want to jeer, go somewhere else.
The full interpretation of that and its operation in practice is the subject of this debate. What concerns people, I suggest, is that there is a motivation in some of the comments that might have given rise to the conclusion that people wish to use the scrutiny committee more as a sword — or only as a sword and not a shield. It is an attempt to cause damage rather than expose the truth and ensure accountable Government.
There is a requirement that the principle of scrutiny and the operation of the scrutiny committee should not end up being abused, misused or being used in some way to frustrate the proper and necessary functions of Government [Interruption]. Excuse me if some people have doubts about some people’s motivation when it comes to what they mean, what they intend and what they say. Having heard what the people opposed to the amendment have said, I think that there is, within that amendment, an adequate opportunity to ensure that people’s concerns will be answered, and answered fully in due course.
I want to make one or two comments. I am absolutely astounded at some of the arguments that have been put forward here today, in particular by those who are the greatest exponents of the Belfast Agreement.
I listened with interest to the comments of those who were most vociferous in their support of the agreement. When the Unionist side of the equation was going round the streets selling the agreement, one of the arguments that they kept putting forward was that, at long last, transparent Government was going to be part and parcel of Northern Ireland’s future, but it is interesting to note that the two largest parties within this Assembly, who were the greatest advocates of it, want to put a shield around the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for reasons best known to themselves. In all their arguments they have not been convincing as to why they want to do this, but even more puzzling, I think, is the stance that Sinn Féin has taken. Michelle Gildernew read out a speech. Obviously someone had written it for her, and she did not read it before she came in, because she started off on one trend — [Interruption]
I am coming to it now. And then she contradicted herself.
Order. I have pointed out that I expect courtesy to be extended to all Members and that they should be given their title. It is only fair that this is also done in respect of Ms Gildernew.
Yesterday evening, when members of Dungannon Council were discussing how we wanted to call in and question the Minister responsible for Health and Social Services in relation to the pending rundown of acute services in the South Tyrone hospital, it was interesting to hear one of the Sinn Féin members saying "These Ministers come over here and nobody — but nobody — can scrutinise anything they do. They just act as dictators." What is happening in this Assembly today? We are now in the same situation where we are placing the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the very same, unique position — and it is an enviable position. They will be able to carry out functions and nobody — but nobody — in this Assembly will have any right whatsoever to cross-examine them on any matter that they —
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he not agree that the fundamental difference between Northern Ireland Office Ministers and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are answerable to the ultimate authority — the electorate in Northern Ireland — and, therefore, that his comparison is not relevant?
I do not see the relevance of that, but sometime, in privacy perhaps, the Member will point it out to me.
But surely the Member has heard enough today to help him change his mind, to ensure that people like myself, and others who are a bit sceptical, will have no room for scepticism in the future. I assume, therefore, that he will be voting with us in a few minutes time.
I find the attitude of Members from the SDLP who claim to be all for transparency in every other avenue but not in this one very hypocritical.
Does the Member not agree that I, along with other main spokesmen for the SDLP and, indeed, Mr Cobain, Mr McFarland and other main spokesmen for the UUP, have not taken the view that there should be no scrutiny of the functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers? What we have said is that we do not accept that the amendment proposed here is the best way of going about this. It is a complicated matter; the agreement provides for such scrutiny, and the legislation does not. We need legal advice; we need to consult; we need to engage in dialogue about the matter and come up with a comprehensive proposal. Does the Member not agree that that is what I and other main spokespersons for our two parties have said?
Thank you very much, Jim. The hon Member (Mr Wells) has encouraged me to get to my feet. I did not understand my Colleague the Member for West Tyrone (Mr Byrne) to say that there should be no scrutiny of the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers. What I understood him to say was that it was the intention, in his view, of the proposers of this amendment, to devise ways and means by which the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers might be shackled, that we had spotted it, that we were on to it and that we would not tolerate it.
Mr Haughey is being extravagant with words, but he is very weak on facts. When Mr Byrne was speaking what he was saying was evident to those of us on these Benches. Indeed, when Mr McCrea, I think it was, pointed to the Member and addressed him directly, Mr Byrne was observed dropping his head, and we detected it. [Interruption]
It is wonderful to rise to the bait after three or four invitations. I am not against scrutiny of the First and Deputy First Ministers. I said that I do not think that a specific scrutiny committee for the Centre would be the most effective way to control them. It will be up to the Executive Committee to make sure that the First and Deputy First Ministers do not over-exercise their functions.
I am not sure whether that is what Mr Haughey said or alluded to, but I am delighted to hear that Mr Byrne has changed his mind on the issue. I look forward to having him vote with my party in a few minutes’ time when he will have the opportunity to put his money where his mouth is.
Does the Member agree that the principle that was expressed by Mr Byrne is equivalent to the allegation that the RUC is responsible for its own internal investigation of the behaviour of its members? He is saying that the Executive should be responsible for the behaviour of the chief constable of the Executive and his deputy. Does he further agree that the amendment is phrased in almost exactly the same terms as the powers that are to be given to the other scrutiny committees? One can only wonder why refinement is required.
I thank Mr McCartney for putting those two points in such an excellent manner. Only someone with his experience and expertise could have put them so well. His point about the RUC is well made. The SDLP and Sinn Féin have asked on too many occasions "How can the police police themselves?" There is some logic in that.
We come now to the approval of the Standing Orders and amendments in the first group, which relates to committees.
Standing Order 42 (Committees of the Assembly: General) agreed to.
Standing Order 43 (Statutory Committees) agreed to.
Standing Order 44 (Establishment of Statutory Committees)
For the convenience of the Assembly, I will consider amendments 60, 59, 55 and 56 to be subject to one vote. If amendment 60 falls, I will not move the other three because they are consequential amendments.
Amendment (No 60) proposed:
Fraser Agnew, Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, Boyd Douglas, David Ervine, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Robert McCartney, Rev William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mrs Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Mrs Eileen Bell, Seamus Close, David Ford, Kieran McCarthy, Sean Neeson.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Ms Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Michelle Gildernew, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mrs Mary Nelis, Danny O’Connor, Ms Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Mrs Sue Ramsey, Ms Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
Dr Ian Adamson, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Esmond Birnie, Mrs Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Rev Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Sir Reg Empey, Sam Foster, Sir John Gorman, Derek Hussey, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Dermot Nesbitt, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Rt Hon David Trimble.
There voted 91 Members. Of Nationalists, there voted 35 all against. Of the Unionists, there voted 29 for and 22 against, a total of 51. The total vote for is 37·4% and the amendment therefore falls.
Question accordingly negatived.
Before moving on to the rest of the amendments, may I make one brief announcement at this point for the information of Members. In a letter dated 8 March, headed ‘Additional Standing Orders’, the Secretary of State says
"As you know, it is my responsibility, under paragraph 10 of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, to determine the Standing Orders of the Assembly during its shadow period.
It is therefore hereby determined that Additional Standing Orders on the appointment of Ministers (designate), the establishment of shadow statutory committees, exclusion or removal from office and determination of Junior Ministers (designate), attached as Annex A, should become Standing Orders 22, 23, 24 and 25 respectively."
Copies of this letter and the Annex are available in the Printed Paper Office for Members.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. Members will recall that last week when this matter was drawn to the attention of the House, I rose to ask one of the joint Chairmen whether it would be possible for the Committee on Standing Orders to look at these draft Additional Standing Orders and the undertaking was given that that would be done. I am somewhat surprised that the Committee has not looked at those Additional Standing Orders and I would like to place on record that that should have been done. There was opportunity to do so, especially in light of the undertaking that was given.
The Additional Initial Standing Orders became available to us quite late, and it was not possible to call a meeting, especially in view of the work that needed to be done for this sitting. We would need to call a meeting of the Standing Orders Committee subsequent to the work of this plenary session on these Standing Orders, and the matter could be addressed then.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer, could you give us your interpretation of the Additional Standing Order 22(1), which says
"Where a determination has been made and approved in accordance with Standing Order 21" —
I assume that has been done in the Chamber —
"the Presiding Officer shall, at the next meeting of the Assembly after 9 March, supervise the allocation and taking up of the Ministerial offices (designate) in accordance with the procedure set out in this Standing Order."
Is it your interpretation, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, that that will be your first duty at the next meeting of the Assembly?
That is my understanding. If I may, I will read a further passage from the Secretary of State’s letter as I did not go through all of it. She says
"Consequently paragraph 1 of Standing Order 22 now refers to the procedure being run at the next Assembly meeting after 10 March. Furthermore, in order to avoid indefinite delay, I have told the parties that I shall call a meeting of the Assembly for the purposes of running D’Hondt in the week beginning 29 March. I shall confirm the exact date and time of that meeting with you in the normal manner."
The reason the Secretary of State refers to it in this fashion is that we have been given leave to meet until 10 o’clock this evening in respect of Standing Orders. It has been indicated to me, and I am somewhat hesitant to convey this to the Assembly, that if it were necessary, it might be possible for the Assembly to meet even longer.
The reason the Secretary of State has put it in that fashion is to make clear that, even if it were the case that we needed to transgress into tomorrow for the continuation of this process, it would be the next Assembly meeting after 10 March at which d’Hondt would be run. That is to say, we do not currently have leave from the Secretary of State to have a meeting of the Assembly beyond 10 March. And when she does give leave she is making it clear that it will only be given for a meeting of the Assembly in the week beginning 29 March and that she will inform us as to when such a meeting is possible. I trust that is clear.
The passage in the letter from the Secretary of State says that she has told the parties that she shall call a meeting of the Assembly for the purposes of running d’Hondt in the week beginning 29 March. It could be on 29 March or, I assume, on another day that week.
We shall continue with the approval of Standing Orders and amendments. I understand that amendment No 84 has been withdrawn.
I am hesitant about permitting this. I might even have ruled the previous Member out of order. When an amendment is withdrawn, there is no right to speak to it. It is possible to speak to an amendment and not move it, but to withdraw it precludes the possibility of debate on it. I am afraid I cannot permit further discussion on this matter. Not all Members may have been aware of the position. I draw it to their attention now and hope that it does not cause undue difficulty. I repeat that when a Member chooses to withdraw an amendment without speaking to it or does not move it, there is no debate on it.
When a Member speaks to an amendment, he may or may not move it. Members will be aware that before we move to the vote, I ask the Member whether he wishes to move his amendment. The reason for that is that some Members may wish to table probing amendments to draw matters out. Members will have noticed that there has been no debate on Standing Orders. I have simply taken the vote on them. There has been debate only where Standing Orders have amendments. Amendments are often tabled to trigger a debate, but they may not be moved. When they are withdrawn, there is no debate.
It was a qualified withdrawal. The Member said that he was withdrawing it on the basis that he had undertakings and understandings that all parties would be represented on all the committees. There is an onus on you, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, to place on the record the fact that those were not given to the Assembly.
There is no such thing as a qualified withdrawal. The amendment was either withdrawn or it was not. As it was withdrawn, I granted some flexibility in permitting the Member to comment upon the matter. To go further would be quite improper.
There is still a substantial number of Standing Orders and amendments in this group. However, many of them are technical, some are largely typographical, and some 10 amendments effectively form one large group. The series of amendments 3(a) to (e) form a single amendment, although they are divided for the sake of clarity. There are also the relevant amendments that are the same, but form individual amendments.
I trust that we will be able to get through that matter as one debate. As there is one proposer for a considerable number of the amendments, he may need to propose them and then speak again. The first amendment in the group is amendment No 62, standing in the name of Mr P Robinson. I call on him to deal with it and with any others that he finds it possible to address.
I will get into fifth gear very quickly.
Amendment No 62 simply seeks to replace an upper case A with a lower case a — I do not think we will fall out about that one. It will be a small allocation rather than a big one.
Amendment No 53 to Standing Order 46(2) seeks to reflect what is more likely to be the working practice of committees. If a committee that is responsible for taking the lead on a piece of legislation that also covers a topic falling more properly into the remit of another committee, rather than taking the views and establishing the interests of the other committee, it ought to be able to ask the other committee to investigate and take evidence on that element which falls into its remit. The other committee would then provide the lead committee with a draft report, and it would have the final say as to whether to adopt the draft report in its entirety. In terms of working practice it would allow the experts in a particular subject to deal directly with that subject rather than delegating it to another committee. The amendment simply takes into account good working practice.
Amendment No 52 to Standing Order 49 seeks to remove the ability of a committee to continue to sit while a vote was taking place in the Assembly. That is entirely necessary, particularly in circumstances where, for example, a Member from a small party had not arrived when a vote was being taken, or came in or had left a meeting when a vote was being taken.
Without the amendment, two Divisions could take place at the same time; one in the committee and one in the Assembly. A vote in this Assembly should always have precedence over any business that is being carried out in the precincts of the House. A committee should automatically, without any alternatives being offered, be suspended to allow everyone to vote.
Amendment No 51 relates to Standing Order 50. It was the committee’s intention to ensure that any sub-committee would have a balanced membership, that there would be proportionality. My amendment does not specify the nature of the proportionality or balance, but requires it. Without that, a committee could consist of members from one or two parties, and I do not think that anyone would regard that as fair, given the nature of the structures that are being set up.
Amendment No 82 to Standing Order 53 seeks to tidy up a very awkward heading. I am sure that no one particularly likes a heading such as "Conformity with Equality Requirements – Special Committee On". I note that the facing page shows the headings "Public Accounts Committee" and "Committee on Standards and Privileges". I see nothing wrong with "Special Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements".
Amendment No 81 seeks to bring consistency elsewhere. In referring to the European Convention on Human Rights, we have talked about "including rights under". That is to conform with other parts of the Standing Orders.
I come to amendment No 80. Rather than giving the Assembly a choice in dealing with reports, the amendment requires it to deal with all reports. I hope that that was the intention of the draftsman.
With regard to the petition of concern, amendment No 79 simply points out that we had actually transferred that sub-section of the Standing Order to the voting section. It is incorporated elsewhere and is, therefore, being deleted at this point. Incidentally, in the renumbering paragraph (6) will become paragraph (5).
The Public Accounts Committee is one of the most important committees of the House or any other elected body. It is where all spending and the processes which give rise to spending are scrutinised. The intention on the part of the draftsmen, as I read it, was based on a misunderstanding of what a Public Accounts Committee does. A Public Accounts Committee does not simply take account of finance in the context of the Department of Finance and Personnel, it takes account of finance in every Department. All Ministers dread being called before the Public Accounts Committee to give account of the expenditure in their Departments.
Rather than excluding only those who are in the same party as the Minister or a junior Minister of the Department of Finance and Personnel from the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson posts, I am suggesting that those in the same party as any Minister or junior Minister should be excluded. That would ensure that there was proper scrutiny and that party colleagues would not be in the position of questioning the Minister and taking the lead in determining issues.
Amendment No 77 deals with the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and the term in paragraph 1(a) should be "privilege" rather than "privileges".
There is a fairly innocuous change in the section on the Audit Committee. Under the Standing Orders as it stands, it does not outline how the committee is to be established, only that it shall. The purpose of Standing Orders is to advise us on how this will be done. Therefore it has been changed to say that the Assembly shall, by resolution, establish a committee to exercise the functions. That simply is a tidying-up amendment. I am not sure whether that is the end of that series of amendments. If so, I beg to move.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I will speak to amendment No 3. Although it refers to five different Standing Orders, No 3 was, as indicated earlier, submitted as one amendment. However, it refers to the same point in each of them. The principle is entirely the same, and it is preferable that the matter be taken as a single issue, as you indicated.
Following the good old practice of belt and braces, my Colleague Mr Davis has also tabled amendments to the same effect. I am pleased to record that I got my amendments in before his, but that was purely just a matter of minutes. Most of Mr Davis’s amendments are to the same effect and consequently this does make a single issue.
There is, in my view, a serious anomaly in the Standing Orders with regard to non-Statutory Committees. In fact, there is a serious anomaly which is contrary to the agreement and contrary to the Act, and that is something that we have to look very carefully at.
With regard to Statutory Committees, there are provisions in Standing Order 45, which we have approved, which apply the principle of proportionality to committees and provide for the distribution of posts, offices, Chairmanships, vice-Chairmanships by the d’Hondt formula and which also apply proportionality to the membership of the committees. That, of course, is entirely in accordance with the agreement.
Standing Order 47 applies the d’Hondt formula to Chairs and deputy Chairs of non-Statutory Committees to ensure that proportionality applies with regard to offices. It does have a general provision in paragraph (4) that Standing Committees, unless otherwise specified, shall be constituted in the manner prescribed in Standing Order 45.
So, the effect of Standing Order 47(4) by itself is to apply the principle of proportionality to the non-Statutory Standing Committees. Unfortunately, when we turn to Standing Orders Nos 51, 52, 53, 54 and 55, dealing, respectively, with the Committee on Procedures, the Business Committee, the Special Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements, the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Standards and Privilege — and I adopt the language suggested by Mr P Robinson here, as it is correct — we find that there are sub-clauses in them which do not apply the terms of Standing Order No 45, and, consequently, do not apply the principle of proportionality.
The provisions contained in the clauses which my amendment would remove do not apply the principle of proportionality and produce a result which is not proportional. The amendment I have tabled would remove those clauses and bring into effect Standing Order 47(4), which imports Standing Order 45, which would, in turn, import the principle of proportionality.
It all comes down to the very simple question of whether or not we abide by the principle of proportionality in the Standing Committees. The Standing Orders, as drafted, depart from this principle, but my amendment would ensure that this principle was applied with regard to the other Standing Committees. I submit that that is precisely what we should be doing, according to the terms of the agreement and of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Paragraph 5 of the section of the agreement which deals with strand-one institutions states
"There will be safeguards to ensure that all sections of the community can participate … including:
(a) allocations of Committee Chairs, Ministers and Committee membership in proportion to party strengths".
All those who were involved directly in the negotiation of the agreement will know that the principle of proportionality was absolutely central to our decisions on strand-one institutions. Proportionality was to apply in the operation of the Assembly and to the allocation of Offices within it. The very first safeguard contained in the agreement is the application of proportionality to the appointment of committee Chairs, Ministers and committee members.
The provisions, as they currently stand, would apply proportionality to the appointment of committee Chairs but not to committee membership. In my view, that departs from the agreement, and it departs from the relevant provision in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, paragraph 4(1) of schedule 6 of which states
"The standing orders shall include provision for ensuring that, in appointing members to committees, regard is had to the balance of parties in the Assembly."
The use of the phrase "balance of parties" clearly implies the application of the principle of proportionality.
It is a very simple, very clear point. I do not need to elucidate it further. Do we stand by the principle of proportionality? I believe that we ought to. I believe that, as a matter of law, we have to, but I also believe that we ought to, because that is the fundamental principle on which the provisions of the agreement relating to this body are based.
This Standing Order departs from that principle, and, consequently, I urge the House to accept this amendment, so that the principle of proportionality will apply to those five Standing Committees in exactly the same way in which it will apply to the Statutory Committees. No distinction should be made between these committees, and to make such a distinction would be to run counter to the principle upon which the Assembly was established. This is simply a matter of adhering to the terms of the agreement.
On a point of order. I am sorry to interrupt just as the Member was about to get into top gear.
There are some errors in the amendment sheet which Members need to take account of. Amendment 78, as I submitted it, was to Standing Order 54(3), line 2, and it was to leave out all the words after "party as" and to insert "any Minister or junior Minister." That should make more sense to Members than the original.
In amendment 65, relating to Standing Order 66, the reference is to "to" in the fourth line, not the "to" in the second or third line. It should say Standing Order 66(6), line 4, after "to" insert —
Mr Initial Presiding Officer — for the second time — I commend to the Assembly amendment 86, standing in my name, which is a very modest intrusion into this debate on my part. It is a probing amendment seeking clarification and interpretation, which I hope will inform the Assembly of the mind and will of the Standing Orders Committee through its co-Chairmen. It refers to draft Standing Order 52(1), which refers to
"a Standing Committee of the Assembly to be known as the Business Committee which shall arrange the business of the Assembly".
This Committee will obviously be the successor of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, known as CAPO. CAPO is a purely consultative body, which advises the Initial Presiding Officer. This Standing Order assumes, subject to explanation and interpretation, an entirely different meaning when it says
"the Business Committee … shall arrange the business of the Assembly".
Normally, apart from Private Members’ business, the business of the Assembly is arranged by the Government — in this case, I hope, the four major participating parties in the Executive Committee.
In proposing this probing amendment I am conscious of Standing Order 12(4), which lays down that the Executive Committee
"shall have the right of placing its business in any order that it pleases prior to the issue of the Order Paper".
I hope to make it more evident by changing the word "arrange" to "make arrangements for". This means taking on board that which is required and recommended from other sources such as the Executive, public business or private business, so that the appropriate logistical arrangements can be made for debate. I would like clarification from the co-Chairmen of the Standing Orders Committee that that is what was intended, that the Committee would arrange the business presented to it, rather than dictate what the public, personal, private or other business of the Assembly would be.
I think that there is a most important distinction here and if the Initial Presiding Officer could provide either of the joint Chairmen with the opportunity to express the mind of the Standing Orders Committee on this matter, Members could decide if this matter should be voted upon.
I rise somewhat reluctantly to discuss this issue — I did not expect that I would have to do so. There was a quite serious and heated debate in the Standing Orders Committee around the issue of membership of committees. First, it was about the membership of Statutory Committees. It seemed that the larger parties had difficulty with going beyond the figure of 11, including a Chairman and a Deputy Chairman, because of the stress, strain, and difficulty it would cause to their large number of members to facilitate a series of committees, potentially three or four committees.
We can argue about the week’s work. Members pointed out earlier that we have three days other than the two sitting days, and there seems to be plenty of opportunity for Members to be gainfully employed on a large number of committees. However, it was deemed by the larger parties that that should not happen, even though the smaller parties argued that they could facilitate more than one committee, which is their allocation — one each for a party the size of the Progressive Unionist Party — across the ten Committees.
In some respects that is worrying because the make-up of the 11 committees will include a tiny minority, and I emphasise "tiny minority", of those who are not members of the Government. Indeed, different parties may be represented on a committee which scrutinises a Minister, but their representatives will also be part of the collective Government of which that Minister is a part.
We have consistently pointed out our fear of the absence of a reasonable Opposition. Others, including members of the larger parties on the Standing Orders Committee, have done the same. It was consistently pointed out with regard to the Statutory Committees, but I am sure that some of the other smaller parties will concur with me in saying that we had to concede because we had no choice but to concede.
The theory of the larger parties seems to be that there should be lots of consultation, but that back at the ranch they will do what they want to do anyway. We found that that was the case among the larger parties in relation to statutory bodies. We gave up the ghost somewhat and found ourselves — and this is reflected adequately in the minutes — leaving the committee meeting of 26 February thinking that Statutory and non-Statutory Committees would have 11 members including the Chair and the Deputy Chair.
However, in the inimitable words of the BBC’s Mark Simpson, "compromise broke out at Stormont". An SDLP member of the Standing Orders Committee, unsolicited I have to say, said "Well, I might have been a bit harsh last week and those committees — " and he went on to name the four committees that Members have in front of them as non-Statutory Committees, " — may well be looked at somewhat differently." We thought that that was great. I had intended to place an amendment on the make-up of the Statutory Committees before the Assembly. However, since there seemed to have been a reasonable degree of concession from all of the large parties, we did seem to have agreement. I quote from the minutes of the meeting that was held on 2 March 1999:
"It was agreed that there should be two types of Standing Committee as follows:
Committees that would fall into the category of Rule 45 on Statutory Committees and special Standing Committees that required a representative presence of every party in the Assembly."
I am somewhat disappointed to find out not only that amendments have been tabled but that some of the larger parties seem likely to vote in agreement with the amendment put forward by the First Minister (Designate).
I am a member of the Standing Orders Committee. The minutes of the meeting of the Standing Orders Committee are as the Member has stated. Does he agree that the numerical composition of the committees which are listed for Procedures, Standards, Privilege and so on is not specified? Therefore my point stands. I think that I used the Public Accounts Committee as an exemplar. All parties should be represented on these committees, but what is before us may not effect that in quite the same way.
The Member makes a fair point. I will be loath to give way in future for such an intervention. I make no criticism of his having, on that day, put forward, without solicitation, what I thought was some form of compromise towards the smaller parties. My difficulty is with the Standing Orders. I accept that there was no determination of the numbers or the specific size, although it was accepted that it would be larger than the non-Statutory Committee and would, as far as possible, have a broad representation.
Where did the figures come from? I do not criticise those who imported the figures. My criticism is of the larger parties that allowed the amendment to be tabled but advocated a different formula. However, they did not propose a formula to show the proportionality they were prepared to accept irrespective of that which the First Minister wants. The First Minister has addressed a specific issue relating to the Act and the agreement, and has given his reasons for tabling the amendment. I wish that it were the only issue that I think exists, but I am somewhat concerned over the carve-up of the Speaker.
I am concerned by the fact that there will be 11 members on a committee and the minimum number possible of those who could conceivably provide opposition. That begins to worry me in the context of collective governance — if we ever get to that. I am somewhat dismayed by the fact that the amendment essentially abandons an agreement while there is no counter amendment from parties who created a situation that could have led to proportionality which was different from that in the Statutory Committee.
I appeal to Members with a fair point. It is that those who vote against this and support the amendment will deny the small parties the representation that they deserve.
I shall extrapolate from a point that the First Minister made when he talked about proportionality. If I am not mistaken, the Act and the agreement do not preclude every Member of the Assembly from being on a committee. When he talks about his level of proportionality, he does not consider the fact that other committees have functioned very well. Examples are the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, the Standing Orders Committee and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Port of Belfast. They have not been that unwieldy, and they offer a genuine opportunity for greater participation by those who are in opposition. In the light of our debate about the lack of scrutiny of the central Department, this proposal will not go down that well. It represents suppression of the smaller parties.
It is a degree of closing down the opportunity, or, dare I use that well-worn word in Northern Ireland, a "perception". But the UUP and the SDLP did carve up the position of Speaker, and it will be perceived — and is by me — that the main reason given for putting down the amendment is not the real reason behind it.
In relation to the amendments in Mr Trimble’s name, I want to draw the Assembly’s attention to the fact that in the Standing Orders laid before the House, there are matters that were never agreed by the Standing Orders Committee.
At the Standing Orders Committee meeting of 2 March, we discussed which of the non-Statutory Committees would have a representative from every Assembly party. It is stated explicitly and was agreed explicitly that these committees would be Procedures, Standards and Privileges, Public Accounts and Equality. The rules are to be reworked to reflect this.
In this document — which members of the Standing Orders Committee did not get in final form before any other Member — we discovered that draft Standing Order 52 also includes the Business Committee as one of those committees. That is clearly a mistake; that was not what the Committee intended or agreed.
Mr Ervine pointed out that there was, however, an agreement in relation to the other four committees, and he is quite right about that. It was discussed and agreed that because of the particular nature of those committees, they should have a representative presence from each party. But that did not include the Business Committee, and I am amazed to find it included in this draft. I do not know who inserted it, but it should not be there; it was not agreed by the Standing Orders Committee.
It is quite in order, of course, for a Member to have an amendment to that effect put down, but it should not have been included in the draft. Therefore the amendment that is in Mr Trimble’s name in relation to the Business Committee is a valid one. However, the nature of the other four committees was discussed at some length by the Standing Orders Committee, and it was felt that there should be a representative presence of every party, and I think that that is quite reasonable in relation to those specific committees.
I listened with some considerable degree of interest to what Mr Trimble said on the basic principle of proportionality. He spent a long time labouring the fact that proportionality was central to the agreement and that it would be quite wrong to do anything contrary to the principle of proportionality. He laboured this point time and time again in his remarks in relation to committees of this Assembly. Yet it is interesting that on the main committee of this whole process — the Executive Committee — we do not have proportionality. When Mr Trimble agreed the make-up of the Executive Committee, he agreed to a committee with a make-up which is totally out of proportion to party strengths and to the party votes in the Assembly.
I am sorry to have to say that the Member’s point is entirely wrong and completely misconceived. Proportionality does apply to the Executive Committee, because the d’Hondt formula applies to it. If the Member is saying that it is strange that a proportional principle would produce an Executive that might be fifty-fifty, whereas in terms of this Chamber there are 58 Unionists and 42 Nationalists, he should ask his party Leader why he threw away one seat, why he did not stand with his Colleagues in the election as a united Unionist.
Had he come into this Chamber as a united Unionist, as a block of 28, he would have been entitled to three seats on the Executive, not two, so why did his party and Mr McCartney’s party decide to disaggregate themselves and throw away a seat?
I am very glad that I have got so much under the skin of the First Minister (Designate). He is so worked up about this that he is now in a sedentary position — obviously the point I made has struck home. We do not have a fifty-fifty split between Unionists and Nationalists in the Assembly, so there should not be a fifty-fifty split on the Executive. We do not have a fifty-fifty split between Unionists and Nationalists in the electorate. [Interruption]
This is the argument we hear from the First Minister (Designate) all the time. When something he has agreed to goes wrong, he blames everyone else. He says "It is your fault that prisoners are getting out; it is your fault that the RUC are under attack; it is your fault that there is a fifty-fifty carve-up in the Executive." The reality is that Mr Trimble agreed to this— he is responsible. He is becoming very agitated, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, and I urge him for the sake of his health to calm down — [Interruption]
This proportionality principle that Mr Trimble waxed so loudly and lyrically about just a short time ago does not apply to the Executive. If he had followed our advice —[Interruption]
He is off again. He is really getting terribly excited about this. It has struck home. He is not behaving himself terribly well. The reality is that if he had followed our advice and opted for seven Ministries, as was his initial position and that of members of his party, we would have a proportionate make-up in the Executive. We would have an Executive which reflected the balance of the parties in this House, and a balance of political identity. However, Mr Trimble threw that away, having argued —[Interruption]
They are all getting terribly excited about this and trying to put the blame on everyone else when it was they who made this agreement. They were advised against it by Mr Ken Maginnis and other members of the party, including Mr Nicholson, but they ignored that advice and opted for a Committee which is not proportionate, which is half and half, and on which Unionists do not even have a majority of seats.
Then the First Minister (Designate) stands up and talks about proportionality for these committees, which are far less important than the main Executive Committee which will have responsibility for governing Northern Ireland. He does not understand what proportionality is. He has applied a principle which means that Nationalists, although they cannot command a majority in this House, will have half of the seats on the Executive.
As I was saying, where the disruption is coming from one particular quarter then the Speaker should direct the admonition to that quarter. The First Minister (Designate) is behaving in a most appalling fashion, which is not in keeping with his Office, and I think that you should exercise your authority to stop it.
I appeal to those Members who were upbraiding the Member as he spoke — although it was my impression that he was managing very well — to bring some degree of decorum to the debate. I ask that the Member is permitted to continue with what he has to say without inappropriate interruption.
I could have understood the First Minister (Designate)’s getting excited, had I not been prepared to give way to him. I allowed him to intervene but, not content with that, he tries to interrupt and behaves in a loutish way in his place.
We are happy to support the Business Committee amendment, but we intend to stick by our agreement on the others. Indeed, all the parties that were represented on the Standing Orders Committee made that agreement. I wish that Mr Trimble had been so assiduous in applying the principle of proportionately and democracy to the Executive Committee. That would have ensured that Nationalists, who do not command a 50% vote in the House or among the electorate, would not get 50% of the seats. There would be true proportionality on the Executive Committee. Unfortunately he failed in that, as he has failed on so many issues in relation to this process. No doubt he will fail again.
I want to refer to amendment No 78 in the name of Mr P Robinson. On behalf of my party, I want to make it clear that we are entirely in sympathy with the spirit of the amendment. It is the practice in most legislatures for the Public Accounts Committee to be chaired by a member of a party that is not involved in the Administration. We agree with that. We also agree with the proposition that the Chair of the Standing Orders Committee be held by a member of a party other than the party of the Minister for Finance or that of any junior Minister in his Department.
However, we have a difficulty with that. I hope that we are in the process of constructing the most inclusive form of government that is practicable. I invite Mr Robinson to consider the consequence of excluding from the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee a member of any party who is in any way involved, either as a Minister or as a junior Minister, in the Administration. That could inhibit the freedom of movement of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I do not pretend to know what is in their heads in relation to the appointment of junior Ministers, but I know that it is technically possible for them to consider the appointment of members of parties other than their own, perhaps members of smaller parties in the House. Mr Robinson may wish to reflect on that and decide whether he wishes to proceed with the amendment. I assure him that the SDLP wholly supports the spirit of the amendment, but see that small difficulty in terms of the future possibilities of creating the most inclusive form of Administration.
Standing Order 47 refers to the composition of certain non-Statutory Standing Committees. My party will support the First Minister’s amendment and other amendments which seek to delete paragraphs that determine the composition of those committees. I do not agree with the First Minister that such a process activates Standing Order 47(4) and necessarily means that those committees would simply consist of 11 members. Standing Order 47(4) states:
"Standing Committees unless otherwise specified in Standing Orders shall be constituted in the manner prescribed in Standing Order 45."
The Standing Orders Committee has much work to do subsequent to this sitting and will meet soon to consider a variety of matters arising from these debates. That should be one of them. There has been a breakdown of communications here, which I do not think is anyone’s fault but simply the result of a misunderstanding.
My recollection is that the Standing Orders Committee decided that it would be desirable to have all-party representation on certain Standing Committees and that that might be best accomplished by adopting a composition similar, if not identical, to that of the Standing Orders Committee. As Members know, that committee consists of four each from the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, three each from the DUP and Sinn Féin, and one each from the smaller parties. My recollection is that that was what we agreed. However, the Clerks of the committee seem to have referred to an earlier formula for committee composition which was the practice in the Assembly’s earliest days. There has been a breakdown in communication.
Mr Haughey has a point when he says that the application of 47(4) does not necessarily cover the size of a committee. It occurred to me on rereading the Standing Orders today that 47(4) could be interpreted as relating to the means of selection rather than to the overall size. In the light of Mr Haughey’s argument, it occurs to me that it would be possible, by increasing the size and applying the principle of proportionality, to arrive at a result where all parties where represented. I would have no objection to the spirit of that with regard to the four committees that were identified by the Standing Orders Committee on 2 March. That might be something that could very well be taken back to the Standing Orders Committee.
I am glad of the First Minister (Designate)’s intervention and that he is in a measure of agreement with me. In relation to Mr Dodds’s intervention about the Business Committee, I do recollect that a distinction was made regarding that committee. However, it would be best in these circumstances to proceed to delete the clause referring to composition, consider it further in the Standing Orders Committee, consult further about it and return with a fresh proposal.
While Mr Haughey was speaking on another issue, I was reflecting, as he asked me to do, on the issue of the Public Accounts Committee. Subject to your ruling, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I think that the clause, which we have already accepted, that there should be consistency of language would permit 54(3) to be amended to the effect that the nominating officer should prefer those who are not members of parties which have a Minister or a junior Minister. That would not restrict the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister in their choices. It would allow them — although I am not sure if they have this in mind — to appoint junior Ministers from each of the parties that might be considered Opposition parties.
In response to the First Minister (Designate), Mr Haughey said, unless I took him up wrongly, that one way round the question of proportionality would be to increase the size of a committee so that it was big enough to ensure representation from all parties. Can he give some guidance as to what size such a committee would have to be?
The present Standing Orders Committee accomplishes the purpose that Mr S Wilson refers to. It accommodates all parties with two or more Members, and it has nineteen members. Such a committee need not be so huge as to be unwieldy.
I accept that, Mr Speaker, but the Assembly may make what Standing Orders it pleases, and if it pleases the Assembly to make a Standing Order to the effect that the composition of the committee shall be as the present Standing Orders Committee is constituted, the House has a perfect right to do that. I suggest that that was, in my recollection, what was agreed in the Standing Orders Committee, and the House may agree it in due course if it pleases.
However, I must move on — I am running out of time as a consequence of a variety of perfectly proper interventions. In relation to the amendment in his name, my Colleague, Eddie McGrady, asked for an interpretation of the mind of the Standing Orders Committee. I cannot obviously speak authoritatively for all its members, but I can offer my recollection, which was that it was their intention that the Business Committee would have responsibility for the logistical arrangements for the business of the House. It would not assume the functions of, let us say, the Leader of the House in a parliamentary style of government; it would not determine the content of the business but rather make arrangements for the doing of the business.
That is my recollection, and I believe that the amendment in the name of Eddie McGrady is perfectly proper because the wording actually makes that rather clearer than the present wording does, so I support that amendment.
In respect, finally, —
Perhaps you will indulge me just for a few moments, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I was generous in allowing a lot of people to intervene.
In respect of the matter of an Opposition to the Government, which was raised by David Ervine and others, it is not appropriate to import considerations which are appropriate to a parliamentary system of government of the traditional kind into this Assembly, where we are forging what I believe is a unique and better form of government, a consensual form of government which will involve the greatest possible number of parties. Parties will be both in the Administration and in Opposition, and that will enable Back-Bench members of the parties —
Before calling the next Member, I need to make one or two remarks. Mr Robinson asked whether the cover-all clause, which was the amendment to the previous item on the agenda, to make the wording consistent and so on, would cover a change of the type to which he adverted in Standing Order 54(3)? It seems clear to me that a change of the order which he describes is much more than a mere tidying-up of words; there is a difference in meaning and substance in terms of the making of appointments, and I think that the change to which he adverts could only be made by a substantive amendment.
Now, there is another matter which is of similar order. There has been some discussion about matters being taken back or about changes to the number of members on committees and so on being made. There is no facility for taking back anything to the committee. The Assembly can only vote for or against what is here. It is, of course, entirely possible for the Standing Orders Committee to consider matters and to bring amendments or new Standing Orders or whatever to a subsequent meeting of the Assembly, but there is no facility for taking back, any more than there is a facility for a Minister to take back part of a Bill. A Member simply votes one way or another and on the basis of that the Standing Orders Committee may, at a subsequent sitting of the Assembly, bring forward new Standing Orders or amendments to existing ones. The House needs to keep that in mind when it comes to voting on amendments or, indeed, on Standing Orders themselves.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. You referred to the exchange between Denis Haughey and me about the effect of amendment 3 on Standing Order 47(4). It seemed to me that the point that he made that amendment 3, by knocking out those particular clauses in those five Standing Orders, would not necessarily bring the figure of 11 into the composition of those. It could then be, on that interpretation, that there could, if amendment 3 were carried, be a gap in the Standing Orders which the Standing Orders Committee would have to consider. It would have to consider whether a gap existed and, if so, how to fill it.
Mr Ervine spoke about Members’ perception of what is being proposed. Perception is a double-edged sword. My party’s perception is that some Back-Benchers are frequently not equal to Mr Ervine or his Colleagues. There is a widely-held view that, because of their make-up, committees such as the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, do not accurately reflect the elected membership of the Chamber.
Our view is that while there must be practical limits to the size of any committee, which is why a figure of about 11 was thought reasonable, another figure could be looked at. The feeling was that parties with one, two, three or four Members somehow think that they should have greater privileges and rights than Members of my party, and that our Back-Benchers do not equate as individuals in the same way as Members of smaller parties. That perception has existed since July, and it is largely a reflection of the fact that we came here from a talks process that was constructed in an entirely different way. In that process, representation did not reflect electoral strength.
This Member believes in being nice to people on the way up because he never knows when he might meet them on the way down. We do not intend to be small all the time. To copper-fasten the importance of the Progressive Unionist Party, may I say that the Ulster Unionist Party has been happy enough to take our votes on various occasions.
That was a rather snide answer to a question that I was not putting. As the Member knows, his party was quite happy to have our votes in the City Hall. We can all talk about meeting people on the way up and meeting them again on the way down. That is not the point. The Member’s reaction confirms the general thrust of my argument.
There is a view that Back-Benchers in my party are not equal to some other Members. The perception is that some of those who are Leaders or deputy leaders of parties see themselves as more important in some way.
I have a good deal of sympathy for the Member’s view. As Denis Haughey said, this is an entirely unique body, based essentially on consensus, or so it is alleged, and therefore directed towards representation by the maximum number of people.
I think the Member will agree that smaller parties are bound to be included, perhaps out of proportion to their membership. That is a remnant of a straight parliamentary situation which we are told does not operate here.
I do not dispute the fundamental thrust of what Mr McCartney says. Small parties have been given representation for very good reasons, and we must strike a balance between that and the practicalities of the system. Mr Ervine raised the issue of perception, and I am trying to express a perception that exists in the House. Many of our Members feel that they are not equal to some Members elsewhere.
I am not saying that that means that one rigidly impose a figure to the exclusion of all other considerations; that would not be fair or reasonable, and we are not going to do that. But as the exchange with Mr Haughey demonstrated, there is a widespread view that we should ensure that other interests are represented. We have to stretch the practicalities — to enlarge the system — but keep a relationship between the size of a committee and the size of the parties that compose it.
I do not know whether I have been enlightened by that intervention.
I accept the fact that the committees may be varied in size, but we have to remember that they will be working committees. Having been in local government for 14 years, I know that the size of a committee affects what it can do, and so we have attempted to get the right balance.
Members who sit in the House of Commons find it a very unforgiving place when it comes to committee size. In the Assembly, we have to balance the fact that the Back-Bench Members of the larger parties have to be given, as individuals, equality with Members from smaller parties. That is all I am saying. We are trying to get that balance, and I believe there is consensus emerging as to how that should be achieved. Bearing in mind what Mr McCartney said — and I fully accept what he said — when there is an even balance, you err on the side of the smaller parties for the sake of good government.
I do not know why Mr Ervine is so agitated with me. I will respond to what he put forward as his perception by telling him — and I can only speak for my own Colleagues — that the perception within the Ulster Unionist Party is that its Back-Bench Members are being short-changed by the system as it has hitherto operated. I hope that that perception can be resolved and that Mr Ervine’s perception can also be dealt with. It may be possible to increase the size of some committees and maintain the principle of proportionality. Up until now the result has been some very distorted committees, and CAPO, of course, is the most obvious example. That is my fundamental point, and if we proceed with the amendments that were proposed by the First Minister, I hope that the Standing Orders Committee will take on board the thrust of the debate and that it is going to be possible, when collecting the voices, to resolve the matter satisfactorily.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
Most of what I wanted to know has been clarified by Mr Haughey and the First Minister.
I was a member of the Standing Orders Committee, and I do not recognise the figures shown in respect of the non-Statutory Committees. They are far from proportional, but although we are opposed to this and will be supporting the amendment to delete it, it was not our intention to go back to the figure of 11. Any Member from a small party, who is also a member of the Standing Orders Committee, will be aware that we have been firm in our advocacy of inclusion on these committees and of our support of the small parties.
In supporting the amendment to delete this part of the Standing Order, our intentions were good, and I accept the Initial Presiding Officer’s ruling. However, there is a clear understanding from the way the debate has developed that the Standing Orders Committee has further business to deal with, and I assume that this matter will be part of it.
It is important to get beyond the perception that, because we do not support this amendment — and the DUP has tried to saddle my party with this — we are against there being scrutiny of the Department of the Centre. In fact, Sinn Féin led the charge to try to have proper scrutiny at the Centre. In order to nail any doubt about our intentions, we are supporting the amendment to delete this reference, not to bring the figure back to 11, not to exclude the smaller parties, but to bring us back to Standing Orders and to get proper proportionality.
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh.
Before I call the next couple of Members to speak I need to clarify the situation again. A number of Members have experience in local government and are familiar with the pattern of matters being brought back to committees. There is no such facility here on a matter of this kind. When a matter is voted on it is either voted through or voted down. Further propositions can come forward at a later stage, but that is entirely another matter. They may come forward or they may not come forward. That cannot be legislated for.
I am aware that many Members have experience and will be familiar with that pattern of things. What you vote on you can change later if proposals are brought forward and voted upon in due time. This is in order to ensure that Members are quite clear about the procedures.
I am glad that you clarified that last point. A number of us were almost taking it on trust that we would be going to look at Standing Orders again. However, you told us before, and you have told us again now, that if we vote this amendment through, it stands. I am opposing these amendments.
Although there was a lengthy debate in the Standing Orders Committee and consensus at the end of that debate, today we find that that consensus has gone out of the window, as is often the case in Northern Ireland. On this issue it is extremely important. A number of points have been made, and Mr Denis Haughey actually said that here in Northern Ireland we would probably have the most inclusive form of government. We may indeed have the most inclusive form of government, but we certainly will not have the most inclusive form of Opposition to that Government if this currently stands.
The second point I want to make is that attempts were made in that committee to understand the need for inclusion, the need for different voices. Sir Reg Empey rightly said that there is concern in parties such as his that sometimes the Back-Benchers do not get a fair chance to make their speeches on the Assembly Floor. He is now concerned that that might also be the case in the committees.
Clearly, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, you have had to address this issue from time to time and have tried to balance that in whatever way possible. That is exactly what the Standing Orders Committee attempted to do — to balance this — and it came up with a fair compromise. We, as one of the smaller parties, agreed with that compromise. We agreed that it would not necessarily be the case that we would be able to sit on all these Statutory Committees, but that there would be a choice of other committees. Now that has been foreclosed and I am saying to you that —
Would the Member not agree that several of the interventions and contributions from the SDLP and other parties made it clear and put it on the record — notwithstanding the direction received from the Presiding Officer with respect to the notion of putting items back to the Standing Orders Committee — that the parties are clearly concerned to have these matters addressed in a way which will ensure the kind of inclusivity that is being talked about?
What is being objected to is the numerical prescription which we find in the draft Standing Orders which was not, and this has been admitted to by a number of contributors to the debate, something which was agreed to when the matter left the Standing Orders Committee at its last meeting and has appeared since.
I take the point that Mr Farren has just made, but I hope that he also takes my point that if this is voted through today, I, and a number of other small parties, will be faced with making the Standing Orders Committee one of the committees that we choose. If we do not make it one of those committees, we will not have a voice on it. Mr McCartney spoke at length yesterday about our civic duty in the Assembly.
It seems to me that we are faced with a very tough choice here. We have a civic duty to the people who have sent us here to sit on scrutiny committees and other committees of the Assembly, but we may choose to fight for our right to be on the Standing Orders Committee in the first place. That is the choice that we are faced with if this amendment goes through, and, therefore, I ask those, who were previously considered to be in favour of this, now to think again.
I ask the Member to pay attention to Standing Order 54 (Public Accounts Committee). Although Members may not realise it now, this will be a key function of the Assembly. It will be one of the most important ways of calling an Executive to account on financial and economic matters. If Mr Trimble’s proposal to delete sub-paragraph 4 is successful, the Opposition numbers on that committee would be significantly reduced. At the same time there is more than a hint from the SDLP that they do not want the Chairman and Deputy Chairman to be from the Opposition parties.
I was coming to that point and I will respond to it now.
Prior to coming in here today, we listened at length to people talking about the need for the Chairperson of that committee to come from the Opposition. In fact, we have often been told that that creates healthy democracy, and now, even that avenue is being closed down. Mr P Robinson, quite rightly, put forward an amendment, which the Initial Presiding Officer said may be out of order because of its wording. I will seek clarification on that. If that amendment still stands — and I would be glad to hear that — I would vote for it.
The Initial Presiding Officer was not questioning the legality of the amendment that I have on the Order Paper. It was a suggestion that would have been a compromise to call Mr Haughey’s bluff. He said that it would be difficult because the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister might want to appoint Ms McWilliams, Mr Ervine, Mr Close, Mr McCartney and, perhaps, Mr Wilson as junior Ministers. That would mean that they could not have a Chairman and Deputy Chairman on the committee. I rather suspect that that is not the intention of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, but that was the scenario that was being painted. I suggested a way out of that, which the Initial Presiding Officer explained would not be in order.
Thank you for that clarification. I can see why Mr Haughey is considering taking time out in order to respond to it.
I am concerned about who will benefit from the exclusion. A number of Members — indeed, all parties were represented on that committee — spoke at length about the need to have inclusion on these other committees. That is why these Standing Orders were put forward in the way they have been. Judging by what is going on here today, something has clearly happened since the last meeting of the Standing Orders Committee. I think that a bit of a stitch-up is going on and it needs to be stopped.
During yesterday’s debate and today’s I was pleased to hear some Members speaking up for the rights of the smaller parties, although I was disappointed to hear today that Reg Empey is so concerned about his Back-Benchers that he would throw a little element of democracy out of the window in order to have them heard.
Does the Member agree that during the debate on committees, the Ulster Unionist Party was arguing in favour of having smaller committees? Was it not saying that if there were large committees, they would have so many places that they could not possibly fill them? Given the exchanges here today, there will be eight extra places for Ulster Unionist Party Members, places which they probably will not be able to fill.
When one is attempting to win a vote, one should not offend those who are in the position of being able to change their minds when that vote is being taken. I have a great deal of sympathy with the Back-Benchers, and there was a great deal of concern about how we could take that into account in terms of the committee.
I respond to Mr Haughey by saying that it is not healthy to suggest, as he did, that there would be several Back-Benchers on these committees, and, therefore, that there would be several voices. How can we go out and tell the electorate that that is the case? How can we have healthy debate on that committee or, indeed, good healthy scrutiny if only the four parties in Government are represented on it? A great deal of thinking needs to go on here before Members will be inclined to vote for these amendments.
I would like to deal with several of the points raised and, first of all, with the allegation made by Ms McWilliams that there is a stitch-up going on and with the similar allegation made by Mr Ervine. Mr Ervine himself made the point that the Committee on Standing Orders never agreed that committees would be constituted on the basis of two members for parties with more than 16 Members and one member for each party with fewer than 16 Members. Mr Ervine said that he was suspicious about that.
I accepted that, and I did not blame those who had put that formula in place, because it is, at least, some kind of formula. My argument today is that the larger parties are about to deny us the proportionality inherent in that formula, without suggesting a new formula to replace it.
I was coming to that. I heard that point the first time.
Mr Ervine has agreed that this did not come from the Committee on Standing Orders and has expressed some suspicion about it. His suspicion was directed at the larger parties. The larger parties are now prepared to delete that provision, as it is not in keeping with the principle of proportionality. The larger parties have made it clear that they are standing by the view that they put to the Committee on Standing Orders that these committees should include representatives from all parties in the Assembly. We put that proposal forward. It is recorded in the minutes of the final meeting of the Committee on Standing Orders and included in part (I) of the report. We stand by that.
With regard to the point made by the Initial Presiding Officer that we cannot refer matters back to the Committee on Standing Orders, this is correct, as things stand. However, these Standing Orders allow us to appoint a Committee on Procedures, and that committee will have responsibility for looking at Standing Orders, as the need arises. However, according to the additional Initial Standing Orders drawn up by the Secretary of State, the Committee on Standing Orders still has a further function to discharge, and that relates to the appointment of Statutory Committees. Therefore the fear expressed by Ms McWilliams that her party will be obliged to settle for representation on, for example, the Business Committee, rather than a scrutiny committee, is unfounded.
The appointments that will be made will only be to the shadow Statutory Committees, not to the committees that we are dealing with now. Indeed, we might well ask whether we need further additional Initial Standing Orders from the Secretary of State to allow us to appoint the committees which we are currently discussing. At present, there is nothing in Standing Orders to allow us to do this. All we have is the authority to appoint the shadow Statutory Committees, not these other committees.
The additional Initial Standing Orders state that proposals for appointments to the Statutory Committees must come from the Committee on Standing Orders, and that includes specification of matters such as the number of members on a committee. Obviously, we have already made a decision on the number of members on a Statutory Committee, but the scenario set out by Ms McWilliams does not apply to the appointment of members of these committees. There is a clear distinction between the Statutory Committees and the other committees. So, the suspicion being expressed by Ms McWilliams is completely misplaced. It has no basis in fact. We should deal with facts in this situation, rather than with fears, smears and sneers.
In relation to the Public Accounts Committee, for instance, I agree wholeheartedly with the points made by Mr Peter Robinson. We want to make sure that all parties, including the parties not represented on the Executive, have a strong presence on that committee. However, because the system within which we operate is based on inclusive Opposition, as well as inclusive Government, the scrutiny bodies should include representatives from the larger parties. The fact that a party has qualified to participate in the Executive should not prevent its Members from taking part in all the other functions of the Assembly and its committees. We were anxious to ensure that the committees, including the Public Accounts Committee, were of a reasonable size and included representatives of all parties.
Going along with this deletion would not preclude every party from being represented on these committees. However, it will prevent a very disproportionate character being built in, where parties with two or — if Members move on the other Standing Order identified by Mr Robinson — even one will be on all the committees, while the larger parties will have only two members on them. The disproportionateness of that is fairly stark, and that needs to be addressed.
I take Mr Ervine’s excellent point about the important work of all-party committees and how well they work. He gave the Port of Belfast Committee as an example. That is a very good committee, but its make-up is different from what he is trying to defend here. He is seeking a more disproportionate make-up than exists on the excellent committee he has referred to. Members should follow the logic of what Mr Ervine has said and apply the same yardstick to these committees.
Mr Ervine is not trying to defend the formula that exists. Mr Ervine is trying to defend a greater degree of inclusion than the amendment would allow if it stood on its own. When I and the other members left the Standing Orders Committee, there was no formula. But the one now in front of me is one hell — excuse me, Mr Presiding Officer — a quare bit better than the one put forward by the First Minister (Designate).
That is the point that Mr Ervine made last time. This is becoming like an advertising break — the same advertisements each time.
If Members follow the amendments to delete these provisions, they will not be foregoing in any way the commitment to ensure that all parties are represented on these committees.
On Standing Order 53 we had particular concerns about the make-up of the numbers. I believe that there are more fundamental questions about Standing Order 53 than whether the numbers are right. It purports to carry out paragraphs 11 to 13 of Strand One of the agreement, which in many ways was a special procedure to provide what might be termed "an equality reading" or "an equality hearing" and for the possible appointment of a committee, almost on an ad hoc basis.
We were influential in having that aspect included in the agreement, and it was not intended as the basis for a permanent Standing Committee of this nature. Depending on the issue which might be referred to that procedure — and it might be a gender-equality issue, a race-equality issue or a communal-equality issue — and the policy area involved, such as health, employment or social services, parties might want to appoint different people to be on that committee to test and probe the issue concerned.
Given the sensitivity of the procedure and that it is there as one of the safeguards highlighted in the agreement, we find the make-up disproportionate. On the current basis there would be four Nationalists out of a committee of 14. That committee could be bigger to include more party members, particularly for the conduct of hearings, which the procedure allows for. So there are more fundamental, and entirely legitimate, matters of concern in relation to some of these issues. It is not a matter of trying to exclude anybody. These amendments do not purport to exclude anybody; they are aimed at ensuring that more people can be included, including people from the larger parties.
One final amendment that I want to address is amendment 78 — again in relation to the Public Accounts Committee. As Denis Haughey said, we believe that no one who belongs to any party that is represented on the Executive should chair the Public Accounts Committee. We suggested that several times during the talks.
We are not sure about the restrictions in terms of junior Ministers. We have no problem with the party of the junior Minister at the Department of Finance and Personnel’s being precluded; we do have a problem with a blanket exclusion of all junior Ministers.
First, we should not presume that the committee Chairs are going to be appointed after junior Ministers. It may well be that Chairs will be appointed before any junior Ministers are. Secondly, junior Ministers could be appointed on a different basis from that which many people seem to be expecting, or are hinting at. I do not want there to be any suggestion that it might occur to the First and Deputy First Ministers to try to muzzle the Chairman of a Public Accounts Committee by dangling the offer of a junior Ministry at one of his Colleagues.
I fear that I may have to be the muzzle on this particular occasion.
I sense that most of the arguments are now beginning to come round for a reprise. I will take the last two Members currently on the list, and then we will move to a vote on this section.
I want to make a number of general observations about what has been going on against the whole background of various committees. Assemblyman Durkan referred to Prof McWilliams in terms of "sneer and smear". Other Members have talked of suspicions about what the major parties would do. I think we should examine the basis for this air of uncertainty and suspicion about what is going on.
In order to do that, we must fundamentally appreciate that this is not a parliamentary democracy with one party, or a coalition of parties, in Government and other parties, with substantial numbers of representatives out of Government who will act as the Opposition, who will probe, enquire into, publicly examine and attack what the Government are doing.
What we have here is a sort of political Caliban — a creature created for specific purposes. It is called consensual government. It means that all of the major parties have representatives in the Executive, which is the Government. Therefore, where do we look for either the machinery or the people who, as Prof McWilliams quite rightly pointed out, will constitute the Opposition? Who will enquire into whether the Government are governing with integrity and probity and if their policies are valid or simply expedient?
This is where the problem arises. Under this scheme that function is to be carried out by a series of scrutiny committees. However, the scrutiny committees, by virtue of the numbers of the majority parties, will contain, in most cases, an overwhelming majority of those actually in Government. They will contain a relative minority of those parties who, not being in Government, not being in the Executive and, by their numbers, having circumscribed representation on these scrutiny committees, will not really be, if I understand Prof McWilliams’s remarks correctly, in a position to do the work of an effective Opposition, which is to ensure that the Government, whether they be a consensual Executive or an elected majority, are doing what they ought to do.
There is therefore a suspicion — and it has been there from the very beginning, through all the discussions at the early meetings of the Standing Orders Committee — that this place could ultimately resolve itself into an Executive that, broadly speaking, could do whatever it wanted, and that the role of this Assembly, in its plenary session, whether through question, answer, speeches or any other form of examination, was to question the Executive about its performance and what it was doing.
I think that much of the anxiety and questioning stems from that fundamental dilemma.
Assemblyman Denis Haughey, who chaired in a fair and exemplary fashion the Standing Orders Committee, said that this is a unique place. It is so unique, he suggested, that the Opposition will consist of Back-Benchers of all the parties that are not in the Government. Here again is a curious residual appendix of parliamentary government. The Assembly has parties and Whips.
Peter Robinson’s fair suggestion and amendment this morning was that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister should be the subject of a scrutiny committee. There was a worthwhile debate in which the arguments were cogently and explicitly deployed. I have no doubt that anyone listening to that debate would, if he had been allowed a free vote, come down heavily in favour of the proposition. There was no answer as to why there should be 10 Statutory Committees to scrutinise the 10 Ministries, but no special scrutiny committee to scrutinise the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, who will exercise substantial Executive powers on a wide range of important issues. Assemblyman Sammy Wilson listed those. That was the crux of the matter.
What happened in this marvellous place, in which independent, free-thinking Back-Benchers would exercise the powerful independence of mind and intellect that they would bring like lasers to bear on the problems that confronted them? What we saw today was one of the worst features of the party system. Member after Member said no or yes, and I venture to suggest that many of them had no good idea of exactly why they were saying no or yes to a particular amendment — except that some sort of tribal drum played by the Whips had sent the message "This is a no" or "This is a yes." [Interruption] I do not need a drum.
When addressing Members in, I hope, direct, frank and open terms, I appealed to their independence of mind. I suggested that they should direct their thoughts and their minds to the value of the arguments and to the persuasiveness of points of view. I asked them to allow that arguments from places for which they had no natural empathy, might, by their good sense and logic and by their comparison of one committee with another in terms of the functions that they were to serve be persuasive enough to accept.
I hear what the Member says. Does he accept that those of us who voted the way we did today support section 7 of the report of the Standing Orders Committee? Under the heading "Scrutiny of Central Functions" on page 8, the report states
"Concern was expressed … that important discrete executive functions of the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would not, under current legislation, be subject to scrutiny of a Statutory Committee. The Committee recommends that this matter be addressed as soon as possible by the Assembly."
We stand by that.
I am suggesting that there was absolutely nothing of any consequence in the amendment that was different from the agreement’s provisions for the structure of the 10 Statutory Committees. It was essentially the same. Why should any shield, discrete or otherwise, be afforded to the First and Deputy First Ministers that is not afforded to Ministers who will be responsible to the other scrutiny committees? What secret or discrete behaviour of theirs should be any more deserving of protection than the functions of any other Minister?
No real argument of substance was advanced to deal with it, and let me touch on the question of the Public Accounts Committee.
The whole basis of any accounts committee, the whole basis of a club, a council or any other institution where you have auditors, is that the auditors who are checking the books are totally and completely independent from those who are responsible either for the decisions or for the arithmetic that produced those books. That is why the Chairman and Deputy Chairman should be completely independent from those who have an input either by policy or actuarial function into creating those figures. But we are now told "Oh, no it would be all right to have somebody who was a junior Minister chairing this committee." That is scandalously wrong.
I wish to support the arguments that have been put forward this afternoon for the inclusion of the smaller parties in the very important and non-Statutory Committees.
The debate we have had here on a number of issues today will rightly cause alarm to those who see themselves as forming the Opposition in the Assembly. This morning’s debate on the scrutiny of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers’ Department showed no great desire for those important functions to be scrutinised.
The debate we have had this afternoon, especially where it has touched on the Public Accounts Committee and the Equality Committee, has indicated once again that there is an unwillingness to have the full inclusion of smaller parties, who would regard themselves as the Opposition here. Indeed, the vote we had this morning on the ministerial appointments also showed an unwillingness, especially on the parts of the large pro-agreement parties, to countenance making it easy for anyone who is likely to present opposition to those who signed up to the agreement and who will be exercising its working out.
For those reasons, the debate that we are having now is very important. The reasons given by members of the smaller parties for their inclusion need to be borne in mind and heeded by all in the Assembly.
I listened to what was said by the First Minister (Designate) about the need for proportionality — he is not here, so I will not put his blood pressure through the roof unless he is watching this on television, and I do not wish to incite him to break Standing Order 57. I listened to what he said about proportionality.
Nigel Dodds has pointed out that he did not appear to be too concerned about proportionality in the highest committee when he was signing up to the agreement, the highest committee being the Executive Committee of the House. Indeed, when he had a second bite at the cherry, he went for a number of Ministers that would ensure that the Unionist majority in the House was not reflected on the Executive Committee. I am not sure about his commitment to proportionality, and the suggestion which was made by Mr Haughey that we could perhaps raise the number — and it was only a suggestion, it is not a commitment — in these committees to enable us to have sufficient people that would allow proportionality and enable the smaller parties to be represented runs totally against all of the arguments that were put forward by his own members in the Standing Orders Committee.
I have some sympathy with the argument, and the smaller parties saw the sense of it too. It was argued that if committees were enlarged, it would impose an undue burden on the larger parties because they would have so many positions to fill that they could not fill them without overworking their Members. In fairness to the smaller parties, that is one of their reasons for accepting, albeit grudgingly, that the Statutory Committees should have only 11 members.
The argument is being misrepresented by Mr Wilson, although not deliberately I am sure. The original proposition was that all committees should have 11 members. Representatives of the smaller parties sought a compromise, to which Mr Ervine referred earlier, and suggested that, because of their nature, some Standing Committees required representation from all parties. My recollection is that we agreed that the composition of some Standing Committees should be in accordance with the formula for the present Standing Orders Committee. That means that it would reflect proportionality and involve all parties. Does the Member accept that?
I accept the first proposition, that the Statutory Committees should have 11 members. I also accept that non-Statutory Committees should be constituted to ensure that the smaller parties have representation. It was said that if committees were as large as the present Standing Orders Committee, the Ulster Unionist Party would be required to put four of its members on each one. Therein lies the difficulty. The Standing Orders require the Ulster Unionist Party to provide only two Members for each committee.
Having argued that he could not provide all the necessary people, the First Minister (Designate) now says "Let us increase them." That is somewhat odd, and it would mean eight additional places on the four committees for Ulster Unionist Members. If we vote against the Standing Orders, the smaller parties will not be sure of representation. It is a case of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush. The smaller parties, and those who wish to protect their position, would be better to vote for the Standing Orders to remain in their present form. We must ensure that those parties that will be outside the Executive and which will form the Opposition are not excluded from these important committees.
I thought that the present formulation was accepted by everyone on the Standing Orders Committee. The smaller parties compromised on the Statutory Committees, and the larger parties compromised on the others. It would be a display of bad faith for Members to vote against that compromise between the two sides.
We now come to the approval of the Standing Orders and the vote on the amendments in this second, larger section on committees.
We start with amendment No 62 and proceed on through, in order, to amendment No 76. I remind Members of the situation in respect of amendments No 3A to E and 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 when we come to consider them.
Standing Order 45 (Membership of Statutory Committees)
Amendment (No 62) made:
Standing Order 45, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 46 (Overlap of Statutory Committee Business)
Amendment (No 53) made:
"and may invite the other Committee to carry out the consideration of any stated issue and provide it with a draft report". — [Mr P Robinson]
Standing Order 46, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 47 (Non-Statutory Committees) agreed to.
Standing Order 48 (Service on Committees) agreed to.
Standing Order 49 (Committee Members Voting in the Chamber)
Amendment (No 52) made:
", other than by leave of the Committee that he shall not do so," — [Mr P Robinson]
Standing Order 49, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 50 (Sub-Committees)
Amendment (No 51) made:
"Such Committees shall, in as far as is practicable, reflect the party strengths in the Assembly". — [Mr P Robinson]
Standing Order 50, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Orders 51 (Committee on Procedures); 52 (Business Committee); 53 (Conformity with Equality Requirements — Special Committee on); 54 (Public Accounts Committee); and 55 (Committee on Standards and Privileges)
We now come to amendment 3A, with which we will consider amendments 3B, 3C, 3D and 3E. I remind Members that if amendments 3A to 3E are approved we will not move to consideration of amendments 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10, which are all subsumed in the former.
Amendments (Nos 3A to 3E) proposed:
Alex Attwood, PJ Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Ms Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Michelle Gildernew, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, John Kelly, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Barry McElduff, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mrs Mary Nelis, 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, Esmond Birnie, Mrs Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Rev Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Sir Reg Empey, Sam Foster, Sir John Gorman, Derek Hussey, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Dermot Nesbitt, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Rt Hon David Trimble.
Fraser Agnew, Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, David Ervine, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Robert McCartney, Rev William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mrs Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
There voted 91 Members, including 33 Nationalists and 51 Unionists. Of Nationalist votes, 100% were in favour. Of the Unionist votes, 45.9% were in favour. Of the total votes, 61.5% were in favour. The amendments are therefore carried.
Amendments accordingly agreed to.
Mr Initial Presiding Officer, it is merely an oversight on your part that you gave the percentage of Unionist votes but did not give the figures.
It is the percentages that matter for the vote, but for those who wish to know the numbers the Ayes were 33 Nationalists and 23 Unionists, and the Noes were 28 Unionists and 7 Others.
Amendments Nos 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 not moved.
Standing Order 51, as amended (amendment No 3A), agreed to.
Standing Order 52 (Business Committee)
We are having difficulty with this amendment because those who put it down have not explained it. Is it possible for us to know if, by the amendment, they intend to exclude the Speaker from the Business Committee, or if the Speaker is to be a member of the Business Committee, but not in its Chair? It would be difficult to support an amendment which would mean that the Speaker would not know what the business was going to be. However, if the Speaker were a member of the committee, but not in the Chair, that would be reasonable.
I take the question that you have raised, but I cannot permit any further debate at this point. It is possible for Members to put down amendments and to move amendments but not to give any guidance on them. Whether that is a good idea is another matter. This is what has been done on this occasion, and I am in no position to do anything about it, other than proceed with the Division.
Mr P Robinson made reference to Members on this side of the House standing. Had he bothered to look round, he would have seen Mr S Wilson and Mr Shannon engaged in conversation behind him.
A considerable number of Members were out of order, and some continue to be so, including the Chairman of the Standing Orders Committee.
Dr Ian Adamson, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Esmond Birnie, Mrs Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Rev Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Sir Reg Empey, Sam Foster, Sir John Gorman, Derek Hussey, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Dermot Nesbitt, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Rt Hon John Taylor, Rt Hon David Trimble.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Ms Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Michelle Gildernew, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Eugene McMenamin, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mrs Mary Nelis, Danny O’Connor, Ms Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Mrs Sue Ramsey, Ms Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
Fraser Agnew, Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, David Ervine, Oliver Gibson, William Hay, David Hilditch, Billy Hutchinson, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Rev William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
There voted 91 Members: 34 Nationalists, all against; and 50 Unionists, 24 of whom voted for and 26 against. The Ayes were 26·4%. I declare the amendment lost.
Question accordingly negatived.
Standing Order 52, as amended (amendments Nos 3B and 86), agreed to.
Amendment (No 82) propsed:
Ms Bairbre de Brún, Ms Michelle Gildernew, Alex Maskey, Barry McElduff, Gerry McHugh, Pat McNamee, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Ms Dara O’Hagan, Mrs Sue Ramsey.
Dr Ian Adamson, Fraser Agnew, 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, David McClarty, Rev William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mrs Iris Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, George Savage, Jim Shannon, Rt Hon John Taylor, Rt Hon David Trimble, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.
Mrs Eileen Bell, Seamus Close, David Ford, Kieran McCarthy, Ms Jane Morrice, Sean Neeson.
Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Eddie McGrady, Eugene McMenamin, Danny O’Connor, Eamonn ONeill, Ms Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.
There voted 87 Members. Of Nationalists, there voted 10 for and 21 against, which is 32.2% for. Of Unionists, there voted 50 for and none against, which is 100% for. The total vote for is 75.9%. However, not having achieved 40% of the Nationalist vote, I declare the amendment lost.
Question accordingly negatived.
Members must forgive me if I feel a sense of urgency to push the business on at this point. It is partly a matter of hunger and partly one of obviating bedsores. [Laughter]
Standing Order 53, as amended (amendments Nos 3C, 81, 80 and 79), agreed to.
Standing Order 54 (Public Accounts Committee)
Mr Robinson indicated when moving the amendment that he might be prepared to consider an alternative wording to make it consistent with that of other Standing Orders. Has he given any further thought to that?
I gave a ruling that this paragraph would not fall under the amendment to the report of yesterday because this was not a matter of tidying up the wording or making it consistent with others. This would make a substantive difference to the meaning and could not therefore fall under the amendment of yesterday. Though the Member undertook to look at the amendment, I cannot actually take manuscript amendments of that order.
It was never actually clear to me during the brief debate on this amendment what the effect of the amendment would be. What has been read out now makes it clear but creates another problem. If the amendment were carried so that neither the Chairperson nor the Deputy Chairperson of a committee could be of the same political party as any Minister or junior Minister, in view of what we hope will be the inclusive nature of the Administration, it would be impossible to implement this rule: Standing Order 47(3) has been approved, and it says that Chairs and Deputy Chairs should be appointed through the d’Hondt formula, and it will not be possible to carry that out if this amendment is agreed.
I have to say that I understand. This is not a point of order. This is a question of whether or not the Standing Orders make sense, but that is not a point of order, strange as it may seem. That is an argument for voting one way or t’other, and Members must decide on which way they vote. I cannot take that as a point of order. I trust that Members are clear from what was said by the Member who proposed the amendment, from the correction he made during his speech and from my own repeated attempts to make the wording clear.
Amendment (No 78) proposed:
Standing Order 54, as amended (amendment No 3D), agreed to.
Standing Order 55 (Committee on Standards and Privileges)
We have now come to the end of that group. We have three further groups to consider tonight involving 14 amendments and 14 Standing Orders. We also have an Adjournment debate. It is unlikely that we can deal with that without some sustenance, and I therefore ask the leave of the House for a suspension of one hour.
Amendment No 75 is simply a tidying-up amendment that makes Standing Order 57(1) a bit easier to read and understand.
Amendment No 74 is consequential upon amendment No 75.
Amendment No 73 is my doing the Women’s Coalition work, under commission, I hope, of putting in "/she" — as opposed to "banshee" — in the third line.
Amendment 72 — I found this a rather strange one. I worked it out that if Members are not allowed in the public areas, the Assembly Chamber, the lobbies, the dining areas, the Committee Rooms, the party rooms and the Great Hall, then they are not allowed into the Building at all, and it might be better to say exactly that.
One would need to take a circuitous route up the fire escape and through the window in order to reach one’s own office and to avoid those areas. In the House of Commons — and I have some experience of this — when a Member is suspended he is put out through the front gate, and he does not get back in until the period of suspension is over. If I am to be suspended from this House, I want it to be done properly and to be required to leave the Building.
Amendment No 71 will allow Standing Order 58(4) to say what I believe it was intended to say: that visitors will not be permitted to take into the Public Gallery of the Assembly any mobile telephone, tape recorder, briefcase or large bag. I assume that visitors will be permitted to bring these items into other parts of the Building on occasions.
This concludes the amendments in my name in this section.
I have had no indication of any Members wishing to speak on this group of amendments, and therefore we shall proceed to the approval of the relevant Standing Orders and amendments.
Standing Order 57 (Order in the Assembly)
Amendment (No 75) made:
Amendment (No 74) made:
Amendment (No 73) made:
Amendment (No 72) made:
"include any part of Parliament Buildings." — [Mr P Robinson]
Standing Order 57, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 58 (Visitors to the Assembly)
Amendment (No 71) made:
Standing Order 58, as amended, agreed to.
Standing Order 59 (Visitors to Committee) agreed to.
Standing Order 60 (Keeper of the House) agreed to.