Assembly Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 3:30 pm, 9th March 1999

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.