Assembly Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP 3:45 pm, 9th March 1999

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).