Standards and Privilege

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:00 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Mr John Fee Mr John Fee Social Democratic and Labour Party 8:00 pm, 9th March 1999

I will deal specifically with that later in my address. I am surprised that Mr Robinson has framed his intervention in those terms. Throughout the report of the Shadow Commission it was made abundantly clear that the role and function of the Commission is to act on behalf of each Member of the House and the House as a whole. None of its members are there as party political representatives. No other similar body, as far as I am aware, has people there as party political representatives. The Shadow Commission has largely set aside party political demands in favour of getting the best services for the House and for individual Members as well as the best support services to allow them to represent their constituencies.

That goes to the very core of one of the problems we have with Standing Order 71. First, it steps outside the existing legislation and, without any real rationale, proposes to more than double the size of the Commission. We need to bear in mind that the Commission has to deal with much of the detailed administration of the House: staff complements; terms and conditions; grading and pay rates; management structures; and performance.

A small, tight team is infinitely preferable to a large number of people. The potential for running into legal, fair employment and staff problems is enormous. The House of Commons Commission has only six members and it has to deal with a staff of over 2,500, and a budget of approximately £370m. It is all about efficiency.

If we decide on certain pay or staffing which the staff do not like and so decide to strike, is it possible that we will get better agreement with 11 members representing party political interests or with six members representing the body of the whole House? We should be looking at these areas in more detail.

Inclusiveness is important, but the Standing Orders Committee has only looked at one method of achieving it. I do not believe that this is the best method. This proposal would add four or five people to the Commission but six people or 11 people could not do all the work required. The Shadow Commission has been looking at an alternative and that is the system that pertains at Westminster where most of the work of the Commission is devolved to House Committees.

Westminster has House committees for virtually every area of work. It has a finance and services committee; administration, finance, computer and communications committees; information committees; a range of domestic committees; a printing and publishing management group; a Whitley committee, which deals with trade unions and staff disputes; and committees for the refreshments department, the Serjeant-at-Arm’s department, the Library, the Official Report and the like. The work of the Commission at Westminster has places for hundreds of Members of Parliament.

The proposal by the Standing Orders Committee to expand the number of members of the Commission to eleven underestimates both the amount of work to be done and the possibility of devolving powers to committees of Members who could take on the administration of services in the House. The proposal vests too great a responsibility in too small a group, without taking account of what could be done to bring in other Members.

We have already established a committee to look after the gift shop. That may not sound like an important function but I understand that the gift shop in the House of Lords has a turnover of approximately £500,000 and a lucrative mail-order business. There is an entire management function in that area. We have proposals to establish a catering committee, one of the biggest and most important functions in the House of Commons.

For that reason, we will be voting against this Standing Order. I was remiss in not putting down an amendment. I suppose my party was remiss. We are not throwing this Standing Order out. We are merely using the only device available to buy time in order to consider a system of House committees which would involve all the Members of the House. The House of Commons Commission, which has an enormous budget and an enormous staff, only met five times in the financial year 1997-98, because the vast majority of its work was done in committees.

I recognise that I am rapidly running out of time. Perhaps we could ask the Standing Orders Committee to look at this again — I know we cannot refer it to them. We suggest that the Committee meets the shadow Commission, the board of management here, the Clerk of the House of Commons Commission and the officials in Scotland and Wales.