Assembly Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP 11:45 am, 9th March 1999

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.