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 Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:45 am, 9th March 1999

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 believe it is necessary, and this brings me to the heart of our opposition to the amendment.

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.