Assembly Standing Orders

Part of the debate – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 9th March 1999

Yes, who would do that? I just wonder.

I cannot believe that I am the first to suggest that any such thoughts are creeping into the minds of any of the Members in that corner, but that is precisely what this scrutiny committee would be used for. Those parties that were not content with being able to scrutinise the business of the North/South Ministerial Council through the relevant departmental Ministers could use it to undertake a wholesale challenging exercise. It could be used, for instance, to frisk the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on details concerning the Civic Forum. That would be an abuse of such a scrutiny committee.

We have agreed the necessity for particular functions to come within the remit of the Centre and that they be subject to dedicated scrutiny committees. For example, we have already agreed that that is what must happen with the issue of equality, and when we talk about a scrutiny committee on equality, we mean one that is additional to the special committee on conformity with equality requirements referred to in the Standing Orders. That is a separate procedural device provided for in the agreement that allows for equality readings for measures that are before the House. So we are talking about there being two different committees in respect of equality issues, not none as some seem to be suggesting.

There are other issues — the Public Service Office, for instance — that rest with the Centre. The scope of that office, which will be encompassed within the Economic Policy Unit, may also be a very suitable function for a scrutiny committee to address.

Many of those functions are being placed at the Centre, not so that they will be with David Trimble and Seamus Mallon but because the Centre, rather than a specific department, is the appropriate place for them.

That does not mean that the ministerial responsibility for those functions cannot be discharged by other Ministers. The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 specifically provides for the fact that a Minister, including the First and Deputy First Ministers, can delegate authority in respect of certain functions to another Minister or junior Minister — functions in relation to women’s issues, for instance. There is nothing to prevent the First and Deputy First Ministers designating another member of the Executive Committee to be responsible for women’s issues.

Under The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, it can be done. The allegation has been made that all these issues are left with Seamus Mallon and David Trimble alone, but that is not the case. Junior Ministers can be appointed, and there is nothing stopping the First and Deputy First Ministers appointing other Ministers to discharge certain discrete elements of these functions. In that case, the idea of one scrutiny committee dealing with, potentially, a number of Ministers simply would not stand up. This deserves further and deeper consideration than the amendment allows.