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 Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP 12:15 pm, 9th March 1999

Mr Durkan did his chances of being promoted permanently to the Front Bench a power of good with that speech in support of his Deputy First Minister. I am glad to follow him and Mr Weir also, who forecast the future in a very interesting fashion.

However, he makes the point — the serious point — that we are setting the permanent Standing Orders for this Assembly and we want to get them right, no matter which party they may apply to. When Mr Robinson introduced the debate, he said that in many cases Standing Orders can be used for a party and against a party, and we do not know what circumstances may prevail on any given day.

We want to try to draw up Standing Orders that are in the best interests of individual Members, and I think that this whole issue of scrutiny goes to the very heart of the Assembly’s work. Many of today’s speeches were all for scrutiny. In his speech, Mr Durkan was saying "yes" to scrutiny, but the rest of it seemed to be a list of arguments as to why, at this stage, we should not proceed to set up a scrutiny committee.

Reference was made to the fact that as a result of the amendment which was agreed yesterday, Ministers can and will be called before Adjournment debates and will be asked to give answers. However, that is no substitute, in any shape or form, for having a scrutiny committee; all a Minister will do in a 10-minute speech will be to answer the points raised. Members need to be able to call them or not, as the case may be. They need to have the opportunity to call for papers, to examine in detail what Ministers are doing, and that includes the First and Deputy First Ministers.

I was surprised to hear Mr McFarland and Mr Haughey suggest that we should leave this to allow for consultation with the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). This issue has been kicking around for some time. On 11 February, it was raised in the committee, and it was raised again on 19 February when the joint Chairmen undertook to discuss it then with the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). On 26 February, it was reported that it had not been possible to arrange a meeting with the First Minister (Designate), but that some discussion had taken place with the Deputy First Minister (Designate). He had agreed that there was a problem and said that his officials would look at it.

To date we have had no comeback from the Office of the First Minister (Designate) and no further comeback from the Office of the Deputy First Minister (Designate). We have now reached 9 March — one month on — and this is an issue which is extremely important to the workings of this Assembly. Almost all-party concern was raised about it at the committee meetings. Some Members are understandably reluctant to have this issue taken back to the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate), the ones most affected, or to wait for a committee on procedures to deal with it.

I am concerned by Mr Ervine’s suggestion that we should await legislation. It is true to say that when the Government wish to do so, they can rush legislation through very quickly, but there are other occasions when they do not wish to move so quickly, and in these instances it can be very difficult to find a slot in the timetable.

We have been given to understand that this legislation has been gone through with a fine-tooth comb by Mr Trimble’s party and by Mr Hume’s party, so we are understandably suspicious about how the problem arose in the first place. It cannot be by pure accident that we have been left with this problem, with the fundamental job of scrutinising the Executive functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers being messed up in this way and with no proper legislative base to enable us to set up a statutory committee to deal with the matter.

I do not believe that this was an omission or a mistake. I do not believe that parliamentary draftsmen would be guilty of this kind of mistake had they been correctly guided. We need to try to fill this gap and not simply leave it in the hope that in due course things will be put right. We have the opportunity now to try to do something. Perhaps this is a stop-gap measure, but it is better than having nothing at all in place. This is what Members need to consider.

I was staggered at the attitude of Sinn Féin. It was vehement on this issue in the committee but today one of its members said that she did not wish to support the amendment. The amendment states that a committee, such as the one proposed by Mr Robinson, shall exercise the same powers and perform the same functions as a Statutory Committee. Sinn Féin’s attitude is that we should wait until we get a Statutory Committee.