Review of the Legislative Process

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 26 February 2002.

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Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 12:00, 26 February 2002

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the findings contained in the First Report of the Committee on Procedures: ‘Review of the Legislative Process in the Northern Ireland Assembly’ (Report 01/01R) and endorses the recommendations contained therein.

A Cheann Comhairle, as Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures I am pleased to bring the report to the Assembly’s attention. This is the first report by the Committee on Procedures, and it details the Committee’s findings of its inquiry into the progression of legislation, which is a fundamental function of the Assembly. I shall begin by explaining briefly why the Committee decided to undertake the inquiry, and then look at how it was conducted. I will then outline some of the key findings and recommendations.

The impetus for the review was provided by the Committee’s concern that the initial procedures for the progression of legislation were not as effective as they should be. For example, Standing Orders provided only for a single amendment stage. That is considerably less than the procedures in other legislatures. The Committee decided in October 2000, therefore, to initiate a review of the procedures.

The Committee began its review by seeking evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals. On behalf of the Committee, I extend our gratitude to those organisations and individuals who took the time to respond in detail to our request. I also thank the Assembly’s legal adviser, the examiner of statutory rules and the Assembly research services for their assistance to the Committee in its deliberations. The research service provided an excellent paper, which highlighted practices in several other places. Although one has to be careful in drawing comparisons, particularly considering our unique political system, the research was extremely useful in helping the Committee get a feel for what could be introduced here.

The Committee built on that knowledge by visiting the Scottish Parliament and the Dáil. The Committee also took the innovative step of establishing a subcommittee to undertake the evidence sessions of the inquiry and to prepare a draft report for the full Committee’s consideration.

I will now outline some of the key recommendations contained in the report. Before doing so it will be useful to inform Members of some of the main findings of our research, as they underpin our recommendations. My Colleagues on the Committee will address some of the other recommendations. I wish to point out that all the parties represented on the Committee agreed the recommendations in the report.

Members should note that we are in our infancy as a legislature as regards the progression of legislation, in comparison to the Oireachtas or Westminster. From devolution until the end of the 2001 session, 21 Bills progressed through the Assembly. Of those 21 Bills, 17 went through Committee Stage. What is more striking, however, is that eight of the 17 were considered by the Committee for Finance and Personnel.

This means that the majority of Committees have had limited experience of taking the Committee Stages of Bills, and a couple have yet to take one. The upshot is that Statutory Committees, in their submissions to this review, were limited in what they saw as the need for improvement.

However, the need to lengthen the Committee Stage from its present 30-calendar-day limit was common to all submissions. The Committee found that, to the end of the 2001 session, the average length of Committee Stages was nine weeks, which is substantially more than 30 days.

Another key finding of our research was that the pre-legislative consultation between Departments and Committees was not as thorough as it should have been. The Committee found that, on almost half the Bills that went through Committee Stage, there was no pre-legislative consultation, although this may be explained by the fact that a number of Bills were introduced in the immediate aftermath of devolution.

There is evidence that in most instances the level of pre-legislative scrutiny with Committees is improving. However, it is still disappointing to note that at the end of the last session no Department had submitted a draft Bill for Committee consideration as part of its pre-legislative consultation. This point about pre-legislative scrutiny is important, and I will come back to it later. It is at the core of our recommendations.

Another key finding of the Committee was in relation to human rights and legislation. The Committee found that, to the end of the last session, the Assembly had not considered it necessary to establish an Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements as provided for in Standing Order 33, nor had it found it necessary to formally refer a Bill to the Human Rights Commission.

I have outlined some of the key findings, and now I would like to turn to the recommendations. The first, and perhaps the most far-reaching, of the Committee’s recommendations pertains to pre-legislative consultation. The need for pre-legislative scrutiny is emphasised in the other legislatures that we examined and in the guidance for progressing legislation issued to Departments by the Executive.

One of the key recommendations in a recent memorandum from the Modernisation Committee at Westminster was that Ministers should make greater use of draft Bills as part of their pre-legislative consultation. Our recommendation concurs fully with that. However, rather than incorporating it into Standing Orders at this stage, and in order to give the Executive time to introduce it, the Committee advises that the recommendation be incorporated into the protocol on information and evidence which is to be agreed between the Executive and the Assembly.

The Committee recommends that this practice be reviewed after 12 months. If it has not been implemented to a satisfactory level, the Committee will look at it again with a view to making it a requirement under Standing Orders. I cannot overemphasise the importance of this recommendation, because it underpins the rest of the Committee’s report.

The Committee is firmly of the view that if Ministers and Committees thrash out their concerns on proposed legislation before it enters the Assembly, this is likely to lead to quicker and less contentious passage through the Assembly. While the Committee acknowledges that for a variety of reasons this will not be applicable to all types of legislation — for example, Budget Bills — it should apply to the majority of proposed legislation.

Another important recommendation centres on the minimum time between each stage of the legislative process. Currently that period is five working days. However, immediately after devolution it was seven working days; it was only later reduced to five. In its submission to the review, the Executive recommended that this should be further reduced to four working days. Their argument was that it would allow Stages of a Bill to be considered in consecutive weeks. Under current sitting arrangements, if a Consideration Stage is held on a Tuesday, then the Further Consideration Stage cannot be held until the following Monday week, which is some eight working days later. The Executive contended that this unduly delays the process.

As part of its consideration of the proposal the Committee looked at the practice in other legislatures, particularly in Scotland, where there is usually a minimum of two weeks between the Stages of a Bill. The Committee also noted that if the period between Stages were reduced, less time would be available for Members or Committees to table amendments to a Bill. The Committee believes that this is an important consideration, particularly where the Bill is complex or contentious. The Committee acknowledges that as the legislative programme increases, we may have to revisit this issue with a view to increasing the number of days, perhaps reverting to the original seven days.

However, the Committee agreed that the time period between the Second Stage and Committee Stage could be removed. At present, when a Bill passes its Second Stage it is referred to a Committee to report on it. The Committee cannot consider the Bill until five days have elapsed, yet the 30-day period within which a Committee has to report starts the day after the Second Stage is completed.

Therefore Committees have to report within 25 days. Several Committees highlighted this difficulty in their submissions and recommended that the time period be removed. The Committee on Procedures shares this view and recommends that the five-day rule be removed from Standing Orders.

It is not surprising that Committees think that the 30-day period does not allow sufficient time for adequate scrutiny of legislation. The Committee on Procedures found that the average length of the Committee Stage was nine weeks — more than twice the length of time provided for in Standing Orders. Several recommendations were made to the Committee as regards how long Committee Stage should be: some want 90 days; others want 60. The Committee again looked at practice elsewhere and noticed that time limits were generally not set for the Committee Stage of a Bill in other legislatures. The Committee found it telling that when visiting the Dáil to view the Committee Stage of a Bill there, it had been under consideration for nearly a year.

We examined what Assembly Committees were doing at Committee stage, and why that work was taking longer than the 30-day period set out in Standing Orders. The Committee noted that other time restrictions considerably shortened the period. One of these, which I have already referred to, is the five-day period between Second Stage and Committee Stage, which reduces the overall period to 25 days. Printing a report can take more than a week. The net result is a Committee period lasting about 20 days. Faced with this reality, Committees automatically feel that they need an extension of the Committee Stage. Under the arrangements for tabling motions, a request for extension has to be tabled at an early stage in the period.

Having considered the administrative arrangements alongside the views expressed in the Committees’ submissions, the Committee on Procedures agreed that the length of the Committee Stage must be changed. An important consideration when determining how long the Committee Stage should be was our view that the submission of a draft Bill as part of the legislative consultation should become the norm. If that were to happen, less time would be required at Committee Stage. The Committee felt that 30 working days would be more appropriate. In effect this would give Committees six weeks to consider a Bill. When this period is set alongside the existing administrative arrangements for calculating the 30-day period, this is a more realistic timescale.

The Committee considered whether Committees should be given the power to amend a Bill. As Members know, Committees cannot amend a Bill during Committee Stage. Committees are required to report on the Bill to the Assembly. If it so wishes, a Committee can table amendments at Consideration Stage. Again, drawing from the work of other legislatures, we noted that their Committees had the power to amend Bills during Committee Stage. The legislature would then have an opportunity to consider the amended Bill at what they called "Report Stage."

The Committee on Procedures asked representatives from OFMDFM for their views on the matter. Although they advised us that the Executive had not taken a view, they thought that Committees could not legally be given power to amend a Bill. This view contrasted with advice from the Assembly legal adviser, who suggested they could. The Committee requested legal opinion from OFMDFM, but it has yet to respond.

During its discussions the Committee recognised some of the historical reasons why Committees should not be given such a power. Most notable was the concern that a Committee could amend a Bill at Committee Stage in a way which might not reflect the wishes of the Assembly, and might be difficult to undo at Consideration Stage. However, the Committee on Procedures considered it strange that Committees could initiate legislation, yet could not amend it.

There was some support from members of the Committee on Procedures who recommended that such powers be given to Statutory Committees and the Committee of the Centre. However, the overriding factor was the view of the Statutory Committees themselves: there is no demand from them to be given such authority. Given my earlier comments about the relative inexperience of Committees in this area of work, perhaps this is not surprising.

Another factor that explains why the Committee on Procedures is not recommending such a change is the recognition that any such change would have massive procedural implications, particularly for the role of the Minister at Committee Stage. It would also have knock- on effects on the purpose of Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage. Therefore the Committee recognised that before it could recommend changes to Standing Orders it would have to undertake detailed consultation with the Executive and Committees. This is an important issue and one that will come to the fore again as Committees get more experience in the legislative process.

There has been some debate about accelerated passage in the House. The current procedure that allows Bills to progress through the Assembly in 10 days is normally used for Budget Bills, and Standing Orders refer specifically to this.

At present, the requirement for accelerated passage is the leave of the House. The Executive recommended that the use of accelerated passage should be reduced. In its consideration of the matter the Committee reviewed the existing provisions of Standing Order 40, which require a Minister to explain to the House the reason for a delay and the action he or she has taken to avoid having to use accelerated passage in future. The infrequent use of the procedure convinced the Committee that it was unlikely that the accelerated passage provision would be further misused. The Committee considered that the requirement for leave was unnecessarily high when set against other major decisions of the Assembly, which have a lower threshold. Therefore the Committee recommends that the requirement be reduced from leave of the House to cross-community support.

I will now move to the Committee’s consideration of the human rights aspects of the legislative process. The Human Rights Commission gave a detailed submission to the Committee and made some proposals for changes to Standing Orders. The main thrust of the Human Rights Commission’s submission was that the current legislative procedures in the Assembly are not sufficiently robust with regard to human rights scrutiny. The commission recommended that a new committee on human rights and equality be established to examine and report on all human rights and equality issues coming within the competence of the Assembly. That would include compatibility with relevant human rights standards. It was proposed that the committee should replace the current Ad Hoc Special Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements and that one of its key functions should be the scrutiny of all Bills before they proceed to Royal Assent to ensure that they comply with human rights and equality standards.

In its consideration of this, the Procedures Committee took evidence from Prof Stephen Livingstone, head of the School of Law at Queen’s University, and Brice Dickson of the Human Rights Commission. The Committee also received advice from the Assembly’s legal adviser.

In its analysis, the Committee broke down the key recommendations of the commission. It decided that a new committee on human rights, with a broad mandate to investigate human rights issues, would not come within the remit of an inquiry on the legislative process, so the Committee focused its consideration on a proposal for a new committee which, in simple terms, would clear all legislation before it proceeded to Royal Assent. On that, the Committee examined the existing procedures to identify the checks carried out for human rights scrutiny and was encouraged by the level of such scrutiny on proposed legislation. That information is given on page 16 of the report. We noted that at each stage of the legislative process there are checks and balances to ensure that legislation complies with human rights standard. It was clear that the Human Rights Commission was not aware of how far these checks go.

We also considered the Committees’ current scrutiny role of proposed legislation. As Members will appreciate, Committees play an extremely important part in the Assembly’s commitment to human rights proofing of draft legislation. That can happen at any stage of the process, but particularly at both the pre-legislative stage and at Committee Stage where questions can be raised with the Minister about the human rights implications of a Bill. Indeed, on a number of occasions, Committees have asked the Human Rights Commission to give evidence during a Committee Stage on the human rights implications of a Bill. That led the Procedures Committee to conclude that the commission had, in some way, underemphasised the important role that Committees have played in the process. The Committee also agreed that, in fulfilling the role set out in the Good Friday Agreement for scrutinising legislation, it was important that Committees should continue to consider all implications of a Bill, including their impact on human rights. The Procedures Committee was concerned that if this responsibility were passed to one Committee alone, human rights could become marginalized. It is not easy to pick out a provision of a Bill and ask that it be considered in isolation. The overall content of the Bill has to be taken into account, so there is a concern about referring a whole Bill to a human rights committee for scrutiny. In addition, with reference to the Committee’s first recommendation about pre-legislative scrutiny, it would be impractical at that stage to refer matters to a new human rights committee.

It is for these reasons that the Committee does not agree with the Human Rights Commission’s proposal for a separate human rights committee to consider all legislation, and a human rights committee with a general remit for inquiry is an issue for further debate in the Assembly.

I will turn now to look at the Further Consideration Stage. At present, Further Consideration Stage is a re-run of Consideration Stage. In their submission, the Executive suggested that this was unnecessary and that the plenary Assembly should not be asked to vote again on an issue that had been voted through, perhaps the previous week. While the Committee considered it important that Members should have a second opportunity to amend a Bill, it agreed that there would be benefit in refining.

The Committee agreed with the Executive that the Assembly should not be asked to vote again on clauses or schedules that have already been voted to stand part of a Bill. The Committee recommends that Standing Orders be changed to amend the Further Consideration Stage so that debate and vote at that stage would be limited only to any amendments tabled. The Assembly would not be asked to vote that clauses or schedules stand part of the Bill.

I remind Members of what I said at the start of this debate. The Assembly is in its infancy as regards progressing legislation. Therefore its procedures should be subject to continuous review. Many issues will require further consideration in the future — for example, Committees amending Bills. There are other issues, which we have not touched upon yet, such as Private Member’s Bills, Committee Bills and Private Bills. As yet we have no experience to judge the efficiency of our procedures on those issues. However, I assure the Assembly that we will examine them.

Photo of Fred Cobain Fred Cobain UUP 12:15, 26 February 2002

I congratulate the Committee on Procedures for examining this highly complex issue. It is right that our procedures should be subject to regular review. We are learning all the time, and we need to be able to make adjustments to the way in which we do business. The review undertaken by the Committee on Procedures is particularly important to the Social Development Committee.

The main issues considered by the Committee on Procedures, listed in paragraph 2.2.1 on page 5 of the report, go to the heart of the way in which legislation is handled in the House, and they should be of interest to everyone.

I am confident that members of the Social Development Committee will welcome recommendation 4.7 of the report, which states that

"as part of the pre-introductory consultation on proposed legislation, Ministers should submit a draft of the Bill for Committee consideration".

That recommendation speaks for itself. Statutory Committees have scrutiny, policy development and consultation roles, and they undertake the Committee Stage of relevant primary legislation. It is therefore entirely sensible that they should be involved with legislative proposals as early as possible.

I am even more confident that the Social Development Committee will welcome the recommendations in paragraph 2.5.3, which calls for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to present to the Committee on Procedures

"a new procedure for the progression of parity legislation".

That issue exercises the Social Development Committee greatly in respect of both primary and subordinate legislation.

The Social Development Committee has been faced with two recent examples of so-called parity legislation, which have been handled in completely different ways. First, the House was told that the Social Security Fraud Bill was parity legislation, and it accepted that statement. It did so, because, although social security is a devolved matter, it is important to maintain parity with the rest of Great Britain. Therefore a Social Security Fraud Bill which mirrored the GB provisions was brought before the House.

The Bill was denied accelerated passage and, as a result, was subject to scrutiny at the Committee Stage. We were told of the desperate financial implications of going our own way on social security matters. We were warned that we would have to find moneys from the Northern Ireland block grant, and that we would have to set up a separate, expensive, local social security computer system. Those warnings were used as justification for maintaining the parity principle. Some people described it as

"what is good for the people of Birmingham, is good for the people of Belfast. What is good for the people of Liverpool is good for the people of Londonderry."

Have we ever been given a definition of parity? Neither the Social Development Committee nor I believe that we have. I submit that the Committee and the House need a clear definition of parity.

The second example relates to the programme of welfare reform which is being pursued by the Government in Westminster. Last year they published proposals for a Tax Credit Bill. We were told that the reforms applied across the United Kingdom. We were told that it was a matter of parity.

However, because taxation is not a devolved matter, the provisions that relate to Northern Ireland were contained in a Westminster Bill. They were not subject to scrutiny by the Assembly.

Other issues must be resolved. The Minister for Social Development recently told the Committee that he intends to bring a housing support Bill to the Assembly soon. The Bill has its origins in legislative reform generated at Westminster. Is it parity legislation? The Committee has also become aware of two other pieces of primary legislation to deal with social security and state pensions, which presumably come under welfare reform. Are they parity Bills? What are the chances that the case will be made for accelerated passage for those Bills, despite the Assembly being told that accelerated passage should be used only in exceptional circumstances? Is it right that Standing Order 40 provides the opportunity for accelerated passage?

I do not share the confidence of the Committee on Procedures that, if the requirement of unanimity is reduced to cross-community support, the procedures will not be abused. There will be circumstances in which someone may seek to abuse that facility, while arguing forcibly that that is not the case. Perhaps parity will be central to that argument.

Accelerated passage and the welfare reform Bills might be the best way to proceed. The Assembly has little choice but to accept the arguments for a single system. That may be because of the threat that exists to the Northern Ireland block grant; because of the cost of introducing a separate computer system; or because people in Belfast should be treated the same as people in Birmingham.

When those arguments are considered, they eventually come full circle and return to the vexed question of the effect that it may have on the block grant. The outcome may prove to be a combination of all three scenarios. A paper on parity would be welcome — especially were it to offer a full and clear definition of parity. Proposals on how to deal differently with parity legislation would also be welcome, especially if the Committee on Procedures examined it carefully in order to ensure protection of the rights and responsibilities of the House, and that the House and its Committees do the job that they are required to do under the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

If the Assembly is sincere about its responsibilities to the electorate, that issue must be sorted out once and for all. However, it must be done carefully. I contend that where it is clear that Northern Ireland will be legislated for by Westminster, especially in situations in which powers have been devolved, there is a case for procedure to be put in place. That procedure should enable the relevant Secretary of State to consult formally with the Statutory Committees at an appropriate time. Moreover, the procedure should ensure that the Assembly’s input is acknowledged and valued.

I welcome the acknowledgement that Committee Stage invariably takes longer than is currently provided for in Standing Orders. In my usual spirit of helpfulness, I wonder if the Committee might consider an alternative amendment to Standing Orders, which would provide for the length of Committee Stage to be determined by the House when a Bill is first introduced. I should have thought that, given the pre-introductory consultation stage envisaged and proposed by the Committee on Procedures, and knowing the size and potential for controversy of any Bill, it would be possible for the Committee to indicate, perhaps at First Stage, how long might be needed to conclude Committee Stage. That might help the Assembly’s business planning.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

There are only a few Members left to speak, most of whom are members of the Business Committee. I propose that, rather than suspend now and resume the debate later, we complete the debate and, by leave of the House, suspend until after lunch.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:30, 26 February 2002

I found Mr Cobain’s contribution interesting. The question of the definition of parity legislation must be looked at in more depth. It is something that the Committee on Procedures should consider further.

I thank Mr Conor Murphy for his chairmanship in relation to the report and for steering the Committee through difficult areas. I also thank the Committee Clerk and the other staff who assisted with the report.

I support the motion. This investigation of the legislative procedure has been a learning process for all the Committee members. As the Chairperson said, we are in our infancy as regards progressing legislation. As the legislative programme increases, there will undoubtedly be further procedural quirks or problems that will need to be fully addressed.

The report highlights — and this should be recognised — the fact that legislation is progressed relatively quickly and efficiently through the Assembly. It also demonstrates that the institutions that emerged from the Good Friday Agreement work, and that Committees do an effective job in scrutinising draft legislation.

I will concentrate my remarks on the Committees. It is important that Members’ attention be drawn to Committees and their roles. Current Standing Orders do not permit Committees to amend Bills. I am puzzled as to why that is so. Like many other Members, I suspect that when the Act was drafted there were some, perhaps understandable, fears about how Committees might behave — or even misbehave. Indeed, there may have been some concern as to whether they would actually work at all.

There may also have been a fear that, if Committees were given the authority to amend Bills at Committee Stage, Bills would be amended beyond recognition and, effectively, shredded. The recent argument over the Local Government (Best Value) Bill puts that fear to bed. That Bill is an example of how a Committee can use its influence to radically alter a Bill without actually having the power to amend it.

As the Chairperson of a Statutory Committee, I am particularly interested in that issue. On the Committee’s visits to the Oireachtas and the Scottish Parliament, I was extremely impressed by the scrutiny role that Committees play in those legislatures, especially the way in which Committees are able to go through a Bill line by line with the Minister and seek his explanation for any provisions that they wish to query.

As such meetings are in public session and are recorded, it is possible for the public, and indeed other Members, to see the Minister’s intention behind any particular provision of a Bill. It could be compared with the practice of using probing amendments, which are designed to get the Minister’s explanation of a particular clause on public record without really intending to amend the clause. This Assembly might benefit from the use of probing amendments.

Having observed the practice in other places, the Committee and I gave much thought to giving Assembly Committees the authority to amend Bills. I can see no substantive reason why Committees should not be given that authority. I find it strange that the Committee for Regional Development, of which I am Chairperson, can, at least in theory, bring forward its own legislation, yet it cannot amend legislation.

However, I accept that any such change would require more in-depth consultation, particularly with the Executive, because a change at Committee Stage would have implications for the role of the Minister.

Equally, further consultation with each Committee would be necessary. As the Chairperson may have mentioned, the Committees have made no substantive demand for that. That will change, perhaps not during this Assembly mandate, but probably in the next, when I hope that we will all be present — [Interruption].

I note that everyone endorses that hope. In time, Committees will exercise fully the responsibility and authority that was given to them by the Good Friday Agreement.

In conclusion, the importance of the review should not be underestimated. It has shown that as a legislature we are fulfilling people’s expectations and hopes by legislating to the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

I apologise for not having been present to move a motion in my name, due to circumstances far beyond my control.

The report details a thorough review of the current procedures for progressing legislation through the Assembly. The Committee discussed at length the key issue of parity legislation. As a former Minister, I know only too well the need to introduce legislation quickly. That applies to social security legislation, as the unique position of social security, child support and pensions is specifically recognised in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Section 87 of the Act recognises the long-standing principle of parity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in social security. Although social security is still a devolved matter, it has already been agreed with the Secretary of State responsible for social security that there will be a single system for social security, child support and pensions.

Although I acknowledge that parity is necessary and that the speedy introduction of such legislation is important, I am mindful of the relevant Committee’s important statutory obligation to scrutinise legislation. A balance must be reached, but we are not at the stage of recommending a method of achieving that. That is unfortunate, because the matter should be addressed sooner rather than later. It is a complex issue, which is not as straightforward as sometimes it seems. For example, there are differences of opinion on the exact meaning of "parity". Its meaning is clear to me, but I cannot speak for everyone in the House.

Parity covers the content of the legislation as well as the timing of its implementation, and we must ensure that the people of Northern Ireland do not lose out. That is a real danger, particularly when we deal with social security legislation, and, as Minister for Social Development, I made that point when I sought accelerated passage for the Social Security Fraud Bill in 2001.

I recognise that there must be further work and consultation on the issue, and I am pleased to note that OFMDFM will present draft procedures to the Committee on Procedures.

I urge that that be done sooner rather than later, so that the draft procedures are not lost in the ether of OFMDFM.

Photo of Mr Billy Hutchinson Mr Billy Hutchinson PUP

I congratulate the Committee on Procedures on the substantial amount of work that it did when considering the issue. All the answers have not been provided, but a start has been made that will focus people’s minds. The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development addressed most of the issues that I intended to address, and I support his remarks.

Several points reinforce his comments. Problems exist with parity and accelerated passage. The situation is different in the Scottish Parliament. People claim that that is because Scotland has a Parliament, while Northern Ireland has an Assembly. However, if Westminster legislation is to be introduced in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament is informed in advance. Members of the Scottish Parliament have the opportunity to consider the legislation ahead of time — we do not have that opportunity. We are told that, because of parity, we cannot consider legislation until Westminster has agreed it.

I agree with most of what Mr Morrow said, except for his comments on balance. We must make decisions. If the balance problem concerns content or timing, we must decide whether we accept parity and allow legislation to have accelerated passage, or whether we believe that we should have an input earlier in the formulation of legislation rather than at its introduction. The argument is not whether people in Liverpool and Londonderry should get the same money. The argument is about content, and what it could mean for people’s human rights.

The best system for us would be for the Assembly to consider the legislation at the beginning of the drafting process. If we decide that Westminster should introduce legislation for the entire United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, we should allow the Committee for Social Development to bring other Bills before the House to be scrutinised. Social security legislation is important, but members of the Committee for Social Development are frustrated because they have little say in its creation. They cannot scrutinise it — it is presented to them as a fait accompli. That must change or else we must concede that, as we accept parity, we accept that Westminster will not introduce legislation here that contains inequalities.

I accept what Conor Murphy said about the amount of legislation that is introduced. However, we should exercise caution when saying that the Assembly’s infancy is the reason for the paralysis. We must examine the paralysis that exists in introducing legislation and find a cure for it. We should not make excuses about the Assembly being in its infancy. We must consider how best to introduce, scrutinise and implement legislation so that the people benefit from it.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I support the motion and endorse the report. The report marks the end of an extensive review of the procedures that we use to progress legislation in the Assembly. As we enter the final year of the current Assembly mandate, it is only right that we evaluate how efficient our procedures are for progressing the basic function of the Assembly, which is to legislate.

The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures highlighted several important recommendations in the report, and I support that. One of the report’s most practical recommendations relates to the Further Consideration Stage of a Bill. The Committee on Procedures introduced that stage in July 2000 in response to concern that was expressed — which the Committee shared — that the Assembly should be given a second opportunity to amend a Bill.

Prior to that, there was only one opportunity — at Consideration Stage — to amend legislation. When the Further Consideration Stage was introduced, it was recognised that an evaluation of its effectiveness would be required at a later date. This was primarily because it was agreed, with good reason, that Further Consideration Stage should be a rerun of Consideration Stage. Again, that was introduced when this legislature had considered only a few Bills.

It must be acknowledged that Further Consideration Stage has not caused any procedural problems to date. However, the Committee concluded that it could foresee a scenario where, in an extreme case, a clause or schedule of a Bill could be voted in at Consideration Stage and voted down at Further Consideration Stage. The net result of that would be, at best, bad legislation, and, at worst, defective legislation. The Committee agreed that the loophole must be closed.

To address the situation, the Committee recommends that Further Consideration Stage should apply only to those clauses or schedules that are subject to amendment, and that only amendments should be voted on. That clause or schedule should not be voted on again, because it has already been voted to stand part of the Bill. This is consistent with the practice in the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament.

Although the Committee focused most of its attention on the procedures relating to primary legislation, it made a couple of recommendations on subordinate legislation. The main recommendation addresses what the Committee considered to be a gap in Standing Orders, and concerns the Assembly’s ability to scrutinise all subordinate legislation, which is the practice in the Scottish Parliament and Westminster. Under existing Standing Orders, some pieces of subordinate legislation are not subject to Assembly scrutiny, despite the fact that they have considerable powers. For example, the Examiner of Statutory Rules’ recent report highlighted the way in which some subordinate legislation that is not subject to Assembly scrutiny has the power to modify primary legislation. I am sure that Members agree that we should not continue to allow that scenario to exist.

In its consideration of the matter, the Committee agreed that the Assembly should have the power to scrutinise all legislation. It is important, as a legislature, that we have procedures in place that allow the closest possible examination of subordinate legislation.

I endorse the report and commend it to the Assembly.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 12:45, 26 February 2002

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank Members for their contributions. I am pleased that they agree that the Committee’s review of the legislative process was worthwhile. It was certainly timely because many of the frustrations with, and anomalies in, the system have been highlighted. We have dealt with some of those, and we will have to set our minds to dealing with others.

Members made it clear that some of the issues that were raised in the report will be revisited in the near future. The issue of parity legislation, which was highlighted by Fred Cobain, Maurice Morrow and Billy Hutchinson, is recognised by the Committee as being a complex issue. The Committee accepts that the matter will need to be examined in greater detail in the next few months. There is a divergence of opinion on the issue, and it will not be easy to reach agreement, but we must set our minds to it.

Fred Cobain made several points about parity legislation, the first of which concerned the definition of "parity". That is useful, but I am not sure whether it is the responsibility of the Committee on Procedures or the Committee for Social Development to pursue that. He also proposed a formal mechanism for the scrutiny of Bills that are passed in Westminster. I am sure that the Committee Clerks have noted those points, and we must check which Committee is responsible; it may be the Committee on Procedures. However, if those Bills would normally fall to the Social Development Committee, it may be a matter for it to pursue. The proposal for such a mechanism would find widespread sympathy here.

I echo Maurice Morrow’s call for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to bring forward proposals to deal with parity legislation sooner rather than later — that is important.

Fred Cobain mentioned the abuse of the accelerated passage procedure. Parity legislation is important for the people that we represent, but there are even bigger decisions that do not require such a high threshold as obtaining the leave of the House, and, therefore, the Committee proposes to lower the threshold so that all that is required is cross-community support. Of course, that system can be abused, but so can any voting procedure. We propose that one Member’s objection to a Bill should no longer be sufficient to stop that Bill from gaining accelerated passage — in order for it to be blocked, there must be some substantial disagreement.

All procedures and Standing Orders are continuously reviewed; we regularly get suggestions from Committees, Members, the Executive and the Speaker as to changes that they feel are necessary, and we revise them on that basis.

Fred Cobain suggested the idea of an alternative amendment to allow the House to decide the length of the Committee Stage, Bill by Bill, depending on how complex the Bill is considered to be. Although we have not heard that suggestion before, we received a variety of opinions on how long the Committee Stage should be. We have changed the length from 30 calendar days to 30 working days — in effect, six weeks.

The Committee that has dealt with the most legislation is the Committee for Finance and Personnel. Some Committees have never dealt with the Committee Stage of a Bill, and we will happily revisit the matter if this proves not to work properly. If Members find that there is a case for deciding on the length of the Committee Stage of each Bill as it proceeds through the House, we will re-examine the matter. One of the most important points in our report is the need for proper pre-legislative scrutiny — an idea that Mr Cobain supported. The introduction of draft Bills to Committees would considerably reduce the length of time needed at Committee Stage.

Alban Maginness spoke about our consideration of the suggestion that all Committees should be given the authority to amend Bills. Although he, and others, have supported that suggestion, the fact that no Committee has asked for that facility to be granted to it was a key factor in our decision not to introduce that suggestion at this stage. However, as with all the other proposals, we are willing to revisit it should a case be made, and I am sure that that will happen as Committees gain more expertise in dealing with Bills.

Billy Hutchinson mentioned the paralysis in legislation coming forward from OFMDFM. The Committee’s report does not attempt to provide any rationale or excuse for that. Many people share Mr Hutchinson’s frustration. Our report examines the legislative process with a view to making it more efficient, although not necessarily with a view to speeding it up. The report deals with the period between the introduction of a Bill and its Final Stage. The delay in introducing Bills for a First Stage is outside the remit of this report, but it is an issue that many Members have raised and will continue to raise until those delays are dealt with effectively.

David McClarty mentioned Further Consideration Stage and subordinate legislation. A recurring theme throughout the inquiry was that the Executive wanted the process of legislation speeded up and the Members wanted it slowed down — although it may not have been expressed as bluntly as that. We did not try to strike a balance because that is not our job. Our job is to represent what we believe are Members’ interests and those of the House as a whole, and that means providing proper scrutiny. At times, we heard contrary views from the Executive and the Committees in general. The proposals make for more effective scrutiny of legislation, which is our role here. Their purpose is not simply to facilitate the rushing through of legislation; it is also to facilitate more effective scrutiny on behalf of the electorate.

As I said at the start of the debate, the procedures for the progression of legislation need to be kept under continuous review. As Committees gain more experience in the scrutiny of legislation, they will be better informed to identify necessary improvements to procedures. The Committee on Procedures firmly believes that the recommendations identified in its report will improve the efficiency with which we progress legislation in the Assembly. However, the cornerstone to any improvements will be more detailed and meaningful pre- legislative consultation. I ask the Executive to take on board that point and to do their utmost to ensure that Committees are consulted at an early stage about proposed legislation. Where possible, a draft of the Bill should be submitted to the Committee for scrutiny.

I conclude by endorsing the report to the Assembly and, once again, by thanking all who took time to participate in the debate. I also want to place on record, as Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures, Committee members’ appreciation for the Clerk and staff of the Committee, and all who assisted in the production of the report.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Before putting the question, I remind the House, for the sake of clarity, that the passage of this report, insofar as it calls for changes in Standing Orders, will not implement changes in Standing Orders. They will have to be implemented at a subsequent stage and, of course, voted through on a cross-community basis.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the findings contained in the First Report of the Committee on Procedures: ‘Review of the Legislative Process in the Northern Ireland Assembly’ (Report 01/01R) and endorses the recommendations contained therein.

The sitting was suspended at 12.57 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) —