Assembly Business: Suspension of Assembly

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at on 14 October 2002.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I have received a letter this morning from the Secretary of State, which I wish to draw to the attention of the House. The letter reads as follows:

"It was with very great regret that I made the Order this morning to suspend the devolved institutions, in order to stabilise the current political situation in Northern Ireland. It was clear that it was not for the time being possible to hold together an inclusive power-sharing Executive, since the confidence within the community necessary to underpin it had broken down.

I nevertheless believe the Agreement has delivered enormous benefits, and points the way forward. I and my ministerial team will seek to carry forward good government within Northern Ireland, to work with the Irish Government and the parties to restore the devolved institutions as soon as we can, and to remove once and for all concerns about the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means.

I want to work energetically in the economic and social fields. Though I hope suspension will be brief, there are serious problems to be dealt with and it would be wrong to approach matters simply as caretakers. We shall be assisted in taking forward our work by the great achievements that have been brought about by all parties within the Assembly and the Executive. Despite the tensions, I believe the period of devolution was a great success, and a great advance for Northern Ireland. We must get back as soon as possible to the position where people in Northern Ireland are in charge of their own affairs.

With suspension, the Assembly and its committees can no longer meet. We hope suspension will be short-lived, and we recognise that Assembly Members should, for the time being, continue to represent their constituencies.

But I believe there will be an expectation that the removal of the Assembly’s core functions must be reflected in arrangements for it and its members. We envisage therefore, with effect from next month, bringing Assembly members’ salaries back to the levels that applied in the shadow period (adjusted for subsequent increases to date). We shall immediately review closely the allowances that are paid in the Assembly, from the same perspective. Assembly members will for the present continue to have access to Parliament Buildings in order to carry out their constituency work.

But if the Assembly remains without its essential responsibilities, I believe these arrangements will need to be looked at again. We shall therefore review the situation by the end of the year.

The Assembly has an impressive record to its credit. It has been a forum for dialogue between different strains of political thought unprecedented in Northern Ireland, but essential to our future. Its committees have been diligent in holding the Executive to account, to the great benefit of public administration. If I may say so, I admire the way you yourself have guided it in the most tense situations.

We must do all we can to restore it, and the other institutions, as soon as possible. I shall do all I can to bring that about."

Signed by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Mr Speaker, will you inform the House if the Secretary of State talked to you about the letter before you received it? If that was not so, is it not a matter of grave discourtesy on his part that he did not consult with you at the same time as he consulted with party leaders?

With regard to payments, can you confirm that the salaries of those who are now employed in party offices and registered as workers in those offices for Members of the Assembly will remain as they are, just as your salary will remain as it is?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

First, the Secretary of State has written to me, and I fully expect that there will be further communication. However, in direct response to the Member’s question, it was obviously much more important that he communicate with party leaders, such as the Member, rather than with me.

As for concerns about the other arrangements to which the Member refers, I cannot immediately be more clear than by recounting the content of the letter from the Secretary of State. However, it may be of assistance if I remind Members of some of the administrative arrangements that there were during the previous suspension, particularly in view of some of the Member’s comments. Clearly there were some misunderstandings, and I shall seek to correct at least one of them.

In the previous situation, direct rule was reinstated and the Assembly remained in place, but the Assembly and its Committees could not meet or discuss business, and that included the Assembly Commission. Those in elected office — Ministers, junior Ministers, Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons of Statutory Committees — could no longer hold office. Participation in the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council was suspended. No functions could be conferred on implementation bodies. Members had the usual access to Parliament Buildings. Members’ salaries were abated to the pre-devolution level, and the office cost allowances were also abated to the pre-devolution level, but not until the end of that financial year. Party allowance was reduced, and that obviously might have a bearing, if it were mirrored on this occasion, on the Member’s question about party staff, but I cannot give him any more enlightenment on that, for I have none myself. The childcare allowance was not affected.

The Speaker continued to hold office, but his salary was abated to pre-devolution level, and I have no expectation that it will be otherwise on this occasion, Dr Paisley — unless, in your conversation with the Secretary of State, you put a good word in for me. I am sure that it would carry heavily, were you to do so.

Committee Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons did not receive salaries for their work in chairing Committees. Some other measures, which were not referred to in the correspondence from the previous Secretary of State, came into place during the last suspension. The Secretary of State discharged the functions of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. During the first six months of suspension, legislation on devolved matters was made by Order in Council at Westminster, and the Secretary of State could extend that for periods of up to six months if required. Northern Ireland Departments discharged their functions subject to the direction and control of the Secretary of State, who appointed NIO Ministers to look after those functions.

As far as the Assembly Commission was concerned, its functions were taken over directly by the Secretary of State, and the accounting officer gave account of his functions in that way.

I trust that that gives some clarity on some of the important matters that the Member raised.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Will you clarify the standing of the intergovernmental bodies? There has been a lot of discussion in the press about their going from strength to strength, but from what you read out, I think that such progress will be limited by the agreement, which I have been reading this morning.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

As far as I am concerned, my responsibility is to try to interpret the procedures of this House. Interpretation of the agreement goes well beyond that. Foreseeing what politicians at any level may choose to do subsequent to today would require a prophet not a Speaker, and, as the Member knows, I am not even the son of a prophet; I am just the son of a poor Presbyterian minister.

Photo of Mr Cedric Wilson Mr Cedric Wilson NIUP

It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State did not take the opportunity to declare the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly Committees in the House. That might have given Members an opportunity to explore with him his comment on the Assembly’s great achievements. It would be interesting to hear how he would manage to put a spin on that. In the wider community, there is cause to acknowledge the great achievement that will occur when the House rises and we see an end to the terms of the two Sinn Féin Ministers. It is cause for rejoicing in Northern Ireland

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Can I ask the Member for his point of order?

Photo of Mr Cedric Wilson Mr Cedric Wilson NIUP

Thank you very much.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I am not sure that there is a ruling for me to give in regard to that.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Is it not ironic that on the day on which the House loses any power that it has, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party is more concerned about wages and salaries than he is about contributing to the welfare of our senior citizens who need personal care?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member must know that what he is raising is not a point of order and that this is not an opportunity for debate.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

My point of order concerns a matter that is recorded in Hansard. During the debate on the review of post-primary education on Tuesday 8 October, the Minister of Education, in reference to the transfer test, said:

"Change will be implemented in a considered, planned manner, which will lead to real improvement in our education system.

The current arrangements, including the transfer test, must remain in place until decisions are taken on the post-primary review." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 18, p386].

Within days of that statement, the Minister acted arbitrarily to abolish the 11-plus. Given his conduct, his approach to the House and his subsequent actions, is that a matter to which the Speaker should give some consideration?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

There will be an opportunity during Question Time to ask questions of the Minister. It remains to be seen whether what he said to the House, as recorded in Hansard, or what he said outside the House, as recorded and advised by the Member, turns out to be the more accurate.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson DUP 12:15, 14 October 2002

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Perhaps you can inform the House whether the Executive ratified the highly cynical and highly political decision that the Minister of Education made to declare a date for the ending of the 11-plus tests. Indeed, was that decision even raised with the Executive? If not, does the Minister have the power to make such a decision without reference to the Executive, the Committee for Education or the Assembly, as was promised by the First Minister? Is this yet another example of the First Minister breaking a promise, particularly as he told us that IRA/Sinn Féin Ministers would be held to account and would not be able to act as despots?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. Again, if the Member chooses, he may ask appropriate supplementary questions of the Minister this afternoon if the opportunity arises for him.

I cannot say whether this was a matter agreed by the Executive or not; that is clearly a matter for the Executive. As far as procedure is concerned, it is my understanding — but no more than that — that developments of policy in this way are matters to be agreed by the Executive. The Member may care to raise directly with the Minister or other Members of the Executive whether the Executive agreed that matter.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 24 July the Secretary of State told the House of Commons that he would not hesitate to send to you — and, through you, to the Floor of the House — a motion to exclude Sinn Féin/IRA if it was found to be in further breach of its obligations. Has the Secretary of State raised that possibility with you, and have you discussed it?

Furthermore, can you say whether any other parties have signed the exclusion motion, currently in the Business Office, designed to exclude IRA/Sinn Féin? Outside the House, I hear parties, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party, calling for the exclusion of Sinn Féin/IRA, but they are failing to take the steps necessary to have the matter debated in the Assembly.

Can you tell the House whether the matters listed in today’s Order Paper that relate to legislation will be taken today despite the Assembly’s imminent suspension? When suspension kicks in, what will happen to the legislation that is currently in Committee or on the Floor of the House?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

The Member will understand that it is not normally my practice to describe discussions that have, or have not, taken place with the Secretary of State, Ministers or parties. It is wise for me to maintain that practice. However, I can confirm to the Member and to the House that I have not received any such exclusion motion from the Secretary of State under the relevant section.

I am not aware precisely which Members have or have not signed a motion on the No Day Named List, but that is a matter of public record; there is no obstruction to any Member looking at the names that are on that list. If they wish to make account of that, that is entirely a matter for themselves, not for me. It would, of course, be a matter for the Business Committee, and the Member is familiar with the procedure to be followed if there are sufficient signatures.

With regard to today’s Order Paper, we shall simply proceed in the normal fashion, as is proper, and, I trust, in the normal congenial, courteous and parliamentary fashion in which Members have been in the habit of conducting themselves here, doing our duty and fulfilling our responsibilities to those who have elected us.

I am considering the matter of the status of legislation, but I have one or two comments to make. First, it seems to me that during the period of suspension, it will be as though that legislation were frozen, and it may well be that at the end of suspension, it can be taken up as though the clock had stopped and were restarted — in the same way as is the case with ministerial office and chairmanship of Committees, and so forth. However, I say that not as a ruling, because I want to look more fully at the legalities of that. If we find ourselves in that circumstance, I will then give an appropriate ruling.

However, it is entirely possible that the Secretary of State and his Ministers may regard some of the legislation that has been partly carried through the Assembly as being of such importance, timeliness or urgency that they may choose to convert it into a form in which it might suitably be passed at Westminster, should they acquire the necessary parliamentary time. If that were to be the case, naturally such legislation carried through would fall when the Assembly returned. That is the best guidance I can give the Member and the House in the present circumstances.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

Mr Speaker, while you cannot confirm which parties or groupings have signed the motion sent in by my hon Friends and other Colleagues, can you confirm that no other political party has forwarded an exclusion motion to you, for example, the Ulster Unionist party?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

As far as I am aware we would not be very accepting of further motions coming forward on something that was already there, unless there was very good reason for doing so. I am not aware of anything else having come forward. However, it is not a matter that I checked before coming into the Chamber. The Member is entitled to checked the matter in the Business Office.

Having received no further requests for points of order, we will move to the next item.