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The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
I beg to move
That this Assembly supports, in principle, the restructuring of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government; and calls on the First Minister and deputy First Minister to update the Assembly on the proposals for the creation of an Efficiency Review Panel, as announced on 9 April 2009, and to agree to implement a review and produce a report on the issue of the number of MLAs and government Departments in the next Assembly, within the next six months.
The Ulster Unionist Party is relaxed with the amendment, because we are confident in the merits of the motion; if the House thinks differently, we shall let it choose what it favours. Our purpose is to generate a worthwhile and open debate, secure in the knowledge that a very interested public is listening.
The debate is not about the spectacle of double-jobbing, family dynasties, dubious rents or the use of office-cost allowances, although, we hope that, as an inevitable consequence of direct action on our motion, an end to those controversies that highlight the issues will be in sight. Nor is the debate about MPs’ expenses, food bills, rent overpay, second homes, mortgages, capital gains, manure, furniture, moats or any other example of acute embarrassment to those who have been exposed by ‘The Daily Telegraph’. Such activities are a matter for another House to rectify.
However, we cannot escape putting our own house in order; the comparisons are too close for comfort. MLAs are under public scrutiny. Our motion is about reform and about workable economies of scale that are designed to combat wastage. The Assembly has moved on from the days when the Labour Government contrived to enlarge MLA numbers solely to bring in diverse groups. Those groups might have contributed, but that was then, and this is now in much better circumstances.
The Assembly feels a more settled place in which to conduct business. Even that arch-sceptic and font of wisdom Lord Morrow acknowledges the catchphrase that we are moving on, although, like many, I suspect that he reserves the right to question the precise direction in which we are moving.
That begs the obvious question: has the initial initiative of getting us here in the first place, through my party’s heavy lifting, been successful to the point that those of us who are here are prepared to move on? Are we ready to move on under our own steam and to restructure and reorganise at a pace with which the electorate can identify and support? Are we willing to act in the lifetime of this Assembly to scale down ministerial posts and reduce the number of MLAs? In other words, is that a serious proposition on which we are prepared to deliver?
Although the Assembly seems to be content to continue with British rule under devolved arrangements, I do not believe that the current Executive structure can last. I am less confident, therefore, that moving on will bring the Assembly closer to the real test of its maturity, which is the shift from an enforced mandatory coalition to a voluntary coalition. This moving on caper is all well and good when the direction is clear and not littered with obstacles and uncertainty, as has been illustrated recently in debates and votes on the economy, in heated debates on the Programme for Government and its budgetary outworkings, in stormy debates on the education stalemate, and by the fact that there is little prospect of agreement, so far, on the devolution of policing and justice.
Therefore, room should be made for us to reflect on the context of where we started, where we are now, and where we are going. We must be big enough to give due recognition to how far the institution has progressed in a relatively short time. Without the efforts of the original First Minister, the Executive and the Assembly of that time, and, indeed, without the giant step that was taken by the previous First Minister, Dr Paisley, and the stepping into his large shoes by the current First Minister, we would probably not be here. The thought of debating this motion, or any other motion, in the Assembly may well have been aborted some time ago.
That said, no one could fail to notice that as recently as Monday 11 May 2009, the deputy First Minister stepped in and dismissed proposals that the First Minister put forward for various efficiency measures, including streamlining the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), the merger of the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the post of Commissioner for Children and Young People, having fewer Departments and MLAs, and, lo and behold, the phasing out of double jobbing. The deputy First Minister described it as “shallow electioneering”.
Therein lies the problem with moving on, especially when Sinn Féin’s terms and conditions clearly do not fit in with those of unionists. The Assembly has a duty to deal with differences and to decide, urgently, how best to restore the integrity of our profession and win back large swathes of a disillusioned electorate.
Long before ‘The Daily Telegraph’ unfolded its graphic disclosures of goings on at Westminster, MLAs — and this affects us all — were subject to ridicule in the media, abuse on phone-in shows, which still happens, and newspaper comments such as, “It’s time some politicians voted themselves out of a job”, followed by, “One MLA for every 16,000 of us? We have let too many in already.”
Surely, those are reasons enough for the Assembly to agree to the Ulster Unionist Party’s motion and good reason to show the public that it accepts that top-heaviness is detrimental to our effectiveness. Those are good reasons to show that rather than talk the talk, we will make good on and implement the necessary improvements.
Only the motion conveys that message to the public, and only the motion calls for a review of the number of MLAs and a timescale to report within six months. The amendment fudges on the aspect of support in principle; in fact, it deletes the words “in principle” from the motion. It also shies away from a review of MLA numbers when such a review is crucial, and it removes any reference to a timescale. Is that it? Is the solution to simply put the matter off, as we do normally?
I acknowledge and welcome the OFMDFM commitment, which offers to establish an efficiency review panel to examine the Departments and to release a report later this year. It said that it would establish the panel after Easter — there is no sign of it yet — and produce the report thereafter. However, the OFMDFM proposal does not include a review of MLA numbers.
Our motion is specific in relation to Departments, MLAs and timescale. In my most persuasive manner, I urge Members to reconsider the motion and the amendment carefully and to think of the electorate who voted us into the House. We are not debating actual numbers. We will do that on another day, sooner rather than later. If Members want to support the amendment, they can suit themselves. However, such a move will stop short of decisive action, which is something of which we are repeatedly accused.
Support for the motion will signal to the public that our unanimous — I emphasise unanimous — intention is to provide an opportunity for them to vote for a new-look Stormont Assembly at the next election. That is the right signal to send, and only the Ulster Unionist motion sends that signal. We are public servants who are employed by the public, who expect us to act responsibly. The people deserve no less, and, ultimately, we will all be judged at the ballot box.
I trust that today’s debate will be open. Ulster Unionists will voice their opinion against the amendment and, if the House divides, will vote accordingly. Only the motion is worth supporting, and I commend it to Members.
I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “supports” and insert
“improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government; recognises the need for new scrutiny and oversight arrangements in the Assembly to permanently pursue such ends; calls on the First and deputy First Minister to make a statement on their proposals for an Efficiency Review Panel; notes the review procedures set out in the Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to provide for agreed changes to the institutions, including the size and structure of the Assembly and the institutional workings of the Executive; further notes the role of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee in examining such matters; calls on that Committee to accelerate consideration of changes to the number of MLAs and the number of government Departments; and asks it to produce a report this year outlining proposals which respect the principles of proportional representation and inclusion.”
Mr McNarry began by saying that he and his party colleagues were relaxed about the Assembly’s decision to support or reject the amendment before going on to outline several false arguments against the amendment. The motion seems to ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister to provide a statement that offers an update on their proposals for an efficiency review panel. The SDLP amendment also asks the First Minister and deputy First Minister to make a statement to the House on that matter.
The motion calls for a report to be produced within six months, whereas the amendment asks for a report this year, which is not much longer than six months. Mr McNarry suggested that the amendment did not outline a timescale and did not mention a report. The amendment states that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee should consider the matter and report this year. Mr McNarry said that the amendment does not address the number of MLAs. It does: the amendment specifically states that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee should introduce proposals on the number of MLAs and Departments. Therefore, all issues are addressed, and the timetable is accommodated.
We commend the amendment to the House because it is more considered and possibly more competent. We do not necessarily agree that the First Minister and deputy First Minister should make proposals on the number of MLAs. A review procedure was built into the Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, it is reflected in legislation, and supplementary review aspects were built in through the creation of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. Therefore, the amendment tries to reflect the statutory reality, the spirit of the agreement and the arrangements that are in place. We want to adhere to those proper review mechanisms.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister should not decide on the number of MLAs. The Assembly can competently address that matter through the Committee and can process the issue through a proper review mechanism under the terms of the agreement.
Remember that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have not even been elected by the Assembly, which is unlike the original Assembly. Therefore, it is not within their mandate to bring forward those kinds of issues. They have many other burdens and responsibilities, and lots of things have been promised to be delivered by that Department within months that have not actually been delivered.
I am not sure that the most positive way of promoting action on those significant issues is to remit them to the First Minister and deputy First Minister through some other panel. People want to see MLAs, politicians and parties taking a handle on those issues and not constantly handing things out to other worthies and experts. We are the people who are paid the money and the allowances and we should be working in the Assembly and using the structures that were created. If people went out of their way to create an Assembly and Executive Review Committee to deal with such matters, let us use that Committee for that purpose, rather than creating a Committee and then getting someone else to do the job. That is what the public complain about and that is what our amendment attempts to avoid.
We also recognise that it is not just the number of MLAs and Departments that must be considered. Yet again, the SDLP is making the point that improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Government requires some new Assembly scrutiny and oversight mechanisms. We hear a lot of talk about joined-up Government, but we do not get it.
One of the things that we do not have in the Assembly is joined-up scrutiny. We do not have a Committee that has the competence of a ways-and-means Committee or Budget Committee. The Committee for Finance and Personnel does not and cannot play that role. The Department of Finance and Personnel does not play a strong role in policing the performance and practice of Government expenditure across Departments: most of its time is spent on Budget-planning matters.
The SDLP has argued for the creation of new Assembly Committees with powers, not unlike the Public Accounts Committee, to call in people from Departments and non-departmental bodies. We suggest that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee considers the establishment of a Committee that is permanently dedicated to interrogating the cost of the Government. That matter should not be dealt with in a one-off review aimed at reducing the number of Departments, although many people would find that useful. There should be a Committee that is permanently dedicated to interrogating how much the Government and the Departments are spending on themselves. It would be better than the Public Accounts Committee, which can only look at things after the fact and tends to concentrate on secondary and tertiary budget holders. The proposed Committee would test what the Government and the Departments are doing with the big budgets and their big spending on themselves in real time.
Those are positive ideas, as is the idea of a Committee to permanently oversee capital expenditure across all Departments. We hear a lot of complaints about the effectiveness, performance and delivery of Departments. Even in the context of the headline figures for capital expenditure and the investment strategy, there are complaints about delivery.
The Assembly is supposed to be a chamber of accountability and a theatre of scrutiny and challenge. Let us use it as such, and let us equip it with the proper tools of scrutiny and challenge. That is why our motion identifies the need for new measures and mechanisms.
The SDLP does not shy away from the issue of the number of MLAs. When the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated, we proposed constituencies with five seats. On the basis that there were 18 constituencies at the time, that would have delivered 90 MLAs. It was essentially the intervention of the British Government that led to each constituency having six seats. Some of us preferred to add 10 extra seats to the proposed 90 in the first Assembly as a way of trying to accommodate the interests of some of the smaller parties that had been involved in negotiating the Agreement. However, a model of constituencies with six seats in each was chosen. That gives us an Assembly that, in most people’s estimation, is too large. The SDLP is in favour of reducing it, and has suggested ways of doing that; for instance, by reducing the number of Northern Ireland constituencies.
The Boundary Commission says that Northern Ireland should have between 16 and 18 parliamentary constituencies. If the number were reduced to 16, with five seats in each constituency, the number of MLAs would be reduced by 28.
That would give us a reasonably sized Assembly of 80 Members. If, after further reviews in Westminster, there are other reductions to the size of Parliament, the number of constituency seats here will be lower. If we continue to use parliamentary constituencies as Assembly constituencies, that will result in a smaller Assembly. Contrary to what the DUP and others alleged last week, we have put forward proposals in the past. We made those proposals during the review of the Good Friday Agreement that occurred before the talks at Leeds Castle, and we were meant to participate in a review at Leeds Castle, but that was aborted.
We do not shy away from the issue of reducing the number of Departments. It is strange that some of the parties that make a big deal about reducing the number of Departments are in the business of increasing the number of Departments to accommodate the devolution of justice and policing. We do not need an extra Department for justice and policing; we could easily rejig our complement of Departments and still fit in a Department of justice without adding to the existing 10. Other parties have decided that they want to go above 10, because they want to use the false and dishonest excuse of bypassing the d’Hondt mechanism. They are contriving to create more Departments while pretending that they are trying to reduce them.
We are serious about reducing the number of Departments. We do not necessarily buy the figure of six that many people have proposed. When we had six Departments here, they proved unwieldy and were not competent or convincing in dealing with the range of policy interests that faced them. Furthermore, we are not sure how much accountability those Departments would be subject to in the Assembly.
The Member is wrong. In an earlier submission, we made the point that devolution of policing and justice could and should be done in the way that I described. There was no reason why it should not have been done that way.
We recognised the way in which others were going. The amendment competently addresses all the issues that the proposer’s party wanted to deal with, but does so more convincingly, more properly and in a more orderly way. The amendment ensures that the Assembly will have responsibility for the matter and does not kick it somewhere else.
I support the motion in the genuine spirit in which it was moved. I oppose the amendment, because I remain to be convinced that the SDLP is genuinely committed to reducing the number of Departments in Northern Ireland and the number of Assembly Members, which is the thrust of the motion. That was betrayed by some of Mr Durkan’s comments. I welcome the fact that we are discussing the restructuring and streamlining of Government in Northern Ireland. Since the inception of the Belfast Agreement and the bloated political bureaucracy that was borne out of it in subsequent years, my party has been a lone voice in calling for a reduction in the number of Departments and Assembly Members.
Whatever reason there was for having six-seat constituencies and 108 MLAs, there was no justification for it in a country the size of Northern Ireland, just as there was never a justification for having 10, 11 or 12 Departments. There are relevant examples not too far away from here in other devolved regions. In Scotland, for example, MSP representation is significantly lower per head of population and, more importantly, there was a recent reduction in Departments from nine to six. That makes the point that a country with a population much larger than ours can function perfectly adequately with significantly fewer Departments.
The context for today’s debate is provided by the motion that was moved by my party and passed by the Assembly on 19 January 2009, which called on the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to reduce the number of Departments. I welcome the intention to create an efficiency review panel, which is the focus of Mr McNarry’s motion.
Having had that discussion, which is culminating in today’s debate, I am pleased that we have made some conversions. After being the lone voice for those years, it is gratifying to my party that there have been conversions, particularly from the parties of the two Members who spoke last. Those parties are principally responsible for the bloated bureaucracy that we are in the midst of today.
I also wish to make some general points concerning the value that my party puts on driving efficiency into the heart of Government. If one looks at our record since devolution, in only two years, there have been many examples of the DUP and DUP Ministers driving the principle of more efficient Government into the DNA of Departments and agencies. I accept that we are not alone in doing that, but we are the principal drivers of that reform agenda into the heart of Government in Northern Ireland.
In particular, I am thinking of some of the conclusions of the review of public administration (RPA), including the reduction of the number of councils from 26 to 11, the creation of the performance and efficiency delivery unit, and the creation of the strategic projects unit, which is fast-tracking major planning applications. Furthermore, we have been driving the general reform of the Civil Service, including the introduction of the three-digit contact number. Those and other examples of reform are driving more efficient interfacing with the public and the more efficient delivery of public services in general.
My party takes those things seriously, places value on them and is glad to see them happening. However, that is not where it stops, nor should it be where things end for Departments or MLAs. There is a convincing case for looking at bodies such as the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and other commissions, without turning our backs on the principles of equality or human rights. Although we value and cherish those principles, we do not cherish or value the need for separate commissions, and there are convincing cases for considering reducing their number in order to streamline them and save money.
We must all embrace the need to reduce the size of Government and to streamline structures in Stormont and elsewhere. When Mr McNarry proposed the motion, he said that there must be buy-in from other parties. I accept that point, but we must all embrace the whole agenda. In the past, there was posturing indicating that there would be no changes to accountability; however, we have seen changes.
Margaret Ritchie has learnt to her cost — or, rather, to the cost of £300,000 to the ratepayers — that changes have been made. We must all embrace this agenda and drive it forward, because the people of Northern Ireland are looking to us and demanding that we do so. I welcome the motion and I reject the amendment.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Chomhairle. I have listened closely to the contributions thus far, and my party remains unconvinced by the motivation behind the motion and that behind the amendment.
Political parties here were recently given an opportunity to show their commitment to efficient Government. All but Sinn Féin fell at the last hurdle, because Sinn Féin was the only party that, in the interest of achieving a number of objectives, including the efficient and effective delivery of services and value for money, went for the seven-council option in the RPA recommendations. That was a test for parties. Parties around the Chamber talked about how they would reduce the number of MLAs, Departments and bodies, but when they were given the option to do so, every party apart from mine went for 11, 15 or 17 councils, and some secretly hoped that the number would remain at 26. That was all about “saving our seats”.
I remember the debate in this Chamber during the Hain Assembly, as it was referred to. I left that debate, and the title that I gave it was the “save our seats” debate. I strongly suspect that when the elections are out of the road, the dust has settled and it comes to making the crucial decisions about how many MLAs will sit in the Chamber and how many Departments and advisers there will be, etc, some of the political parties that are making strong statements today about reducing bureaucracy and the number of Departments will fall at the last fence.
Another concern that my party has about the motion relates to the issue of electioneering. Indeed, Mr McNarry referred to something that Martin McGuinness said about that matter. That is, electioneering not only with respect to efficiencies, but with respect to the removal of equality, which goes to the heart of this institution and the institutions that are built around it. This institution is built fairly and squarely on the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.
There are still those on the Benches opposite and the Benches to my left who believe that they will hollow out the equality mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement; that they will return to the one-party-rule system of the old Stormont; and that they will not have to share power with their nationalist and republican neighbours. Until they realise that those days are over, and that those days did not serve anybody well, particularly the communities that they represent, we will continue to have these silly debates on reducing the number of Departments under the headline of efficiency savings.
The Member has made the same argument on previous occasions. Will he not accept that it is ridiculous to suggest that a reduction in the number of Departments and Assembly Members is in no way compatible with what he has already said? In any of those circumstances, we all accept that Northern Ireland cannot be governed in the way in which it was 50 years ago. There can still be protections for minority rights within Northern Ireland. That is not incompatible with a reduction in the number of Departments and Members.
It can be done, but I regret that the statement from Mr Hamilton is not backed up by actions from his party colleagues. I still strongly suspect that there are those in the DUP who believe that they will someday return to this institution in a one-party state, and they will not be protecting the rights and entitlements of the minority — “minority” is the wrong term — of communities within this society. They are not interested in sharing power with their nationalist and republican neighbours.
As long as Sinn Féin is the second-largest party in the Executive, and, therefore, the largest nationalist and republican party in the Executive, we will not accept any measures that undermine the entitlements of the Good Friday Agreement.
As regards the number of Members, 108 is excessive, but remember where we have come from and how the agreement was formatted. We are a society coming out of conflict. We have had 30 or 40 years of terrible conflict, and the reason that we have so many MLAs is to allow alternative voices to represent communities from all sectors of our society.
What price democracy? Due to the reports of the expenditure of those in the British Westminster system who are abusing the responsibility placed on them by the public, some members of the public are quite rightly asking whether they can afford those politicians. I ask this: can we afford not to have politicians? Politicians have brought normality to this society. Not all politicians are milking the system. Not all politicians are living the high life. Not all politicians entered public service out of self-interest. There are those, and I rank my colleagues among them, who have entered politics because they believe in the supremacy of politics. Politics can and should be used to bring positive change into people’s lives.
We are in our first real term of the institutions that were established under the Good Friday Agreement.
I support the motion and thank the proposers for bringing it today.
As Members are aware, the Alliance Party has a wide agenda for reforming these institutions and the system of government in Northern Ireland. We have been very open and honest about that. We are on record as having sought progressive changes to these institutions, whether through designations in the voting system; moving from a mandatory to a voluntary coalition system; or making better use of the North/South institutions to bring maximum benefit to the people of Northern Ireland. The size and nature of government in Northern Ireland has to be included in those considerations.
It goes without saying that the number of Departments is a critical part of that agenda, as is the number of MLAs who sit on these Benches.
I want to address several issues. I will reflect on the contribution of the previous Member who spoke. I agree that we should all acknowledge that our current arrangements exist for a reason. Our political structure was designed to fulfil the needs of a peace process rather than to promote good and efficient government. Members need to acknowledge that. It is much harder to sustain the argument that that political structure should remain for ever and a day because of its genesis.
We have a large number of Members to ensure inclusion and proportionality. However, inclusion and proportionality can be achieved if the number of Members is reduced by altering the number of constituencies so that there are still multi-Member constituencies. That is one option. The number of Departments can also be inclusive and proportional provided one either examines the management of government — a different level of proportionality may be required in the transition period — or puts more emphasis on the role of opposition within good government. The latter option is preferable because if those outside Government are properly funded and supported to challenge Government, that is good for all people.
The efficiency review panel has already been tasked with examining the number of MLAs and Departments, and it has been stated that it will report by the end of the year. Therefore, our only question about the motion is what it adds, apart from a month or two to the reporting time; there is little more to be gained from it. However, we have no objection to that report being published sooner rather than later.
We also have no doubt that a reduction in the number of Departments would produce financial savings; no one could argue against that. However, I am wary that the level of financial savings has, at times, been significantly overstated. I think, for example, of the scant attention that is given to the cost of division, which runs at around £1 billion per annum and is, by comparison, a black hole in the Budget. Therefore, perspective is required.
The main objective of reform of the institutions is to deliver more effective and efficient government, which we have made clear on several occasions. With the planned reduction in the number of councils from 26 to 11 as part of the RPA, it is logical that the number of Departments be reviewed. Councils will take on additional powers, including some that reside with central Departments. Therefore, there is an opportunity for efficiency. The new Health and Social Care Board and the proposed education and skills authority will also take work away from their host Departments, which presents opportunities for efficiencies.
It can be argued that 11 Departments mean that there is distribution of responsibility on many issues, which can lead to little being achieved. I could give a number of examples, but the one that exercises me also exercised the House recently: school-age childcare. A number of Departments claim an interest in that issue, but no one will take responsibility and address the problem.
Although we support the motion, we favour a focus on the more effective and efficient delivery of good governance. It is important that we do not overstate the potential financial savings, but we acknowledge that significant financial savings could be made.