Northern Ireland Act 1998: Report on the Operation of the Provisions of Parts 3 and 4

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 27th April 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker 12:00 pm, 27th April 2015

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP 12:15 pm, 27th April 2015

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the report of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on the Operation of the Provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 [NIA 242/11-16], made under Section 29A(3) of that Act.

The context to this report is that the Northern Ireland Act 2006 inserted section 29A into the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provided for the establishment and function of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. Section 29A(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee:

"shall, by no later than 1 May 2015, make a report on the operation of the provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of this Act — (a) to the Secretary of State; (b) to the Assembly; and (c) to the Executive Committee."

Since its establishment in May 2007, the AERC has reviewed and produced 10 reports, all of which are outlined in this report. In its approach to each of the reviews, the Committee has sought and considered the views of political parties in identifying what issues to review. Among those that it was asked to consider were the size of the Assembly; the number of Departments; the appointment of the Minister of Justice; the petition of concern mechanism; a review of d'Hondt and the introduction of an official opposition; and gender equality. All those issues were covered in the reports produced by the Committee. There were a number of additional issues that the Committee was asked to consider but they did not fall under its remit and were, therefore, not selected for review.

While the Committee did not always reach consensus on the issues considered in the 10 reports, it did set out in detail options for how they could be taken forward, with individual party positions on each issue. The outcomes from these reports recently proved useful in the negotiations leading to the Stormont House Agreement. For example, the Committee's views on how the number of Northern Ireland Departments could be reduced have been broadly reflected in the nine future Departments as announced by OFMDFM in March. Similarly, the extensive consultation and analysis undertaken as part of the Committee's reviews of d'Hondt, community designation, provisions for opposition and petitions of concern provided a useful foundation for the corresponding provisions in the Stormont House Agreement.

Preparing this report was an opportunity to reflect on the number of issues the Assembly and Executive Review Committee took forward. However, it is equally important to recognise the complexity and depth of some of those reviews — such as policing and justice — including reviewing the arrangements for the appointment of a Justice Minister, the establishment of an opposition, a review of the petition of concern mechanism and the reduction in the number of Departments and Members of this Assembly.

It is worth noting that the Committee commissioned 53 Assembly research papers as part of its inquiries. That was testimony to the extensive scrutiny that the Committee undertook to ensure that the parties represented on it were fully informed of the complexities of implementing institutional reform in Northern Ireland and were aware of models of best practice nationally and internationally.

The Assembly and Executive Review Committee requests that the Assembly notes its report on the operation of the provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the 1998 Act to the Secretary of State, the Assembly and the Executive Committee.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the report. Indeed, I thank the Chair for his work over the last number of years, particularly on the reports that have been carried out recently. I am the only person who has remained on the Committee since its inception in 2007. I do not know what that says about the Committee or me, but I have been there from the beginning.

There have been 10 reports carried out, and the Chair outlined a number of them. For me, some of the reports were very informative, and the witnesses who came to the Committee and the number of research papers — as the Chair outlined, there were 53 — provided a lot of information and insight into how the Assembly could work better. I do not think that any of us is naïve enough to not know that some of the discussions we took part in would need some sort of political leadership as well. So, as we take things forward, we know that.

The first two reports that the Committee carried out were into the transfer of policing and justice powers. I was on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and then sat on the Justice Committee when it was established, which no doubt provided an excellent insight into the many agencies and the many different aspects of the Justice Department that were coming here for the first time.

The last report of the Committee was on women and politics, which perhaps was not strictly within the confines of Parts 3 and 4 of the Act. Again, as we go forward, that will be seen as the basis for more discussion. Everybody in the Committee accepted that the Assembly — indeed, politics in general, not just here — could do more to encourage and make provision for more women in politics. That report will be seen in that context.

I commend the Chair and, on behalf of Sinn Féin, thank the Committee staff and the researchers for the valuable work they have carried out over a long number of years. Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

These reports are the product of a number of years' work and research, and I place on record my thanks and the SDLP's thanks to the Committee's Clerks and staff for their tremendous work.

As the previous Member said, the Committee's work involved working through the detail of the operational needs of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act. Two reviews that I was recently involved with and would highlight were on petitions of concern and women in politics.

Voter disillusionment with Stormont, and with politics more generally, has been highlighted to me, and many in this House I am sure, in the past few weeks as we have been canvassing. Those two reviews, in particular, could help to lay the foundations for voters to start becoming more engaged with our politics.

Petitions of concern were designed to protect the equality and human rights of vulnerable groups. It is clear that the use of petitions of concern has evolved over the life of the Assembly, and they are being abused in a capricious manner. I am sure the discussions between the parties on petitions of concern will be aided and informed by the review so that we can ensure that petitions are employed in accordance with their originally intended purpose. The SDLP believes that any change in the use of petitions must be reflected in standing orders and be adjudicated upon.

The debate on the review into women in politics and in the Assembly nicely coincided with the celebrations for International Women's Day. It was heartening to hear cross-party recognition and support for the need for more women to enter politics. However, most people want to know what we are going to do about it. It is important that we implement the recommendations of the review and help to encourage and support more women to run for election in Northern Ireland at all levels.

I am confident that the vast work undertaken by this Committee will prove to be beneficial to the House and the Secretary of State. Thank you, Mr Speaker; that was short and sweet.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I just heard Mr Rogers say, "Short and sweet." Hopefully, he was referring to his contribution rather than me.

[Laughter.]

We note the publication of this report from the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. As the report outlines, a number of the elements of the provisions in Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are subject to discussion following the Stormont House Agreement. The report concludes that the Committee will revisit a number of the issues following the publication of the its report and points to the fact that other aspects were subject to discussions flowing from the Stormont House Agreement.

One of the areas that the Committee will revisit is the method of election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is no secret that the Ulster Unionist Party would like to see a return to the joint election of that office. The Stormont House Agreement contained a reduction in the number of Executive Departments. Ultimately, it is the Ulster Unionist Party's view that we could have seen a more ambitious reduction in the number of Executive Departments. Nevertheless, we welcome the small number arrived at. <BR/>While the detail has still to be worked out, we hope that the reallocations of functions and services will see an Executive that greater serves the people of Northern Ireland.

Breaches of the ministerial code have been raised more than once during this mandate, and we believe that this is an area that needs looked at as well. As Mr Rogers also referred to, petition of concern is an area that is obviously in need of serious reform. However, this is one of the areas that is currently being reviewed as part of the Stormont House Agreement, so I await the outcome of that.

We note that the conclusions in this report point to the work that has already been carried out in relation to a number of provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the work that is still to be completed following the Stormont House Agreement as well as by the independent financial review panel. We will no doubt come back to many of these topics in the future, either to welcome work completed or to investigate what more is needed to be done, but we note the contents of this report today.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

The Chair laid out in his introduction why we were required to make this report. At the time, it seemed to come out of the blue and was a bit of a surprise. I would not say that we nearly overlooked it, but we did not have an awful lot of time to deal with the issue, not that that should be much of a handicap in the case of this Committee because, frankly, we never spend much time on anything.

I want to pay tribute to the staff, two of whom are here, Claire McCanny and Kate McCullough, and Jim Nulty. They have dealt with this as best they can, producing mountains of information for us. The Committee, once it got into its deliberations, met three times. I fancy that we may have spent between an hour and a half and two hours in total on this supposedly very important review, and here we are today. I suppose that we could say that we have fulfilled the obligation under the original Act to review the operation of Parts 3 and 4. We have done that, but, beyond that, there is not an awful lot to say about this.

The Chair, in his introduction, said that these reports provide a lot of valuable input for future deliberation, such as the Stormont House Agreement. I will go through some of the paragraphs in the report. Paragraph 31 notes the point that parties were asked to identify if there were any further provisions that they wanted to have included in the report. I think that that was the third time that they had been asked, and nobody ever came up with any suggestions. Paragraph 49 is on the operations of 16A and 16C of the Act. The Committee acknowledged that a consensus could not be reached. Paragraph 60 of the report states that, on the initial ministerial provision in relation to the Department of Justice, there was no broad consensus. Paragraph 67 states that the Committee could not reach consensus on the size of the Assembly. Paragraph 82 states that the Committee concluded that there was no consensus at that time on d’Hondt. Paragraph 90 refers to the Committee's report on petitions of concern and states that the Committee did not achieve consensus for most of its conclusions.

Mr Speaker, I do not want to query the clock, but was my time perhaps added to that of the Member who spoke previously? I do not think that I have been going for four and a half minutes. If I have, my time is nearly up. That will be a relief to some people.

Finally, Mr Swann referred to paragraph 102. It states:

"The Committee agreed that it would return to consider issues relating to the nomenclature and the method of election of the First Minister and deputy First Minister ... the Ministerial Code" —

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

You have an extra minute. There was a difficulty with the clock. I will keep you right.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Thank you. Paragraph 102 continues:

"and Strategies relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots ... following the publication of the Committee Report".

I respectfully suggest that the best thing that this Committee could do is to conduct a review of its own operations. It is a farce, and it really needs to be beefed up and tidied up. We continually do not reach consensus on virtually anything. I will leave it at that, but I will support the report.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

I am little bit confused by Mr Lunn's concluding remarks in that he almost excoriated the report and welcomed it at the same time, but such is the Alliance Party.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

No, I think that we have had enough.

I welcome the report, such as it is. A series of issues have been at the heart of matters since 1998, through the St Andrews Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement, about the size of the Assembly and the number of Departments. Those issues concentrate the minds not just of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee but of the wider public. In all seriousness, I share some of Mr Lunn's concerns, because, at times, the Committee goes over ground that we all know that we will not reach consensus on. Some critics need to make up their minds — I am not referring to Mr Lunn — in that, if we do not agree, they criticise the politicians and members of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and, if we do agree, they criticise us for agreeing. They cannot have it both ways.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Newton] in the Chair)

There is no doubt that there is a gulf of difference between some of the parties, not least between Sinn Féin and us. The Committee went through the motions to arrive at the conclusion that that gulf exists. I do not see that there is a problem with admitting that to be the case. However, the Stormont House Agreement — AERC investigated some of the issues therein — addressed some of those matters, and we are very slowly, at a snail's pace, doing likewise. I do not accept the pace, and many people outside do not accept it either. I want us to make much more significant progress. What people want to say to us, and what I say today, is that we need to get on, address the matters, get the size of the Assembly down, get the number of Departments down and let us see a fully functioning, effective Government in place.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 12:30 pm, 27th April 2015

Here we are again: another non-report from what is, effectively, a non-committee. Indeed, things are so bad this time that the report is reduced simply to reciting its previous ineffective non-reports. I say "non-committee", because the truth is that this Committee is either not permitted or is incapable of original thought. It can act only when it gets the nod from the politburo to agree something. Otherwise, its sole function is to meet occasionally, just long enough to drink the free coffee, take the free scones, dip into the free fruit platter, and, after 25 minutes, the meeting is over. That is the essence of the Committee.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. We do not get free scones any more.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

So this Committee made a decision, Mr Lunn says, that, such was the level of embarrassment over its inactivity, it would no longer have free coffee, free scones and free fruit. Well done, this Committee. Is that the product of all this? Yes, sadly, it is.

The Chairman, of course, who obviously has much more important things to do than even to be here for the debate — after his three-minute speech, he disappeared from the Chamber — told us that the Committee had had 53 research papers. It has had 53 fig leaves, because it has done nothing with any of them.

The real significance of today is that, after eight years, we reach the point at which the DUP promise of 2007 stands naked and exposed. The 2007 promise, after St Andrews, was: this was for the gullible, of whom there were many, and you will have to swallow mandatory coalition for eight years, but we have got it into the Act. We have amended section 29, and, in 2015, at the end of eight years — two terms — there will be a review to end mandatory coalition. What a con. Yet Members like the Chairman, who is on record as saying that he would rather go back to his shop than go into government with Sinn Féin, were gullible enough to swallow it, to peddle it and to pretend about it. Today he is probably out canvassing for a candidate who in 2005 took David Trimble's seat on the basis of a manifesto saying that mandatory coalition with Sinn Féin was out of the question. Ever since, he has spent his time propping it up, as has the Chairman.

The great promise for the gullible was this: at the end of eight years, there would be this mighty review. We were not tied into mandatory coalition in perpetuity; it would be magicked away by this review. That was the disingenuous nonsense that was peddled and that many of the gullible fell for, while some who wanted to fall for it grasped it with both hands. That is the truth and the reality of what happened in that party. Today, the truth and the reality of this fatuous, vacuous report is that it does not even amount to a row of beans — fitting, perhaps, given the disingenuous nature of the false promise so grandly made.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Mr Allister referred to some people as "gullible". I may be one of those gullible people, because I voted yes for the Good Friday Agreement, and I would vote yes again for the Good Friday Agreement.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The gullible I was referring to were those who voted no to the Good Friday Agreement, who pretended that they were still against the Good Friday Agreement and who were then so gullible to believe that they could endorse the Good Friday Agreement and, through this review mechanism, nonetheless get it changed. They were the gullible I was referring to; not you, Mr McCrea — you were always gullible.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

Mr McCrea has an extra minute.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I am trying to work out whether it is better to be wrong or gullible. I am grateful for the clarification, because the challenge I put out then, and the challenge I put out now, is this: give me an alternative. Give me something else that you can do that will get agreement. What the Member just outlined is that we have a stalemate. We cannot get any form of agreement; there will be no change. The reason why this is a complete waste of time is because there is no agreement.

I can accept some of the arguments that the honourable Member put forward about what he would like to see achieved, but the truth of the matter is that he will not see them achieved. The most serious issue that we have had — I think it is at paragraph 102 — is what to call the First Minister and deputy First Minister. That is what pervades every single political thought in this place and in this country; it does not matter what your policies are on anything. It all comes down to this: "Let's keep the Shinners out" or "Let's try and get the Shinners in". All other policy debates are reduced to nothing.

I checked to see what this Committee does, and I noticed that paragraph 12 on page 4 says that it agreed to write to all the independents and the party leaders on 27 January —

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

This is on a slightly different point, but does the Member not agree that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP has fulfilled the promises of the Good Friday Agreement, which many people voted for because it was a better way forward, and that a sectarian headcount suits both parties?

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

I am happy to develop that point. That is what was promised in 1998. We were going to try to put the past behind us and move forward. We were going to try to work our way through things. The history of this place has proven that it has not been possible to do that. Of course, people go through a few sham fights; they pretend that they are having disagreements, and then they go off and talk to their core electorate. Meanwhile, nothing, nothing, nothing gets done. This Committee will not produce any reports because this Committee cannot produce any reports.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we are getting to a stage where you find that the contempt in which the political process is held in this part of the world is palpable when you talk to people on the street. If we do not deal with that, we will not get people buying in to a political process, a peace process or any other process.

We have far more important things to deal with, whether they be youth unemployment, trying to get the economy going or trying to sort out our stance on gay marriage or any of the other issues that affect us. Let us have proper debate. But, do you know what? We cannot. Everything comes back to whether we will have Marty as First Minister or whether we will ensure that he is not.

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, the clock is not working, so I do not know where I am with time.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

The clock is accurate.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

Sorry. I beg your pardon.

The key question that I want to ask is this: why can we not have some proper debate? I heard Mr Campbell say that we should reduce the number of MLAs. Fair enough, let us reduce the number of MLAs, but maybe we should look at changing the boundaries. Why do we have to follow the 18 parliamentary constituencies? That is the debate, and I am happy that some discussion may happen on that. We certainly need to get a more effective form of government.

People will know that I have long-held reservations about petitions of concern. We get into situations from time to time when both the main parties have said, "Do you know what? We really cannot see this passed". I want to see a more effective mechanism, whether it be some form of weighted mechanism, some sort of review or something else. We cannot get to a situation in which it does not matter what we say or speak on because a petition of concern will be tabled. As a result, this place will not change.

The issue that many people find strange is that the Assembly has little power on matters. Most issues — most difficult issues — are resolved at Executive level or behind closed doors. That is not what democracy is based on. We should be having the debate and come out and say what we want to see done better.

On Mrs Kelly's point, the disappointment that the people of our country feel is palpable. We need to do better, so we ought to have an official review. The AERC is the Committee that should be doing that. It is failing in its job, and collectively we need to do better.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. As Deputy Chair of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, I will make the closing remarks in the debate on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee's Report on the operation of the provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the NI Act 1998. I do not propose to summarise Members' contributions. They speak for themselves and will be available in Hansard.

I commend the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on the work that has been undertaken over the past eight years. At times, that work has been complex and sensitive when it came to considering the views of the political parties and individual Members of the House. I further stress that those same parties and individual Members were given the opportunity to contribute to the topics that were to be considered by the Committee.

The reports produced by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee over those past eight years have contributed to a number of key matters that have been taken forward by the Assembly, such as policing and justice, the procedures for the appointment of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and women in politics.

I also agree with the Chair that, when we reviewed not only the reports but the mechanisms that we used to carry out the reviews, I was struck by the wealth of information and research that was commissioned on behalf of the Committee to reach the conclusions and recommendations in every report. In addition to the extensive number of research papers that were produced, the Committee engaged with a wide range of stakeholders as part of each review, from political parties to leading academics here and in the UK, as well as councils, think tanks and voluntary and community groups. The Committee also engaged with the British Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Office, Executive Departments and non-departmental public bodies.

I emphasise to the House that the reports of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee have provided valuable information to the Assembly that have allowed it to consider ways of moving forward reform of the institution. <BR/>I conclude by thanking the Committee officials for the sterling work that they have done over the past eight years.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the report of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee on the Operation of the Provisions of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 [NIA 242/11-16], made under Section 29A(3) of that Act.