MLAs: Reduction in Number

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 23rd November 2015.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:45 pm, 23rd November 2015

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

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that the Stormont House Agreement contains a deadline to reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 by 2021 and the number of Executive Departments in time for the 2016 Assembly term; believes that there is an opportunity to reform the size of the Assembly and the number of Executive Departments to the same timescale; and calls on the Executive to ensure any legislation will see that the reduction in the number of MLAs takes places in time for the 2016 elections.

The context of this motion has changed little since the emergence of the so-called Fresh Start deal last week; the fundamental thrust of the motion remains the same. Without doubt, there will be many opportunities to discuss the wider 'Fresh Start' document as a whole and the individual components in it, but the motion that I bring forward today discusses the size of the Assembly. The former Stormont House Agreement committed the Assembly to a reduction in the number of MLAs per constituency from six to five by 2021. Of course, that does not preclude it from happening earlier.

Before and after, some political parties, including mine, advocated that it should occur earlier, particularly taking effect for the May 2016 Assembly elections. However, we now have a situation where the reduction in the number of MLAs is to take effect immediately after the 2016 election. While that might mean at the next scheduled election in 2021, it could also apply to any election called earlier — indeed, to one called as early as the end of June 2016 in the context of the inability to form an Executive after the 2016 election. That strikes me as a case of, "Oh Lord, make me holy, but not just yet".

The principle that the Assembly is too large and needs to be reduced in size has been accepted and is won; there is no debate over that argument any longer. However, what is the reason for delaying its implementation? I can only presume that it is party-political self-interest rather than the public good. There are, quite simply, no good reasons for delay. It is notable that the Executive are set to proceed with the reduction of Departments with effect from the start of the new mandate. That, of course, is the right thing to do.

However, this process is a significantly more complicated task than a reduction in the number of MLAs. For example, it will involve primary legislation in the Assembly and, in turn, a transfer of functions order. Behind the scenes, a huge amount of work is being conducted by civil servants on the practical issues of finance, human resources, managing the estate and internal restructuring.

By contrast to reducing the number of Departments, reducing the number of MLAs per constituency from six to five only requires passing a simple piece of legislation. Indeed, the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill is annexed to the 'Fresh Start' document. Applying this reduction to the May 2016 election requires only one small change to one clause. While it is important to recognise that anything other than a reduction from six to five Members would involve more complicated legislation at Westminster, including amendment to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, this option for a particular change from six to five per constituency has been given to the Assembly. There is also no practical difficulty in implementation. Reduction in time for the election in May would not cause any difficulty to the Electoral Office or indeed the Electoral Commission. Quite simply, the request is to elect five rather than six Members per constituency. There is no need for any transitional arrangements or phasing arrangements.

Some Members may point to a forthcoming review of parliamentary constituencies and, by extension, Assembly constituencies during the lifetime of this mandate of the Westminster Parliament. There is a suggestion that the number of Northern Ireland constituencies might fall from 18 to 16. However, the legislation on the reduction of MLAs is future-proofed. It will apply in just the same way if there are 18 or 16 parliamentary constituencies. The only difference would be having 90 MLAs or 80 MLAs.

The rationale for this reduction is clear and strong. Northern Ireland is overgoverned. We have substantially more MLAs per head than both Scotland and Wales and overwhelmingly more than the United Kingdom Parliament. Quite simply, the figures speak for themselves. The people of Scotland have one MSP per 40,300 people. The Welsh have one Assembly Member per 51,000 people. Westminster MPs represent, on average, 98,000 people. By stark comparison, our 108 Assembly Members represent 16,800 constituents each. In addition, we have 460 district councillors in Northern Ireland and 18 MPs. That really does suggest that we are overgoverned. If we were to apply Scotland or Wales's ratios to this Assembly, we would have 44 or 35 MLAs respectively. What is being proposed today is nowhere near that reduction, but it is, in my view and that of the Alliance Party, a step in the right direction.

The experience of both Scotland and Wales shows that somewhat smaller Assemblies do not undermine good governance. They have sufficient Members to provide for effective scrutiny and to people their Committee systems, allowing for proper accountability. Especially in the context of fewer Departments, no one can credibly maintain that we would not have more than enough MLAs to function.

An Assembly of 108 MLAs is also out of context with Northern Ireland's recent past of previous devolved structures. Since the dissolution of the old Stormont House of Commons, we have seen the following bodies with these numbers of Members. Sunningdale set up an Assembly of 78 Members. The Assembly of rolling devolution in the early 1980s contained the same number of seats. The Northern Ireland Forum contained 110, but that was a very different attempt to be inclusive. It seems we have held to this for over 20 years and in the foundations of the agreement that was reached to set up this Assembly.

Six multi-Member constituencies are also an anomaly in terms of the single transferable vote in other jurisdictions. The Republic of Ireland has historically tended to have three-, four- or five-Member constituencies. <BR/>More locally, we have seen the trend to move away from large multi-member DEAs, and our recent local government elections saw a large number of five-member DEAs. Even within a divided society such as Northern Ireland, six-Member constituencies are more than is required for strong proportionality outcomes. I have read comments on how smaller parties might perform in five-Member constituencies. Based on the last electoral outcome, it would be little different from where they are today. Frankly, PR looks after small parties.

The Alliance Party is concerned about the implications of dropping to below five Members per constituency, but we do not believe that a move to five-Member constituencies would radically alter outcomes. Indeed, we tabled today's motion as the fifth-largest party in the Assembly. Some might suggest that a reduction would be a bigger risk to us than to any of the four parties that are currently larger than us. However, we are convinced that it is quite simply the right thing to do. Over the next five years, the reduction would also save around £11 million. While that seems relatively modest in the grand scheme of things, every little helps. Like most Members, I could readily produce a list of matters on which we could spend the money.

The wider point is leadership. Many people are already suffering as a consequence of public spending cuts, and we know that many public servants have had their pay and conditions restricted. In that context, I believe that it is critical that the Assembly is seen to show leadership in reducing its own costs. Ultimately, people will simply not understand the political parties that think that it would be a good idea to have this change in place after the next Assembly election but do not think that it is good enough to have it in place in time for the coming Assembly election. The burden of proof lies on those who are arguing for delay, which is why something should happen now.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

In my contribution, I will try to avoid straying into the area of holier than thou, because others in the Chamber may have a certain monopoly on holiness on these issues. While it is perfectly within the rights of any party to select whatever motion they want — I certainly defend their right to do that, irrespective of the subject — I was somewhat bemused to see this motion. Had it not been for complications with the timescale, the debate on the motion could have happened last week or the week before. Why am I bemused? First, the issue was largely settled in the Stormont House Agreement, and, secondly, it was a key subject matter in the current round of talks. It was raised on numerous occasions and was directly on the agenda and raised by the Secretary of State as a topic to which all parties were available. One feels that the right place for a debate and a resolution was in the talks process. It would have been a little bit strange had the issue, which is germane to the talks process, hit the original timetable, been introduced in the middle of the talks process and debated on the Floor.

I take the proposer's moral high ground with a pinch of salt. We are told that the Alliance Party is happy enough with five-Member constituencies. One may come to the conclusion that five Members in the current boundaries may suit the Alliance Party, but it would be a dreadful attack on democracy if we were to move to a four-seater, even though the proposer indicated that three- and four-seaters were commonplace elsewhere. The cynic in me might suggest that the Alliance Party is grandstanding slightly on the issues that it feels might be numerically to its advantage.

I welcome the fact that there has been some consensus about the size of the Assembly and five-Member constituencies. We have advocated that as a party for a long time. We indicated that the contents of the Stormont House Agreement were a compromise between all parties, as was 'A Fresh Start'. At the time of the Stormont House Agreement, we felt that it should be four-Member constituencies. We believed that what existed was going too far, but we accepted the compromise. From that perspective, as I said, we took what was at Stormont House, and we now have legislation that is being proposed via 'A Fresh Start'. Rather than simply tabling a motion, we committed ourselves directly to legislation.

Unlike some of the Members opposite, we are walking the walk, rather than simply talking the talk.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I will give way briefly.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I appreciate what the Member is saying and genuinely appreciate his saying that legislation will be brought forward. Therefore, the issue is not the bringing forward of legislation. We are all on common ground on that and, I think, when it comes to the numbers. The question is quite simply this: why not do it now?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

The principal reason is probably twofold. Boundary changes have been mentioned. In the spirit in which we adopted the changes to the departmental structures, there was at one stage — I am sure that the recently departed Mr Farry would acknowledge that perhaps we would not have had the same debate had this happened earlier — a midterm proposal to abolish DEL. The feeling was that we needed to come up with a system to which there was no particular emotional attachment or, indeed, party advantage or attachment. The position now is that we will face a review by the Boundary Commission, which is uncertain about the number of seats that there will be. There is no advantage or disadvantage to any party in the Chamber from facing the Boundary Commission because no one knows whether the outcome will suit any particular party. I suspect that, as tends to be the case in these things, there will be swings and roundabouts: in some areas, it will benefit you; in other areas, it will not.

It strikes us that the appropriate and best time to do that is when we can take what would be two changes — the reduction from six seats to five and the potential change to the number of parliamentary constituencies, which may yet be effected by way of change to the electoral register in England —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

No: I have given way once and have only a short time.

It is said that the most dangerous thing is to try to leap a chasm in two leaps. We are committed to our position. Our belief is that it makes sense that, if we are going to make changes, we should make them at the same time, and they would, therefore, take effect from the election after next. By then, the Boundary Commission will have put in place its review, and we will all take our chances with it. Above all, irrespective of the arguments about a particular set of numbers, is the fact that in 'A Fresh Start', we made an agreement — I appreciate that it does not bind the Members who tabled the motion — to try to take things forward for all the people of Northern Ireland, as we did with the Stormont House Agreement that involved compromises for everybody, and we did not necessarily get what we wanted. We will be a party of integrity. We will stick to what we have signed up to in 'A Fresh Start'. The motion runs contrary to what is in that agreement.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member must draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

We will, therefore, oppose the motion.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on a reduction in the number of MLAs; a reduction in the number of Departments; and the timescale in which all that takes place. Before dealing with those issues, it is important to caution Members not to major too heavily on quantitative comparisons between the Assembly and the other devolved institutions on these islands. None of those institutions faces the same difficulties as we do here. None of them was established as a response to 30 years of conflict and the serious fault lines and divisions in society that we have here in the North. That is the context.

Sinn Féin has a relaxed view on the number of Departments. If governance could be enhanced, duplication eradicated, bureaucracy reduced and savings increased by reducing the number of Departments from 12 to nine, it would be difficult to argue against. It is not just the voters who want more streamlined cost-effective government; we also want that. Every Member of the Assembly should welcome any change that brings more efficiency and effectiveness. We also agree that the number of MLAs should be reduced from 108 to 90. That means that there would be five MLAs in each constituency instead of the current six, notwithstanding any Boundary Commission changes.

We depart from the proposers of the motion on when the reduction takes place. The proposers would have it take place before the 2016 Assembly elections. We disagree, and let me explain why. It is important to give context to the current number of MLAs.

One of the criteria that the architects of these institutions were given when they were designing them was that they should be as representative and as inclusive as possible. That is still probably the most important concept for building and sustaining confidence in the institutions. The worry, therefore, is that fewer MLAs would lead to a deficit in representation and inclusiveness.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I understand what the Member says with regard to confidence in the institutions, but they have been here for some 20 years. Would you not share with me a great deal of disappointment and frustration that you and others have failed to build that confidence?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

I wonder whether the Member includes himself when he says, "and others".

The fears that I have are assuaged to some extent by the reform of public administration, whereby more powers have been given to councils and d'Hondt is run over a four-year period rather than over one year, which happened previously. That is welcome, and it enhances the principle of equality. However, there are still some councils in which the concept of equality has yet to be fully implemented.

In the Assembly, the question is whether a reduction in the number of MLAs would have a negative impact on representation or equality. There is, for example, a danger that some constituencies will be left without a nationalist representative in some cases or a unionist representative in others. I suppose that the Alliance Party might not worry about that, but it might also have an impact on that party. More worryingly, research shows that the number and percentage of female representatives will fall if the overall number of MLAs is reduced for the 2016 election. That would be a retrograde result for the Assembly and for inclusiveness and equality. By postponing the overall reduction until 2021, we will give all parties a chance to prepare for that possibility and to ensure equality of opportunity for women in particular in those parties. Sinn Féin, obviously, takes its responsibilities on the issue very seriously; we try to promote women as much as possible in the party. My colleague Caitríona Ruane will deal with that in her contribution to the debate later. It would be the wrong message entirely for the Assembly to send out if, after the 2016 election, there were to be fewer female representatives than there are now. For that reason, I oppose the motion.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

A number of contributors have already referred to Stormont House. While there remains a dispute about what was or was not agreed there, one matter that was born in Stormont House and was then settled in the discussions afterwards, was how we would manage the issue of the reduction in the number of MLAs. Given that it was a settled matter — you can hear echoes of that in the contributions made by the DUP and Sinn Féin — it should remain a settled matter rather than be revisited on the far side of this motion.

The Assembly institutions and the Executive and their conduct need reform. That is why, light-touch though some of it may be, in March the Executive agreed to mechanisms to ensure that three Ministers would have more authority around the Executive table. That is why some moderate proposals have been made in respect of how to manage a petition of concern and so on and so forth, including the number of Departments. That is all necessary and healthy. Any institution, be it an elected one or any other organisation, that is going to ensure that it lives up to best practice and serves those whom it seeks to serve needs to keep under constant interrogation and analysis the way in which it conducts its affairs, including its internal operations. That is why we in the SDLP believe that there should be more reform of how the Chamber conducts its affairs.

I will take one moment to give an example. This afternoon, the House of Commons will have a very short number of hours to accelerate through the Welfare Reform Bill that was part and parcel of the legislative consent motion (LCM) last week. That will have an enormous impact on our people, independent of the enormous impact on our people that will arise from London legislating for whatever it is that has or has not been agreed in principle in respect of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that is currently in Westminster. That is why the SDLP returns to its proposal to have a dedicated welfare reform Committee as part and parcel of the life of these institutions to interrogate how welfare is or is not working in law and practice, not least now, because we have abandoned and surrendered to London our responsibility on those matters up to the end of 2016. The party will write to the authorities in the Chamber and in the Assembly to urge the creation of a welfare reform Committee both as an example of reform and to mitigate what might be coming down the road because of the impact of the LCM. For all those reasons, we welcome the issue of reform, but we think that the motion is overreaching, given that this is a settled matter.

I join Mr Weir and Mr Sheehan in emphasising some of the reasons why, whilst we need to move in the direction of a reduction to five Members per constituency by 2021, this is not the time and place to do so. It seems to me that the proposer gave technical reasons that did not address the points made, especially those made by Mr Sheehan. It is a little-known fact that, when the SDLP had a bigger role in the Assembly through our electoral mandate, it was the SDLP that insisted on the number of Ministers that we will have up until 2016. That was the call made by Seamus Mallon and the SDLP. Why? It was because we wanted to have maximum ownership of and inclusion in the institutions in a situation where exclusion had been part of the culture and practice of some when it came to the conduct of politics and government in Northern Ireland. Therefore, to maintain the principle of inclusion, even though some might have argued that it did not serve the interests of the bigger parties, one of the bigger parties at that stage made that argument, and that argument continues.

Why does that argument continue? It is because last week, as the Alliance Party understands better than anybody, we had a two-party deal that was not respectful of the principle of inclusion. It advertised why we continue to need to have principles of inclusion in the spirit that Mr Sheehan outlined, when it comes to the conduct of politics and government in Northern Ireland. We may have moved a long way from the past. We may be slowly moving, although some would doubt it —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

— towards an even better future than we have had over the last 20 years, but at the heart of it is inclusion. This is not the time to move in the direction of the Alliance motion, because, in our view, not least because of last week, it sits in conflict with that spirit.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the motion. Like others, I am not sure why Alliance has tabled the motion. Clearly, it has been overtaken by events. In my view, this is a dead parrot. This is not a parrot that is pining for the fjords; this parrot is dead. One of the reasons why it appears to be dead is that, as seemed to be confirmed, even the Stormont House Agreement has been superseded by the Sinn Féin/DUP so-called Fresh Start.

It might be useful for the wider public to have a refresher on the number of Stormont agreements that we have had. Of course, we all started off with the Haass talks, and they were at the Stormont Hotel. We moved from there to Stormont House, and then we had Stormont Castle, and now we are back to Stormont and Fresh Start. It appears to me that perhaps we should have the Stormont Portakabin agreement, because that, at least, will deal with temporary structures.

The post-2016 arrangement on the reduction of MLAs was part of the Stormont House Agreement of Christmas 2014, which the Alliance Party signed up to, unless it knows something more than the rest of us and which we have not yet heard.

Let me also say that the Ulster Unionist Party supports moves to reduce the costs of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive. We want to see better governance in Northern Ireland, because what has been served up since 2007 could in no way be described as better governance. This is meant to be a legislative Assembly but, only last week, powers were sent back to London so that this place did not have to take any difficult decisions. It is no wonder that the public may, indeed, look at this House with some disdain, because if there are apparently any difficult decisions to be taken, Sinn Féin and the DUP offload them to somebody else. Sinn Féin sends powers back to London without even blushing now. First, it entered Stormont, a devolved Assembly in the United Kingdom — which, of course, I very much welcome — and now it is sending back powers to London.

Of course, in terms of saving money, only weeks ago, Sinn Féin and the DUP voted against reducing the number of special advisers and capping their pay. The more things change, the more they stay the same. That is despite OFMDFM, or the Executive Office as it will be known, losing 16 areas of responsibility. There are obviously quite a few types of protected species in this House.

We want to see savings made across the board, including a reduction in the number of MLAs, but that should be done as part of a complete package of measures, not in the slapdash manner that has so characterised the Northern Ireland Executive.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 4:15 pm, 23rd November 2015

I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate that it has to be part of a detailed package of measures, and whatever one may think of Fresh Start, it will actually deliver a piece of legislation to the House on which Members will have the opportunity to vote — that is legislation. However, the legislation will promote voting for a reduction in the size of the Assembly in 2021. Will the Member not join me in seeking to have that legislation amended to make it 2016? Perhaps he is the biggest dead parrot in this establishment, having been killed off by his party leader.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Let me reassure the Member: this party is not afraid of any election. We have already heard the reasons clearly outlined for why your party could not support a reduction to four Members per constituency, because that would effectively cull the Alliance Party, but anyway. We will ignore that.

As I said, we want to see a complete package of reform. I have to say that Alliance is advocating change on an agreement that, apparently, it does not support and on which the ink is not yet dry. We can see that the ink is not dry even in the response of the leader of Sinn Féin on Belfast City Council, who seems to be concerned about the early implementation of and commitment to corporation tax. Let us see where this latest agreement takes us.

We also need to see what protections will be in place for some of the smaller parties, such as those represented by single MLAs. Of course, at the same time, we cannot ignore the hypocrisy of the Alliance Party because, remember, it takes two Ministries despite having only enough electoral support for one. We will wait to see whether the Alliance Party wants to do anything about that. I have heard senior members of the Alliance Party say that it has two Ministries because of its electoral support; that is not correct. It has been granted, effectively, a second Ministry primarily by Sinn Féin and the DUP, which corrupts what the Alliance Party agreed in the Belfast Agreement.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

So, for all those reasons, the Ulster Unionist Party will oppose the motion today.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo. Cuirim fáilte roimh chomhaontú na seachtaine seo caite. Tá sé thar am go mbeidh muid ag déanamh dul chun cinn leis an obair a chaithfidh muid a dhéanamh.

I welcome the debate. Unlike some others in the Chamber, I welcome the agreement that we had last week. All our constituents want to see us moving forward and getting on with the work.

I thank the Alliance Party for tabling the motion. It has received some criticism about the timing. I do not share that criticism, because it brought forward the motion before an agreement was reached. Therefore, to be fair to my colleagues in the Alliance Party, I suppose that they could call it helping set the agenda.

My colleague Pat Sheehan spoke about what was agreed on reducing the number of Departments and on reducing the number of MLAs from six to five. I share the view expressed by him and others, including Alex Attwood, in their comments on the context that we are coming out of here; that is, the context of conflict, lack of representation, and the Civil Service and direct rule Ministers running the North of Ireland. I and my party believe that it was very important to have the broadest possible representation.

In my constituency, which is seen as a majority nationalist constituency, we have two Sinn Féin Members, two SDLP Members, one UUP Member and one DUP Member. If we had changed the rules, that would not be the case. I think that it is in all my constituents' —

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I hear what she says about the make-up of her constituency. If we change the number of Members, that is called democracy.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Absolutely. There are many different ways of having democracy. Mr Dickson cited Westminster as if it were democratic. If you look at the critique of the first-past-the-post system, it is fundamentally undemocratic. Therefore, it is not useful to use it as an argument against us here.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I am sure that she knows her constituency better than I do, and I do not want her to embarrass herself, but there has not been an Ulster Unionist MLA in her constituency for some time.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Gabh mo leithscéal. We have somebody representing the unionist community — John McCallister — whom I have tremendous respect for in our constituency and who does tremendous work. He began as an Ulster Unionist, and now he is still representing people from the unionist community, despite the fact that Mr Nesbitt might have difficulties with that.

We have an RPA for local councils, policing, health and education. I welcome that. We are at least beginning to change the undemocratic deficit that we had before.

People spoke about gender. Members right across the political spectrum — I see members of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee here — will know about the low number of women that we have in the Assembly. It is absolutely disgraceful. If we do not do something about that in all parties, we are ensuring that we are not representing our constituencies adequately.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

I have already taken two interventions, Chris, and one was from your party, so if you do not mind.

What I would like to see is a much more representative House, with many more women in it. In bringing about the changes that we are bringing about, I am aware that reports have shown that there are potential dangers to women. The challenge that I am throwing out here to every single one of us is that we need to say to our parties that they need to put women into winnable seats. Otherwise, we will come back here in 2021 worse than we are now, and where we are now is nothing short of disgraceful. That is why we have an Assembly and Executive Review Committee report, and a very good report it is. However, Sinn Féin is the only party that supports quotas. If we are really to change things, I argue that we need quotas. That is why I am going to argue here that I do not think that 2016 is the time to make the changes, because I do not want to see unrepresentativeness. It will only create even more difficulties down the line.

The other point that I will make is that I have represented my party as part of various delegations and have met delegations that come here from conflict areas. As someone who has worked in deep conflict areas throughout the world, such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa, during very difficult times, I know that there are people in those areas who would love to see the process that we have.

I argue that we should not take for granted where we are now. Look at our world today. Look at the difficulties that we are encountering. It is important that we put resources into ensuring that we are democratic and representative. For that reason I argue that we should wait for another few years. I welcome the agreement. Let us put it in place now, but let us also make sure that each one of us is proactive in ensuring that we have more women on the ticket.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag labhairt in aghaidh an rúin. Like my two party colleagues, I am unable to support the motion. Our only issue with the motion is the timeline proposed, which is the election of 2016. When Mr Dickson was introducing it, he said, "Oh Lord, make me holy, but not just yet". In that spirit, I think that it is, "Lord, don't make me holy, but we're maybe a week too late".

We have already seen the settled will coming out of the talks that 2021 is a realistic proposition to change the number of MLAs. That will bring a degree of certainty. From some of the comments today, it is obvious that, whether or not we reduce the number of MLAs, the 2016 election campaign has certainly kicked off. People are up and ready and fighting that election in the Chamber this afternoon. Throughout the discussions at the AERC, we were never opposed in principle to the idea of reducing the number of MLAs. We always argued that it should come at an appropriate time in the history of the Assembly.

There is absolutely no doubt — Stewart Dickson talked about it — that there is an admirable cost-saving aspect to this, and we should always be mindful of that in the current climate. However, for us there is always — Pat Sheehan, in particular, outlined this — the issue of representation and, indeed, under-representation. We have to protect ourselves against that given our recent and, indeed, distant history of under-representation and misrepresentation. Despite the claim of democratic structures and "Let the people decide" etc, under-representation was always a feature. I do not think that anybody would disagree with that nod of the head. There was a degree of misrepresentation. Indeed, Alex Attwood brought a context to that when he spoke.

All you have to do is look at the 2011 election results and see who took the sixth seat. You can never rerun an election by reconfiguring the figures for five Members, but it is a broad enough sheet to have a look at. You can see who was elected sixth and what that would mean in terms of representation. We have now come to an agreement, but we should be very serious about that representation. Pat Sheehan talked about how the RPA had brought in a layer of representation that was never present before. That was hard argued-for and hard won and then delivered by the Assembly. I cannot predict the outcome of the 2016 or 2021 election, but it is fair to say that people who have been good voices in the Assembly will perhaps be missing as a result.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

It is a question of simple practicalities. Does the Member agree with me that, even if we pass the legislation that is contained in 'A Fresh Start', which requires the election of five Members per constituency from 2021, if these institutions meet a brick wall the day after the 2016 election and we cannot form an Executive, a further election will be held and that will be to five-Member constituencies?

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

I suppose that, now that you have brought that to people's attention, there may be mitigation. Let us be optimistic and assume that all the parties here will want to represent the people out there, there will be a Programme for Government and we will proceed.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Does the Member agree with me that, if directly after the election in May 2016 we have to have another Assembly within a month, we will have a lot more to worry about than whether there are five seats or six seats?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:30 pm, 23rd November 2015

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

That is a point well made.

I want to make the following point quickly, as I am conscious of time. One of the striking things about the sixth seat — Caitríona Ruane has already said it — is that women will suffer adversely. I have literally only 20 seconds to make that point, and we should not take that step without having some sort of sense. I have an extra minute. My apologies. Thanks, Claire Hanna. I looked up there and she gave me a puzzled look. Thank you very much. It is important that we feel that it is the appropriate time to do what we are doing. We have now signalled that we have five years, but in those five years we have to look at the idea that voices will be missing and, in particular, at the under-representation of women.

The recent inquiry by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee pointed out steps that could be taken. There is no doubt that there is reluctance by some parties in relation to quotas, and I am not making a party political point. Other institutions and democracies thrive when they introduce quotas. Sometimes, people here can have a narrow view of what democracy means. They look for a simple, single example of democracy and think that anything that goes against it is an attack on democratic structures.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Other thriving democracies have introduced quotas. We must ensure that we do not face 2021 accused of being under-representative.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

The first question that we each should ask ourselves is what makes good governance. My party's position has consistently been that we can reduce the number of MLAs but it must go alongside a reduction in the number of Departments. I know that has been agreed in principle, but we have yet to see it realised. That is to ensure that we have enough MLAs to do the job. We already have Members sitting on two or three Committees; if we reduced the number of MLAs without concurrently reducing the number of Departments, that would undermine our ability as MLAs to carry out the important function of challenging Departments through the Committees. I support a reduction in the number of MLAs, although I am not so exercised by whether it will be in 2016 or 2021. I have no problem supporting the motion.

The other thing I would say is that we need a diversity of voices. I want to make it clear that I am not intending to be vying for the sixth seat in the next election; I hope to —

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

You would get elected if we moved to five seats.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

There you go: the Alliance Party has assured me that I will be elected under five seats, regardless. I certainly do not want to discount myself from the next election, regardless how many seats there are per constituency.

If the previous election had been run under five seats per constituency, as Mr McCartney mentioned, we could have had a five-party Government and no Back-Benchers outside the governing parties. That is something that we should be concerned about. There is a balance to be struck. Good government should be efficient and cost-effective; equally, it should be diverse in its voices and representations.

This corner of the House has been referred to as various things, including "the naughty corner". Perhaps we are the naughty corner because we are forever challenging the teachers, which is quite a good thing. Look at the record of me and Mr Allister in asking Assembly questions: Mr Allister has asked 272, and I have asked 207 — more than the whole of the Alliance Party. That is not an end in itself, but it is challenging and questioning Ministers. In a party of government, you may have less incentive to ask questions when the information may be more readily available. If you look at the private Members' Bills that have come forward from Mr McCallister, Mr Allister and me, again we perform a valuable function in the Assembly.

For those reasons, the Green Party has argued that, if we reduce the number of MLAs, there should not just be a reduction in the number of Departments, but it should be accompanied by a change in the electoral system to have a top-up system, as they do in Scotland and Germany, to ensure that we keep the diversity of voices.

There would be a threshold to be met before any party would get representation in the Assembly. In Germany, for example, that is 5% of the vote. That could be the type of thing that we would look at. We should ensure that we do not end up reducing the diversity of voices and the benefits that are brought, particularly given our system, by having voices from outside Government.

The issue of the representation of women has been raised, and, just to correct Ms Ruane, her party is not the only one that supports quotas. The Green Party is in favour of quotas and implements them in its own party selections for elections, and there will be a minimum of one-third female Green Party candidates for the next Assembly election. It is something that we believe in, practice and would like to see implemented in Assembly elections.

We are very much in support of reform. I suspect that, in practice, the May 2016 elections come too soon for implementation of the type of reforms that we would like to see, but, in principle, we have no objection to it. We have consistently argued that good, efficient government can take place, but a number of things need to happen concurrently.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

Those are the change in the number of Departments, a reduction in the number of MLAs and the change in the electoral system.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I welcome the opportunity to wind up the debate. It has been constructive. A wider range of issues has been raised than was, perhaps, expected; but it is important to state clearly at core what we are debating. It is the proposal to reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 90, from six MLAs to five for each of 18 constituencies. It is indeed a fairly modest reduction, by all accounts.

On coming to the Assembly today, I was greeted by a member of the public whom I debate these issues with. The opinion given to me was, "Sure, you have no chance of getting that through the Assembly today, Chris, do you? Turkeys voting for Christmas." Today presents an opportunity for us to surprise the ever-increasing frustration and disillusionment that is ever growing at this Assembly. We have an opportunity to agree on a modest, straightforward proposal, and I hope that there might still be time for people to reconsider their positions on that, but I fear that we may have to return to this issue.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I just want clarification of "turkeys voting for Christmas". Is it "turkeys voting for Christmas" if we reduce the number by 2016, but not if we are voting post-2016?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for his intervention. I will touch on the timing in due course, but I really do not understand. If the principle is agreed, and it is as straightforward an issue as it appears to most of the members of the public who want to see a reduction in costs and more effective government, why can we not show leadership on this issue and move forward now?

The Stormont House Agreement commits to the reduction; it says that it should happen by 2021. However, that does not preclude it from happening earlier. Indeed, the Alliance Party believes that there is no significant impediment to that taking place for the 2016 election.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

If this was introduced for the 2016 election, how would the Member ensure that there was not an under-representation of women?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I was going to address that issue as well, but I will come to it. I am proud that I have been surrounded by formidable, capable, courageous female elected representatives in my party. A wide range of issues prevents women from coming forward into elected representation. I am not sure that an overgoverned Assembly is necessarily one of them. Sinn Féin will maybe agree with me on this. Most regrettably, and I do not know why, many female elected representatives have been targeted, mistreated and spoken to in a most inappropriate way at times, and indeed, they have been physically attacked. On some occasions, they have resorted to removing themselves from elected office.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I will in a second. There are probably much more important reasons than the size of the Assembly as to why we do not have more female representatives.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Sinn Féin

Does the Member believe that quotas are the way forward, given the lack of representation of women?

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I believe that we need serious proactive activity to encourage the many capable women across our society — indeed, those from all under-represented sectors — to become elected representatives. I remain to be convinced that we need specific quotas or how we would deliver such quotas, but maybe that is a debate for another occasion.

People also referred to the task of legislating. Work is ongoing to reduce the number of Departments from 12 to nine, with effect from 2016. It would be a significantly less complicated task to reduce the number of MLAs, so I see no reason why that cannot be taken forward.

The rationale is clear and strong: Northern Ireland is over-governed. We have substantially more MLAs per head than Scotland and Wales. It has been said that we have a unique context as a deeply divided society. Perhaps OFMDFM needs to do more work on building a united community. That would be one way of ensuring that we tackle the issue. Even allowing for that context, Scotland has one MSP per 40,000 people, Wales has one AM per 50,000, but Northern Ireland has one MLA per 16,000 to 17,000, which is a drastically different ratio and is over-governance by any stretch.

I will try to respond to some of the issues that have been raised. I have dealt with under-representation to a certain extent. Mr Danny Kennedy attempted to bring some humour to the debate, although I must make it clear that I doubt very much that the need to reduce costs and for more efficient and effective governance in Northern Ireland is a laughing matter to the public or, indeed, a dead issue to hard-working taxpayers, many of whom, before he abdicated office, could not even get their grass cut or their streets lit as a result of his approach to government. We need to move beyond that approach to governance in Northern Ireland.

Stevie Agnew raised a number of important issues. He suggested that the reduction take place in line with the reduction in Departments, ensuring that our multiparty coalition has effective opposition. He also mentioned alternative ways of protecting diversity in the Assembly, such as through our electoral system, all of which, I think, merits consideration.

This reduction could save around £11 million over five years. The childcare budget for 2011-15 was around £12 million. Those may seem like modest savings, but the resources could go a very long way for a lot of hard-working families. The Alliance Party is clear that this would be for the common good and in the interests of effective power-sharing government and well-resourced, efficient public services for everyone in our community. We commend the motion to the House.

Question put.

Question put a second time.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I hear Ayes from only one corner and Noes from all sides of the House. I think the Noes have it. I think the Noes have it. I think the Noes have it. The Noes have it, the Noes have it.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask that you review your decision, given the decision made by the Speaker last week on a Division.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

If the Member had listened carefully, he would have heard that I said:

"I think the Noes have it. I think the Noes have it."

Until the Member spoke, no one had challenged that, and I had not made a final decision. I think that the Noes have it. I think that the Noes have it. The Noes have it.

Question accordingly negatived.

Adjourned at 4.49 pm.