Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill: Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 23rd February 2016.

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Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP 5:30 pm, 23rd February 2016

I inform the House that consent for the Bill, as amended, has been received from the Secretary of State.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly DUP

I beg to move:

That the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill [NIA 76/11-16] do now pass.

This is a very short Bill with only two clauses, yet it will have significant implications for the way our institutions do business in the future and for the size of the membership of forthcoming Assemblies. During the previous stages, we stated how, at the heart of the Fresh Start Agreement, there is a common commitment to a better way of doing business. Both the Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start Agreement set out a number of proposed changes to the institutions so that they might function more efficiently and economically and better meet the needs of citizens. One proposed change was a reduction in the number of Departments. Another was a commitment to reduce from six to five the number of MLAs returned for each constituency.

Of course, reform of the institutions has been the subject of lengthy and detailed discussion and debate over a considerable time. The Bill represents a major element in the process of reform. We have accepted that this will not in itself resolve inefficiency, but it is an important step in the right direction. The issue addressed in the Bill was the subject of a review and report by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee in 2012. The United Kingdom Government also consulted on the size of the Assembly in August 2012. It was the subject of further detailed consideration during the political process leading to the Stormont House Agreement in December 2014, and it featured in last December's talks process that led to the Fresh Start Agreement.

This is a straightforward Bill with a simple objective: to reduce by one the number of Members returned by each parliamentary constituency, to have effect from the first Assembly election after that of May 2016. It represents a major step on the road to reforming our institutional structures. In fulfilment of that commitment, the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill was introduced to the Assembly on 12 January 2016. It was recognised that, for the Bill to complete its passage before the dissolution of the Assembly at the end of March, it would be necessary for it to proceed by way of accelerated passage. On 25 January, following consultation with the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, the Assembly agreed and voted, with cross-community support, to allow this procedure to apply to the Bill. We are grateful to the Assembly for its support in this matter.

The accelerated passage debate was followed by the Bill's Second Stage on the same day. This demonstrated broad support for the principles of the Bill. One amendment to the Bill at Consideration Stage on 2 February was tabled by the Alliance Party but was not made, and the Bill's two clauses were voted by the Assembly to stand part. The Bill's Further Consideration Stage was taken last Tuesday, when two ministerial amendments were agreed. These were purely technical adjustments needed to ensure that, if there were to be any delay in Royal Assent being obtained, the reduction in the number of MLAs would still apply to the first Assembly election after May of this year.

Overall, there was support for the principle of the Bill to reduce the number of MLAs elected to this place, but differences arose in respect of the timing of the legislation. Some Members wanted the legislation to pass and the proposed reduction to be in place so that it might apply to the May 2016 Assembly election. However, the nature of consensus government or government by agreement is that the detail must be agreed. That is what we have achieved with compromise in the proposal in this Bill. Other Members wished for the legislation to be considered at a later stage, once the outcome of the parliamentary boundary review would be known. However, we remain firmly of the view that the time for reform has come. People want this change, and we must deliver this change.

We have now reached the Bill's Final Stage, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who have contributed, through their support or through constructive debate, to getting the Bill to this stage. It has prompted a wide-ranging, informative and, at times, passionate debate. We are also grateful to Members for the interest that they have shown. Although a small Bill, the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill is nevertheless a significant one that will be seen by the electorate as a measure of the Assembly's willingness to play a full part in the streamlining of our institutions of government. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 5:45 pm, 23rd February 2016

I, of course, support this Bill at Final Stage. The Bill has been a real long slog, as has been the campaigning for change that we in the DUP have been engrossed in since way back the early 2000s, when we were the only party to support a reduction in the size of government. We see this day as a success. We see that we need to do more. We believe that we should have done more, but we understand that, when you make agreements, that is success and progress. We will honour those agreements where and when they are made.

As the junior Minister stated, it is not the only thing that we want. We have already secured the reduction in Departments. We move towards a day when there will be an opposition in this place. I think that all of that is good for politics in Northern Ireland. It is good for this place, and it assists the businesses and communities that we represent. It is all good today. I think that I used the word "rejoice" the last time around, in Further Consideration Stage. It is something that we have aimed to get to and have aimed to meet, and I am glad that an objective has now been ticked off the DUP wish list.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I think that a good friend of mine once said that wish lists are for Christmas, but, anyway, we will deal with something else.

I was not quite sure what the previous Member who spoke meant when he said that the legislation has been a bit of a "long slog". I was beginning to wonder whether he meant a different discussion or whether I had come to the Chamber at the wrong time. Obviously, the Bill has been dealt with by way of accelerated passage.

Perhaps the deliberations over the last several years have been a bit of a long slog; I would agree with that. Obviously, from Sinn Féin's point of view, we made the agreement, and we are happy to stick with and support that agreement to reduce the number of MLAs to be returned to the Assembly following the election after the next one in May. We think that, in the round, it is a balanced and reasonable decision to take.

A lot of people out there have come round to the view that there may well be too many MLAs. I have certainly been on the record in the Chamber as saying that I do not necessarily agree with that. Look at the number of MLAs and even local councillors that we have, and then look at the fact that we have 150-plus quangos out there, which host more than 2,000 people as public appointees. So, although you talk about there being a democratic deficit, you see that there is an awful lot more of a democratic deficit out in quangoland than there is in the Chamber or even in local government. That being said, I think that it is an important part of a process in which we are prepared and quite willing to make changes. I think that the public will support the change. As I have said, Sinn Féin is happy to support this agreement that we reached a few months ago.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I, too, welcome the Final Stage of this legislation. I would be more moderate in my language than that which was used by the junior Minister, who said:

"it is an important step in the right direction."

She also said that it is a major step forward on reform. Yes, this is a step in the right direction, and, yes, it is reform, but I would be more moderate in the language that describes what is happening today.

I acknowledge that, even if it is a DUP wish list, as Mr Frew indicated, there is an ongoing range of reform measures on the number of Departments, the number of MLAs and the legislation in respect of an opposition. None of that, however, answers the questions that were being tabled over lunchtime in the Long Gallery by one of the community health NGOs, which was making an argument about how the Programme for Government should be shaped in the image of community health responses to health needs in our society. The number of MLAs, the number of Departments and having an opposition do not do one whit of anything to respond to the needs of that NGO in trying to shape health in a different image from the past. What was useful, I thought, was that a senior official from OFMDFM, which has responsibility, in part, for the Programme for Government, was at the meeting, which might indicate some fresh thinking on how to take forward health issues.

Structures do nothing to respond to those needs, unless they are then seen to respond to them. That is the measure of all reform. It is not about reform for the sake of reform or for the aspiration of efficiency and effectiveness; it is about reform in order to more fully and faithfully respond to the needs of the people who were in the Long Gallery earlier today. Ultimately, none of this means anything unless the Programme for Government and the policies pursued by a smaller number of MLAs and Departments live up to the ambitions of those in the Long Gallery and people everywhere. Noting those comments, this is the right option and the right time for this measure of reform, but let us not elevate it to something that is major reform, unless it measures up to what reform is meant to serve, and that is the interests of the people we all represent.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

First, I would like to apologise for coming slightly late and missing the junior Minister's opening remarks.

Members will be well aware that we did not support the accelerated passage of the Bill. We would like to have seen it being brought forward in the next mandate, giving it the time and scrutiny it deserves. Nonetheless, in a democratic society, we were outvoted on that, and we are where we are. We support it going through, rather reluctantly. As I outlined previously, whether we go from six to five or to four does not matter. What matters is that the House delivers a streamlined but effective Government for all the people in Northern Ireland. That will see the House come down to five Members per constituency after the election in May 2016.

It is important to understand and reflect on why we reached the number of 108 MLAs in the Good Friday Agreement. It was to make sure that Members of the House represented each and every individual to the best of their ability. It was to make sure that the House was diverse, inclusive, and brought forward the thoughts of the whole society. Once again, rather reluctantly, we support the passage of the Bill.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

If truth be told, I am not feeling 100%, so Members will be glad to hear that I will be as brief as possible. The Alliance Party supports the reduction of the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 — from six MLAs to five in each constituency. Therefore, we support the passage of the Bill

As junior Minister Pengelly referred to in her opening remarks, we created an opportunity, by way of amendment, for parties and MLAs in the House to vote to introduce the change in time for the 2016 election rather than delay it to 2021. I still do not believe that a clear case was made to explain why the delay needs to take place. I have set out our rationale for why we think it should happen sooner, and the most pertinent point for me is the potential savings that could have been made by introducing the change sooner.

Today, I have seen reports about waiting lists in our community that are affecting gynaecology, neurology, ENT, paediatrics, gastroenterology and cardiology. I chaired a meeting of the all-party group on learning disability this morning, and parents, carers and professors communicated a fear that, despite Bamford recommendations, the budget for learning disability services in the Department of Health has decreased since 2007. We also know that social housing maintenance cycles have slipped from eight years to 12 years. I will leave it there.

The Executive and the Assembly need to get serious about how we will make efficiencies to fund some of the most important front-line public services in our community. I fear that, on this occasion, other political parties have sidestepped the difficult decisions that would have released in the region of £11 million savings over the next five years to do that. Those are my concluding remarks. I ask the House to excuse me if I need to retire due to not feeling 100%.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

The importance of the debate and the overall reforms we have looked at over the last number of months, whether through my Bill about reforming the Assembly and creating an opposition, the reduction in the number of Departments or the reduction in the size of the Assembly, all should be about how we get to a point where we have good governance that is held to account by a robust opposition. That is vital, and I welcome those changes.

As Mr Allen said, it is important to reflect on why we had 108 Members. We may move to having 90 Members with one fewer per constituency — five per constituency in 18 constituencies — but I am concerned about what will happen if we do not have 18 constituencies in 2021 and are then at 80 Members. Is that the size of the Assembly that we want?

It comes back to the point about the need for accelerated passage. I do not think that there is a need to pass the Bill by accelerated passage and to do it at this time.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

It could easily have been done in the new mandate.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Is it not the case that, even if the Assembly went down to 80 Members, Northern Ireland would still have a greater representation per head of population than any of the other devolved Administrations?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP 6:00 pm, 23rd February 2016

Absolutely. We would have a different level of representation and for different reasons. We have a different historic context to put that in. I also point out that our local government is a very different animal from that in Scotland or Wales. Scottish local government maybe employs some 100,000 people because it is in charge of delivering certain aspects of social care. When we simply compare the size of this Assembly with the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, we are not comparing the same levels of function and responsibility. We are also not comparing the need for the inclusion and representation of various sectors of our community. That is something that they do not have to do. I absolutely accept Mr Poots's point that, if you do a straight comparison, of course we are larger. There is an argument in the Welsh Assembly that 60 Members are not enough to provide all the scrutiny and that, with extra powers going, the number should be higher — possibly more like 80.

I simply make the point that, in the Bill, we have not decided what the numbers should be. We have not decided whether we are all broadly agreed that it should be 90, 80 or 75. If 90 is the figure, how do we fill that gap? Do we de-couple from Westminster constituencies, or do we have a top-up list system? We have not yet set out our thought processes on that. There is broad agreement that this Bill is a good thing, but I fear that we will pass it today and then, depending on the 2018 Westminster constituency review, find ourselves going down to 80 or 75 Members in 2021.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I appreciate the Member giving way. Does the Member not realise that it is better to bank the progress now and have it in the bag? He talks as if legislation cannot be moved, everything is set in stone and we will not have the agility to progress further down the line. I believe that we will and must evolve into something better and slicker, something that our people deserve. Does the Member not think that, if those decisions, which are made outside the House and which affect the House, are made in the next term that we will not be agile enough to have an agreement that will serve our people well?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I have no difficulty in agreeing that we should bank success. The point that others have made is this: why use accelerated passage for a Bill that will not apply for over five years? We could easily have done this in the new term and debated all the points very early on. It could have been introduced in late May or June of this year to a new Assembly. This is the point that I make whilst dealing with all the points that our colleagues have brought up as to what size we think the Assembly should be.

I am happy to bank the progress. I welcome the fact that we are at least making some progress and are changing the number of Assembly Members here, as well as reducing the number of Departments. That is important because it helps to drive the delivery of what I like to see as good government. What makes this place so unpopular with all the constituents whom we expect to be speaking to and encouraging to vote is that they do not see the delivery on the ground and do not feel the change that this place can make. The Assembly and the Executive have enormous power over the lives of every citizen in Northern Ireland, yet we do not see this being used to its full potential. Getting to that and reducing numbers will not drive good governance without, at times, changing the culture and achieving a much more policy-based form of politics: a Government held to account by an opposition. However, I will, like other colleagues, support the passage of the Bill.

Photo of Emma Little Pengelly Emma Little Pengelly DUP

I thank Members for their contributions to the Final Stage of the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill and for the issues that they have raised.

As I have stated, it is only a short Bill, but it will have significant implications for the size of the Assembly in future. Reform of the structures of government here is overdue, and the Bill, together with the reduction in the number of Departments that we are also legislating for, shows our commitment to a leaner, more efficient structure of government in Northern Ireland and to an Assembly containing a number of MLAs better suited to the size of the jurisdiction and the range of functions over which it has responsibility. The Bill implements an important commitment from 'A Fresh Start' and sends out a positive message about our willingness to find better ways of doing business together.

I turn to the contributions that were made in the debate. I welcome the support of Alex Maskey and of Paul Frew, who commented that it had been a hard slog. I hope that he was not referring just to my contributions, because, of course, the Bill received accelerated passage.

[Laughter.]

However, he welcomed the progress and said that it was all good. I know that many Members in the Chamber will wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.

Mr Alex Attwood — unsurprisingly, I suppose — gave the Bill a rather muted welcome. I am indeed a relentless optimist on these issues. The Bill is undoubtedly a positive step. Absolutely no one is suggesting that it will resolve all the issues that we have, but it is an important step towards streamlining the Assembly. On his comment about the official from OFMDFM attending earlier today, I can confirm for the Member that that kind of cross-cutting, cross-departmental approach that is focused on changing and improving outcomes is being led at a policy level by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. It is a new and fresh approach, and we will push forward with the new agenda with passion and determination.

I do not agree with Mr Andy Allen that the uncertainty around the issue should continue into the next mandate. We need to get on with it and complete the work, and that is why today is such an important step in that regard. However, I welcome his support for the Bill's Final Stage.

In my opening remarks, I referred to the amendment put forward by the Alliance Party. I know that Mr Chris Lyttle understands the principles of agreement and compromise. I am therefore somewhat baffled as to why he is confused that we are standing by our word and supporting the agreement. That is agreement politics in action, and that is what we will continue to do. We are about reform and efficiency. I am passionate about making this place work, delivering excellent public services and keeping household costs down for our hard-working families, and that is why we are committed to a wider range of improvements and reforms, not just this important Bill today. Progress is being made, and we need to continue to drive it forward. I know that there is the energy and passion to do that in the Executive.

I will now deal with Mr John McCallister's comments. I hear that he is resisting some issues around the 108 MLAs. Perhaps it is the case a little bit that everybody wants change but nobody wants to change. Today, we are voting for that change — something that will impact directly on many people in the Chamber. That is a positive thing, because people expect a better and more efficient Assembly and better and more efficient government. I am firmly of the view that good government is not necessarily about the numbers or about keeping them at a high representative level. Rather, it is about the quality, passion and hard work of the individuals involved to deliver changes and the type of government that we want to see.

I am grateful for the interest that Members have shown. As I said, the Bill is an important and positive step. It is a good step for the Assembly, and it will change things for the better. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that this Bill requires cross-community support at Final Stage.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill [NIA 76/11-16] do now pass.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

As there are Ayes from all sides of the House and no dissenting voices, I am satisfied that cross-community support has been demonstrated. The Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Bill is passed.