Standing Order 45A

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:45 am on 13th October 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 13th October 2020

I beg to move

Leave out Standing Order 45A and insert “(1) Subject to paragraph (3), where, at a time when all Northern Ireland Ministers ceased to hold office, a party is entitled to nominate a person to hold ministerial office under section 18(2) to (6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and declines to do so, that party may choose to be recognised as part of the official Opposition. (2) Subject to paragraph (3), where, during the relevant period, a party is entitled to nominate a person to hold a ministerial office under section 18(10) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and declines to do so, that party may choose to be recognised as part of the official Opposition. (3) A party is not to be recognised as part of the official Opposition if any member of that party holds a ministerial office. (4) Where only one party chooses to be recognised in accordance with paragraph (1) or paragraph (2) that party is to be regarded as the official Opposition. (5) In this order 'relevant period' means the period of 2 years beginning with the date on which the ministerial offices are filled under 16A(3)(b) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order, Members. The Business Committee has agreed that 45 minutes should be allocated for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have five minutes to propose the motion and a further five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

On behalf of the Committee on Procedures, I am pleased to bring the motion to the House today, proposing the amending of Standing Order 45A. Currently, Standing Order 45A provides:

"where a party is entitled to nominate a person to hold Ministerial office under section 18(2) to (6) of the NI Act 1998; and declines to do so, that party may choose to be recognised as part of the official opposition."

It also states:

"A party is not to be recognised as part of the official opposition if any member of that party holds a Ministerial office, or held a Ministerial office and ceased to hold that office otherwise than at a time when all ... Ministers ceased to hold office."

It further states:

"Where only one party chooses to be recognised in accordance with paragraph (1) that party is to be regarded as the official opposition."

The Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act 2016 made provision for the formation and arrangements of an official Opposition. However, the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement contemplates an amendment to that Act to provide that:

"a party can enter the Official Opposition under the Act up to two years following the formation of the Executive."

Although official opposition was not chosen by the Committee as an immediate priority in its strategic planning, paragraph 3.6 in annex C of NDNA states that an amendment to Standing Orders:

"should be made to give effect to this within 3 months of the Assembly being reformed."

At its meeting on 29 January 2020, the Committee agreed to seek legal advice relating to official opposition arising from the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act. On 11 March 2020, the Committee received legal advice on the provisions in the Opposition Act, Standing Orders and the NI Act 1998 on the issue. The advice also explained the legal position should the Assembly make any necessary changes to Standing Orders to give effect to paragraph 3.6 of the NDNA agreement. As the Assembly first sat on 11 January 2020, the Committee agreed at its meeting in March to amend Standing Order 45A and, therefore, to remain within the three-month deadline of NDNA to amend Standing Orders by 11 April 2020. However, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Committee was asked to urgently consider temporary provisions to Standing Orders at its meeting on 25 March 2020. Therefore, the Committee agreed to defer consideration of Standing Order 45A.

As a result of the pandemic and following guidance from the Chairpersons' Liaison Group (CLG), the Committee agreed not to meet unless considering business related to COVID-19. Therefore, the meeting on 17 September 2020 was the next opportunity for the Committee to consider the amendment. At that meeting, the Committee received further legal advice and gave consideration to amending Standing Order 45A. During discussions, some members queried the rationale behind the two-year period following the formation of the Executive when a party can enter official opposition. The Committee agreed to defer its consideration until its next meeting, and, subsequently, I wrote to the Executive Office and the NIO to ask what the rationale for the two-year period was. A response was received from the Minister of State. In that response, the Committee noted that the parties recognised that it was right to provide for a longer period to enter opposition following an election, because the current time frame is very restrictive. There is also the need to prevent parties entering opposition for purely electoral purposes as an Assembly election approaches.

Some views were expressed on the Committee that the rationale for the two-year period was not clarified enough, and I am sure that you will hear from the Member about why he expressed his opposition to the motion. Nevertheless, at its meeting on 30 September 2020, the Committee agreed that Standing Order 45A should be amended and agreed the motion on the Order Paper today.

I acknowledge that the Committee has not met the deadline of implementing the amendment within three months of the Assembly being formed. However, given the circumstances that we find ourselves in today, the Committee has endeavoured to prioritise the amendment in its work programme and to bring the motion to the House today.

Finally, we must remember that the NDNA is a product of a five-party, cross-party agreement that returned us to these institutions. It is in the Committee's gift to bring its proposals to the House and to implement measures in NDNA for which it has responsibility.

I note that the previous item of business today related to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and dealt with the topic of an Opposition, as set out in paragraph 3.7 of annex C of NDNA —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

No problem.

As for Mr Allister's comments, there is no cosy cabal, I can assure you. Every day, many Members of the House who have Ministers in government behave as though they are in opposition, and it is their right to do so and their right to challenge.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion. As has been outlined — I will not repeat what was said — this derived from the 'New Decade, New Approach' document. There was, I suppose, healthy debate at the Procedures Committee about how it was arrived at, and, to be fair, it was from representatives who, perhaps, were not subject to that document. The House does well to be reminded that the NDNA document, like every other agreement, is full of compromise. Whether I think that this is the landing place that we, as a party, would have liked to be at at this point, from a procedural, Committee point of view, is almost irrelevant. We were tasked with going forward and honouring what was in that agreement. I made the point at the Committee that it is critical that, while we, no doubt, as a House, should and will challenge the Governments who are behind the agreement, we should collectively come together at every opportunity that we have to say that we have honoured it and have played our part. This was very much in the gift of the Procedures Committee. Therefore, I am pleased that we have brought it to the House.

I accept that there was a delay. The dates were set and, I have no doubt, could have been achieved, but, obviously with COVID, we all need to find a bit of grace and space to say that things that we would have liked to be done in a timely fashion could not be. I take the opportunity again to thank the Committee Clerks, who very quickly put their efforts into other work, in that time, that has been to the betterment of the House.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I support the motion. It is very clear that, for years, Alliance has said that an official Opposition should be in place. Like Mr Allister, we agree on the nonsense that we have with mandatory coalition. It forces together people who would not normally sit comfortably together.

In the winding-up speech, I would like clarification of the "relevant period" that is discussed in the Standing Order. Has the clock started ticking from January 2020? Does it apply in this mandate, or is it only for future mandates?

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Obviously, as we have heard, opposition does not exist and has not for many years. As I raised at the Committee, there is limited time for parties that are not in the Executive to have their say, to have speaking time and to scrutinise the Executive. The pandemic crisis that we are in has exposed the need for maximum scrutiny, transparency and opposition, where necessary. It seems to me from media reports in the last day, at least, that the Executive are in a dysfunctional stage.

Three weeks ago, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) apparently advised the British Government of the need to restrict workplaces, but they did not act. Yesterday, eventually, limited if not enough action was taken by the Tory Government. Today, we are still waiting on the Executive to make announcements. We are hearing that there may be announcements today, but there may not be. I am not on the Executive, so I do not know. That exposes the need for maximum scrutiny and maximum opposition, where necessary. We have one of the highest infection rates in the world, and it is deeply worrying that this amendment to Standing Orders will essentially restrict the role of a potential opposition even further. That point has to be emphasised.

As the Chair alluded to, I raised that point in Committee. I asked why the two-year limit was set, and we had correspondence from the Minister of State, Robin Walker, stating that the two-year limit should be in place to avoid parties using being in opposition purely for electoral purposes. Presumably, he thinks that parties should not be able to leave the Executive and join the Opposition beyond a two-year period because he has determined that that may be being done for electoral purposes. Surely that should not be his determination to make but that of this House. It should be the Committee and probably the Executive parties, to some extent, that determine that. It does not seem to be a sound argument. It seems to have been plucked from the air. It potentially limits the amount of time for democracy, accountability and scrutiny, and, for those reasons, I cannot give it my support.

It could also copper-fasten the rules of the big parties. If a current Executive party wanted to leave the Executive, it might do so because, internally, it has decided that that is the best mechanism for it and its constituents, but the time and resources that it could get as the official Opposition would be limited. If a period of two years and a month had passed, there would be pressure on parties not to pull out of the Executive because there would be limited opposition time and resources available to it. For those reasons and many more, I cannot support this change to Standing Orders.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 11:00 am, 13th October 2020

What a grudging, half-hearted endorsement, if you could even call it that, of opposition that you can have it but can access it only for two years. What a farce. If a situation arises in which, after two years, there is a bust-up on the Executive and a party, or parties, decides that it cannot stay in there any longer, all that it can do is join Gerry Carroll and me on these Benches, with no function, no powers and no opposition. What a fix by the parties that dominate government to shield themselves in the last years of the mandate from any effective opposition to make sure that they can neuter the voices that might oppose them by robbing them of any function of opposition. They are making sure that —.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

In a moment. They are making sure that, although parties could have had the full functions of opposition and all the backup of opposition if they had had the courage to go into opposition in the first two years, leaving it until after two years before an election means that all of that is taken away. What does that say about the Executive's bona fides and their commitment to even having an opposition if, at the end of that period, it is so disposable that it is simply binned?

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Thank you very much to Mr Allister for taking my intervention. I do not believe that anybody in this House is neutered at any time. There is only one of you, and I have never known you to be neutered. No party, and certainly not the larger parties, will be neutered. I do support resources and time being given to an opposition. We were given the rationale behind the two years. It was in NDNA and was not our choice. I agree with what the MLA who spoke previously said about how it would much better if the matter had come through the House and undergone Committee scrutiny. Unfortunately, that is not the position that we are in.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Member cannot say that she does not agree and then come to the House and propose the very thing that she does not agree with. If she did not agree with the two-year limitation, she would vote against it instead of moving the motion. The thing is a farce. It is also an invitation to the two big parties to simply bide their time until the two years are up before they give way to their natural inclination to doormat the minor parties in government — to make sure that they make their position as ineffective as possible within government and, as I say, to doormat them. What can those parties then do? Nothing. They can come and sit here, but they do not have the functions or powers of opposition, and those who would doormat them and drive them out have the luxury of knowing that they can do all that without facing opposition. That is farcical and ridiculous. It demonstrates the lack of sincerity by the main parties in the House about even the very concept of opposition. The totalitarianism that runs through the veins of some of them is very evident in this approach.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

I welcome the opportunity to conclude today's debate on the motion to amend the Standing Order. First, I would like to thank the Members who contributed and expressed concerns on this. As outlined, the amendment has come to the House today as the New Decade, New Approach agreement contemplates an amendment to the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 to provide that a party can enter the official Opposition under the Act up to two years following the formation of the Executive. We have heard concerns about the two years part of it in the Chamber today. The Chairperson began by setting out the time frame of the Committee's consideration and explained the reason why the deadline of three months, as set out in New Decade, New Approach, was not able to be met. If we had been in different circumstances than we find ourselves in today, the Committee would have brought these proposals to the House within the time frame of three months from the formation of the Executive in January 2020.

The Committee expedited the issue when it returned to normal proceedings in September and has fully considered the legal advice that it received. There was some opposition in the Committee to the amendment, and we have heard those concerns expressed in the House today. In particular, the political rationale behind the two-year period. However, in his response to the Committee, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland fully explained how that was determined.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Is the Member content that the reason given is that the two-year limit exists for purely electoral purposes? Is he content and happy with the answer that we received in the Committee?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

That was the response that was received when the Committee asked for the reason for the two-year period. That was the response from the Minister of State for Northern Ireland. That is the response that was received.

We have listened to the folk in the House today who have spoken on this. Sinéad Bradley spoke of the Committee being tasked with this issue as part of NDNA. As a Committee, we honoured our part in seeking to bring this issue forward. Kellie Armstrong also supported the change. Gerry Carroll outlined the concerns around the two-year rule, as he did in Committee, as did Jim Allister. However, I feel that, following an election, if parties within the Executive do not know after two years whether they want to go into opposition, it is a matter for them . They have a two-year space and a two-year opportunity. It is not that the Assembly or this change is against anything to do with an opposition; far from it. It is to set out the timeline for opposition. Surely if a party, for two years following an election, is not able to make up its mind on whether it wants to go into opposition, it is a matter for that party.

Finally, the New Decade, New Approach agreement is the basis under which all parties came back into the restored institutions. We need to try to move forward with the agreement. All parties have differences, and we will not agree with everything that is in New Decade, New Approach, but we have to collectively seek to try to take that forward. Today, the Committee and this House can lead by example and start to move forward.

In conclusion —

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

— I thank everyone for contributing to today's debate. Mr Allister had his opportunity to speak, and everyone has heard what everyone else had to say. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before we proceed to the Question, I remind everyone that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put.

Some Members:

Aye.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that we should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.

Before I put the Question again, I remind Members that, if possible, it would be preferable to avoid a Division.

Question put a second time.

Some Members:

Aye.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before the Assembly divides, I remind Members that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. Members who are voting in the Lobbies should continue to respect social distancing, and, at all times, follow the instructions of the Clerks.

I ask all Members to be patient as we take time to ensure that voting is carried out in a safe and proper manner.

The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 80; Noes 5

AYES

NATIONALIST:

Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin

UNIONIST:

Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir

OTHER:

Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle, Mr Muir

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr T Buchanan, Mr Harvey

NOES

UNIONIST:

Mr Allister, Ms Sugden

OTHER:

Ms Bailey, Mr Carroll, Miss Woods

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Allister, Mr Carroll

<TR><TD>Total Votes
85Total Ayes80[94.1%]
Nationalist Votes38Nationalist Ayes38[100.0%]
Unionist Votes37Unionist Ayes35[94.6%]
Other Votes10Other Ayes7[70.0%]
<BR/>

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

Leave out Standing Order 45A and insert “(1) Subject to paragraph (3), where, at a time when all Northern Ireland Ministers ceased to hold office, a party is entitled to nominate a person to hold ministerial office under section 18(2) to (6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and declines to do so, that party may choose to be recognised as part of the official Opposition. (2) Subject to paragraph (3), where, during the relevant period, a party is entitled to nominate a person to hold a ministerial office under section 18(10) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and declines to do so, that party may choose to be recognised as part of the official Opposition. (3) A party is not to be recognised as part of the official Opposition if any member of that party holds a ministerial office. (4) Where only one party chooses to be recognised in accordance with paragraph (1) or paragraph (2) that party is to be regarded as the official Opposition. (5) In this order 'relevant period' means the period of 2 years beginning with the date on which the ministerial offices are filled under 16A(3)(b) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)