Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 5 October 1998


Presiding Officer’s Business

Assembly: Committees on Standing Orders and on Devolution

Procedural Consequences of Devolution

Pig Industry

Assembly: Adjournment Debates

City of Belfast: Development

Equality Commission

Mid-Ulster Hospital (Acute Services)


Whiteabbey Hospital


The Assembly met at 2.00 pm (The Initial Presiding Officer (The Lord Alderdice of Knock) in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.


Presiding Officer’s Business

The Initial Presiding Officer:

By virtue of paragraph 1 of the schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, it falls to the Secretary of State to determine where and when meetings of the Assembly shall be held. I have received from the Minister of State, Mr Murphy, a letter advising me that

"The Secretary of State directs that the Assembly shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont at 10.30 on Monday 5 October until 6.00 pm on Friday 30 October."

It is also the responsibility of the Secretary of State, under paragraph 10 of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, to determine the Standing Orders of the Assembly during the shadow period. The Minister of State, Mr Murphy, has further written advising me that the Secretary of State has considered and agrees to the proposal from the Committee on Standing Orders, set out in the letter of the Joint Chairman, Mr Cobain, to the Minister, dated 17 September 1998, that the number of seats on each Assembly Committee should be increased by one. The Secretary of State has therefore determined that paragraphs 15(2) and 16(2) of the Initial Standing Orders are amended to read as follows:

"15(2) Committees shall consist of not less than 10 and not more than 19 members and shall be such that, as far as is practicable, there is a fair reflection of the parties participating in the Assembly and that each party with at least two Members shall have at least one seat on each Committee."

"16(2) The Committee shall consist of the Initial Presiding Officer (who shall be Chairperson), the Deputy Presiding Officer and not less than eight and not more than 17 Members appointed by the Initial Presiding Officer, following consultation with the leaders of the parties of the Assembly, and shall be such that, so far as is practicable, there is a fair reflection of the parties participating in the Assembly and that each party with at least two Members, shall have at least one place."

Members should note that at this stage the rest of the Initial Standing Orders remain unchanged.

I have previously observed that the Initial Standing Orders give only limited guidance on the conduct of our business, both inside and outside the Chamber. In such a period of transition that may be inevitable, but it can lead to misunderstandings. In particular, the way in which the Initial Presiding Officer should conduct himself is rather ill-defined. I have two remarks about how I intend to interpret my role during my time in office.

I have decided to adopt the definition that was given in Speaker Lenthall’s description of his duties:

"I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here."

For that reason I have not given, and do not intend to give, any interviews or comment on matters pertaining to the content of our business here. Therefore I am adopting the conventions that are often referred to as Speaker’s Rules.

Having dealt with conduct, I shall now turn to rulings. The Committee on Standing Orders, under the joint chairmanship of Mr Fred Cobain and Mr Denis Haughey, was mandated by the Assembly to develop a comprehensive set of orders for the guidance and regulation of our work. Although those will not become our Standing Orders until they have been adopted by the Assembly and approved by the Secretary of State, I intend to use any agreement that is reached by the Committee on Standing Orders as guidance in interpreting the Initial Standing Orders. Of course, where there is a conflict, the Initial Standing Orders must prevail.

It may also be helpful if I clarify the role of some of the items which are being sent out to Members. Four sheets of paper went out to Members last Thursday by special delivery — the Order Paper for the upcoming Assembly sitting, the business diary for the following two weeks, the schedule of forthcoming business and the all-party notices. The Order Paper and the business diary speak for themselves. The forthcoming business paper lists only those upcoming matters which have been agreed to be tabled. If nothing has been listed under forthcoming business it should not be assumed that no business will take place on that day; it means simply that no business has yet been agreed for that day.

It is important that Members understand that the all-party notices are not only a way of communicating administrative arrangements from the Secretariat to Members. Members may also use them to communicate with each other. For example, a Member may sponsor a meeting in a Committee room, which is open to all Assembly Members. That could be included by advising the Second Clerk of the details in advance.

These four papers will continue to be sent to Members by special delivery on Thursday evenings.

Later this week, we hope to have available a first version of the Assembly Members’ Handbook. This will be in the form of a loose-leaf binder so that the information contained in it can be updated regularly. Feedback on all this material, including problems with arrangements for delivery, would be most helpful.

At the last sitting of the Assembly a Shadow Assembly Commission was elected, and it has met on three occasions. To enable Members to follow the Commission’s deliberations, I have, with the agreement of its members, arranged for a copy of the minutes of each of its meetings to be placed in the Library. It is intended that this practice will be continued. When the Commission judges that there are substantive issues which ought to be brought before the Assembly, a statement will be made in the Chamber.

Following the terrible events in Omagh, the Secretary of State appointed Mr John McConnell to assist, on behalf of the Government, in the process of rebuilding lives and property so terribly damaged. The Assembly’s concerns demonstrated in the debate at its last sitting have been noted, and Mr McConnell has produced a brief note for the Assembly on progress to date. He has forwarded this to me, and I have placed a copy of it in the Library.

Committees on Standing Orders and on Devolution


Motion made:

That the composition of the Committee on Standing Orders and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution be amended to comply with the revised Initial Standing Orders issued by the Secretary of State by adding to each of their numbers one member of the United Unionist Assembly Party. — [The Initial Presiding Officer]

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I advised the Assembly that the Secretary of State had determined to amend paragraph 15(2) of the Initial Standing Orders by increasing the upper limit of membership from 18 to 19, and paragraph 16(2) by increasing the upper limit of membership of the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer from 16 to 17. Since the responsibility for decisions about the latter rests with the Initial Presiding Officer, I have decided to invite the United Unionist Assembly Party to nominate a member to that Committee. The motion, which is self-explanatory, permits the newly established United Unionist Assembly Party to be represented on the Committee of Standing Orders and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution. It seeks the Assembly’s agreement to this course of action and requires a simple majority.

Mr Maskey:

A Chathaoirligh, Sinn Fein will support the motion on the basis that this is a transitional arrangement which will not bind the Assembly proper to any particular course of action, and I have already discussed this with you, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. While we will always support the principle of proportionality in all matters relating to the work of the Assembly, we will, nevertheless, want to ensure, because of the unique arrangements and procedures which apply here, that there is no scope, by default or otherwise, for abuse of the system here in terms of cross-community representation, parallel consensus, or, further down the line, the d’Hondt system. We support the motion only insofar as it applies to these Committees which will have a very short lifespan.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

The view of the Democratic Unionist Party is that this is natural justice — justice being seen to be done. If some Members are prepared to try to deny the rights of other Members to serve on Committees in accordance with party strengths, my party will contest that matter hotly with them. Every Member here should be duly represented on the Committees of the House.

Mr Haughey:

The composition of the Committees which will be set up after the Assembly moves from its shadow form will be based on a completely different procedure from that adopted here. The Committee on Standing Orders was aware of this when it made this proposal.

Question put and agreed to.


That the composition of the Committee on Standing Orders and the Ad Hoc Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution be amended to comply with the revised Initial Standing Orders issued by the Secretary of State by adding to each of their numbers one member of the United Unionist Assembly Party.


Procedural Consequences of Devolution

Mr McFarland:

I beg to move

That the Assembly takes note of the interim report prepared by the Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution.

At the meeting on 14 September 1998, the Assembly agreed to the establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution. The terms of reference of the Committee required it to

"consider the procedural consequences of devolution as they are likely to affect the relationship between, and working of, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the United Kingdom Parliament, and by Tuesday 6 October to submit a report to the Assembly which, if approved, will be forwarded to the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons".

The Committee, in essence, was tasked to consider relationships between Westminster and the Assembly and, in particular, how procedures at Westminster may have to change to reflect the new arrangements here. The deadline of 6 October was set by the Assembly to comply with a request from the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons that we present a report to it by 9 October. The Committee has met on four occasions, on the first of which I was elected Chairman.

There are a number of issues upon which the Committee will seek to develop a view. These include the roles of the Northern Ireland Select Committee and the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. Under the arrangements for devolution, many matters which currently come before these Committees will come before the Assembly. This will have a knock-on effect on the workings and procedures of those Committees — clearly, something that this Committee will wish to consider.

Next, we must examine the procedures that relate to parliamentary questions.

2.15 pm

How many of you will be aware of the 1923 ruling by the Speaker at both Stormont and at Westminster which stated that matters devolved to the Stormont Parliament should no longer be addressed from the Floor of the House of Commons because the Ministers responsible for such matters were in the Stormont Parliament? Should this ruling continue under the new arrangements?

The question of the proper scrutiny of public expenditure in the Northern Ireland Departments is overseen, at the moment, by the Public Accounts Committee at the House of Commons. If such matters are devolved to Ministers and to this Assembly, there may be a case for having a separate Public Accounts Committee in Northern Ireland answerable to the Assembly. These are matters that are likely to have a knock-on effect on how Westminster does its business.

There are different views on how European legislation should be dealt with. Currently it comes forward to Parliament, which legislates on behalf of the United Kingdom. Should that continue or should the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly look at the European matters on their respective Floors?

There is also the question of the role and views of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. The famous West Lothian question has been raised by Tam Dalyell, the Member of Parliament for West Lothian, and asks whether Scottish Members of Parliament will have the right to consider and vote in the House of Commons on matters that pertain to England when English Members of Parliament will not be able, after devolution, to discuss matters devolved to Scotland. If that principle were extended to Northern Ireland, it would clearly have an effect on what happens at Westminster.

The question is how to delineate the responsibilities of the Secretary of State, who will retain responsibility at Westminster, and the authority of the Assembly, and again there are ramifications on how Westminster is likely to do its business.

The next stage is for the Procedures Committee to consider some complex oral evidence and seek guidance from the Standing Orders Committee, constitutional lawyers and the Procedures Committee at the House of Commons itself. Initial discussions with the Procedures Committee shows that it would accept comments received by early November. The Committee is therefore seeking to renegotiate the deadline because of the complexity of the issues involved and the amount that Members need to learn. Although we have Mr McGrady, Mr McCrea and Mr McCartney, who are either serving or former Members of Parliament, and although I spent three years as a parliamentary assistant at Westminster, there are many members of the Committee who are not familiar with how Westminster operates.

There is also uncertainty about the Bill. Many clauses in that Bill may be changed completely by the time it comes in to law, so there may be ramifications there and, indeed, for the inclusive nature of the Assembly’s Standing Orders. There are three parts to this question: first, what will the Bill eventually say; secondly, what will the Assembly’s Standing Orders say; and, thirdly, how the Committee will view changes to Westminster’s role.

There is also curiosity about how the proceedings in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will operate. They will be different and, most importantly of all, they have not yet been elected. I understand that various teams have been liaising with the Cabinet Office to produce outline Standing Orders for them so that when they come into being, they will have something on paper. Clearly, because of the knock-on effects, it is likely that all three devolved institutions will want to have similar relationships with Westminster.

There are major constitutional implications, and the Committee believes that it would be wrong to rush its conclusions. The Committee is, therefore, seeking the leave of the Assembly to continue its work for a further month and report to the House by 6 November. I hope that the interim report has given a flavour of the challenge faced by the Procedures Committee and that an extension will be permitted.

Mr P Robinson:

I want to make several comments as a preface to my remarks on this report. The first is that there are some bad habits creeping in to our procedures. I did not receive a copy of the report until this morning when I arrived in the building and made an effort to get it myself. Any report which is open to debate and amendable should be with Members well in advance of our session.

I appreciate that the Committee had a deadline to meet, but I am sure that its Members were not working over the weekend, and presumably they had completed their task — in as far as it went — before the end of business on Friday. It would have been helpful if some way had been found to have it with us on Saturday. It had still not arrived when I left home this morning, and I now find myself having to speak on a report of which I have been able to give only a cursory look. I make that point as, I hope, a helpful criticism.

Secondly, I note that this is the second time that the Assembly has delegated a task to individuals or to a Committee, and it has not been fulfilled. I understand that this is a complex subject and that some Members will have to read themselves into it and become more acquainted with the issue, but no matter how many Committee meetings it takes, there is a duty on the Committees and on the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) to comply with the Assembly’s requirement and provide a report by the stipulated day. In saying that, I have no doubt made myself universally unpopular with colleagues in my party and in other parties who will, of course, indicate how much work has been done on that Committee.

Where a task has been set it must be fulfilled. Having said that, I support them in their desire to complete the job, and I hope that it will be fulfilled within the extended period. I want to encourage them. This is a part of the United Kingdom which has an elected body, and it is important that we play our full part. We should not — and I ask Members not to get to their feet on this one — become territorial on these matters whether we are in central government, regional government or local government.

We should not forget that our main purpose is to provide a service for people. If we say that we are not going to provide the information that people may need to do their job, then, ultimately, our constituents will suffer, and if Members of Parliament require information relating to devolved matters, we should not reasonably withhold it.

There is currently a procedure in the House of Commons whereby if I put down a Question, written or otherwise, for a Minister on a matter which might be the responsibility of, say, the Housing Executive, the Minister, although not immediately responsible, may, after speaking to the Chairman of the Housing Executive and obtaining the answer, place it in the library and thus make it available for all Members of Parliament.

Equally, a devolved Minister may feel that he is directly responsible to this Assembly — and so he or she would be — but if a Member of Parliament at Westminster wanted to have some information about a road scheme in Northern Ireland, it would be unreasonable for that Minister to refuse to tell him because he was not an Assembly Member. The answer should be provided through the Secretary of State, who can either reply directly to the Member or place the answer in the House of Commons’ library as a response from the Minister in Northern Ireland’s devolved Government.

We should remember that, ultimately, Ministers in this Assembly have a responsibility for whatever duties they carry out, and they should be answerable to the people. If somebody at Westminster feels that they have a pertinent question, they should have the right to ask it and get an answer.

I am sure that we in the United Kingdom family will want to strengthen our relationship with Westminster and with the United Kingdom as a whole, rather than try to put a wall around our procedures here and simply say, "We are answerable only to this Assembly and to no one else."

Mrs Nelis:

Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. Part of the The Ad Hoc Committee’s terms of reference was to comment on the press notice that was issued by the Procedure Committee at Westminster. It is premature for the Ad Hoc Committee to try to address the Procedure Committee’s comments. The Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee has said that the task of trying to comment on the procedural consequence of devolution presented great difficulties for the majority of Members. The Ad Hoc Committee was not initially in possession of all the necessary information. At the outset it was not in possession of any information at all. There were also problems due to Standing Orders not being completed.

It is perfectly understandable that the Ad Hoc Committee has not completed a report on its comments. The Assembly will have to take note of the procedural consequences when the North/South bodies are set up and the Assembly is directly engaged in a relationship with Dáil Éireann at Leinster House.

Mr McCartney:

Mr Robinson spoke about "a report". In the words of Humpty-Dumpty, a report can be anything you want it to be. This report does nothing other than set out the problems that faced the Committee from day one.

The Committee could have reported by any date. It could have submitted a report stating "We have nothing to report". It could have said, "On the basis of the information that is currently available to us, it is impossible to make a report that would in any way be relevant to the consideration of the matters about which we are asked to inquire".

I was unable to attend the first two meetings of this Committee. Mr Cedric Wilson deputised for me. At the third meeting I discovered a peremptory order that a final report had to be delivered by today. I made it clear to the Committee that I would not in any circumstances lend my name to a final report that contained absolutely nothing of value. I do not criticise the members of the Committee because at this stage there is no reason why they should have any knowledge of the procedural esoterics of Select Committees and the like in the House of Commons. No member of the Committee, other than those with parliamentary experience, had, to use an Ulster expression, "a baldie" about what was going on. Such a situation came about because, in its press notice, the Westminster Procedure Committee said that it wanted our comments by a specific date. As a result there was minor hysteria in the Assembly about providing a report by that date.

A meaningful report could not be provided for the following reasons. First, the Northern Ireland legislation had not gone through all its stages in the Commons and the necessary substantial material was unavailable.

2.30 pm

Secondly, in order to liaise and relate the Standing Orders of this Assembly with the procedural Standing Orders for the House of Commons, it would be necessary for the Standing Orders of the Assembly to be complete. They are far from complete — the Standing Orders Committee is still in existence.

Thirdly, it would have been necessary to have at least the substance of the provisions that will pertain between the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and Westminster in order to make meaningful and sensible comparisons between what was going to happen between Westminster and those bodies in circumstances not largely different from our own.

The result was that the Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution was not in a position to deliver anything of substance. Therefore the Committee agreed that it would produce an interim report which in essence says "We have nothing to tell you. Here, in layman’s language, is a list of the problems that we will address". However, in terms of addressing those problems or making recommendations, it says zilch. I doubt that there will be any significant improvement on the matter by November.

The Assembly should have responded to the House of Commons press notice by stating that it would be impossible to make any meaningful comments by the date suggested, and that when the Assembly is in a position to make comments, we will make them. Why was that not done? Why are we debating this issue today? In my submission this is filler. There is no reason why the Assembly’s time should be taken up with this motion, had it been properly addressed initially. The only reason it appears here is so that the public can see that the Assembly is doing something. The truth is that, on this item, it is doing virtually nothing.

The real issues to be addressed are the democratic foundations upon which this Assembly is supposed to operate. Will they be democratic or will they be controlled by the possession of weapons by a private army supporting one of the parties allegedly participating in the democratic process? That is what we should be talking about. We should be talking about the circumstances in which the North/South bodies are to be set up, if they are to be set up. We should be talking about the terms in which members of the Executive are entitled to be members of the Executive on the basis of any democratic principles. Instead we are talking about an issue that should not be considered at this stage. If anyone had addressed it with any logic and common sense, he would have replied that at this time, there is simply not available any of the most basic and relevant information that would enable us to make a meaningful report.

The interim report is largely a non-report. It is time this Assembly started addressing issues of substance, instead of manufacturing issues such as this.

Mr A Maginness:

I congratulate the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on the production of the interim report. I do not share the views expressed by Assembly Member, Mr McCartney. The reality is that the Committee was faced with an instruction from the Assembly to prepare a report within a certain time. It became evident that that would not be possible, but we endeavoured to fulfil the instruction given by the Assembly.

Given the time available and the resources at our disposal, in terms of expert advice and assistance, I believe that we have produced a good and fair interim report.

The report flags up in a straightforward and common-sense way the problems that will exist with the procedural consequences of devolution. It was designed specifically to assist and advise Members.

We decided not to rush into a definitive document — it would clearly have been impossible to do that — but in the time available it was our desire to give as many people as possible the benefit of the Committee’s discussions.

I will not repeat Mr McFarland’s meticulous and fair comments, which reflected the standard of his Chairmanship and the co-operation that exists on the Committee. I regret Mr McCartney’s remarks and, indeed, those of Mr Robinson, whose criticisms were petty and churlish and reflected poorly on the Member.

This is the best interim report that could be produced in the time available. Members will be able to learn quite a lot from it and investigate further the issues that have been highlighted so ably by the Committee.

Furthermore, at that Committee meeting it was agreed — albeit in Mr McCartney’s absence — that there would be a self-denying ordinance and that the Committee’s Chairman would move the motion asking the Assembly to take note of the report.

Mr McCartney:

Does Mr Maginness accept that I was not present and that had I been, I would not have given my consent to any such self-denying ordinance? Furthermore, does the Member also agree that it was my suggestion that the report be an interim one and not a final one and that the relevant issues be set out in plain language?

Mr A Maginness:

I do not know whether Mr McCartney would or would not have consented to the Committee’s agreed line, but I do know that he did not remain for the full Committee meeting. The fact that he was absent is for Mr McCartney to explain to his party and to the Assembly. If the United Kingdom Unionist Party had wanted to ensure that the Committee’s position was not the one that it adopted, it should have been there to ensure that.

Mr McCartney did raise the issue of an interim report, and that was easily agreed with the rest of the Committee. It was a common-sense proposition, and there was no dissent on it. We did not have to rely on Mr McCartney’s learned skills to come to that conclusion.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

While a Committee is quite entitled to say that it is not going to discuss a matter when it comes to the Floor, it cannot bind any other Member. The Committee is reporting to this House, and if it wants the Chairman to deal with the matter while everyone else says nothing, it is quite entitled to do so, but it is not entitled to stifle debate on the Floor of the House.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I was taking this as a point of order, and I am not sure that points of information can be taken at this time.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I want to show how reconciled I am with the Member and he can say what he likes. I want to give him freedom.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

That may well be so. Was that a point of order, Dr Paisley?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:


The Initial Presiding Officer:

I cannot take a point of information in a point of order.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I had not finished my point of order.

I ask you, Mr Presiding Officer, to make a ruling. Mr McCartney said there were certain matters that we should be debating – and I believe we should be debating them. If a motion in respect of those matters were to be put down, would you accept it, and could those matters be discussed at a future sitting?

The Initial Presiding Officer:

This is not a point of order as far as this debate is concerned. Mr McCartney took a degree of licence in regard to the breadth of his comments. As far as the specific question is concerned, any motion may be brought forward and discussed by the Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer which will look at the style of motions and their format. Up until now we have had what are called "take-note debates" — debates which are not amendable and for which the House will not divide.

That may not accommodate the concerns raised by Mr McCartney or Dr Paisley, but if motions are proposed, they will be considered.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Mr Initial Presiding Officer, I am entitled to put a point of order on something that you have allowed. You were lenient with the hon Gentleman, so I, too, am entitled to leniency. He must have been in order, and, therefore, I am entitled to put a point of order on what was in order.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

He was indeed in order; you have not gone out of order, and the next in the line of order is Mr Seamus Close.

Mr Close:

It would be fair to say, both literally and metaphorically, that this is ‘Much ado about Nothing’. The report caused difficulties for the entire Committee. Instead of sniping at Committee Members, people should recognise that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Committee Members should be applauded; they are saying that the task with which they were charged was impossible to complete in the allotted time for various reasons outlined by other Members — the Northern Ireland Bill has not yet been completed, the Standing Orders are not yet completed. We were charged with an impossible task, but we were big enough, bold enough and man enough to admit that.

Paragraph 11 of the interim report states

"The Committee is concerned about coming to hasty conclusions simply to meet the Procedures Committee’s deadline."

It would be a very foolish committee that accepted a deadline and said "To pot with the content; we will meet that deadline." This Committee is not going to fall into that trap; we need more time, we have asked for more time, and I expect that the House will give us more time in order to perform such an important task. We must all fully accept our responsibilities and not be slipshod in the face of a false and inoperable deadline.

2.45 pm

Mr P Robinson:

The deadline was set not by somebody out in the back streets but by the Assembly, and I cannot recall the Members saying that it was unachievable. Before he sets a new deadline, as recommended in the report, is he satisfied that this Committee will produce a good report by that deadline?

Mr Close:

I am hopeful that a full report, which will be educational for Members, will come to the House by the date set because it is wrong for any Committee to create an elitist little group which keeps to itself information that should be presented to all Members.

I disagree with the comments made by the Member for North Down, Mr McCartney. The Assembly should not be used, either now or in the future, to renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement.

Ms Morrice:

It has been said that the report is not complete and, perhaps, that we have not carried out our duties. It is important that the Assembly and the wider public know that I and other members of the Committee learned two very important lessons from our meetings. The first concerns Mr Robinson’s remark about not being territorial. This was vital to our work. We are not alone in Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is going through an incredibly fascinating process of devolution, from which we must learn. We must also learn from these islands as a whole, from Europe and from the wider world. I am attempting to broaden the picture. We have examples of best practice in places like Spain, Belgium, Germany, America and Canada. We must learn from those examples and also from the mistakes which have been made.

The second lesson concerns education, the learning curve that was referred to. Mr Close suggested that we should not form an elite group which gathers information but does not disseminate it. Openness, transparency and speaking plainly in a language which is understood are vital, a language which is understood by, as we used to say in the BBC, "the man, the woman and the child on the Ormeau Road bus". We need to be understood by everyone, and that is very important. We do not want the report to be issued until it is complete because we want it to be an education for Members of the Assembly and everyone outside as well.

I commend the report to the Assembly.

Mr S Wilson:

One thing that we have learnt from this debate is that politicians are quite touchy, but the legal profession is equally so, and politicians who are also members of the legal profession are extremely touchy. Much of this debate has been taken up unnecessarily by people who are concerned about damaged egos.

The one thing which all the Committee members can genuinely say is that we have done our best to complete the task that we were set. We have not spent time unnecessarily contemplating the devolution label. Many of us, when we started, thought that the answers to some of the questions put to us by the Procedures Committee of the House of Commons could be easily and quickly answered.

As we took evidence we found that the issues were much more complex, and that there were more constraints than we had envisaged at the outset. The Committee cannot be faulted for not having done its work. As a teacher I had to make a distinction between people who did not do their homework and people who did not do their homework in the way that I thought it should have been done. The homework has been done, but perhaps some Members expected a different result. To date we have done the task we were required to do, and the report shows that.

We were constrained because the legislation is not yet complete. We were also constrained — as was pointed out by some of the people who gave evidence to us — by not having Standing Orders completed for the Assembly. That is not an excuse; it is a fact. As far as the Democratic Unionist Party is concerned — and this reflects the views of many other members of the Committee — the general principle is that the Assembly is an integral part of the governmental arrangements for the United Kingdom. We do not wish — it would not be possible anyway, as was pointed out to us by some of those who gave evidence — to make recommendations or push a line which would totally divorce this Assembly from the rest of government in the United Kingdom.

The House of Commons, which is the supreme authority on governmental arrangements within the United Kingdom, must equally have a say and responsibility, and its Members should be able to scrutinise and know what is going on in this part of the United Kingdom. To some extent we are guinea pigs, being the first regional Assembly to have the opportunity to make a submission on the matter; the Assemblies in Scotland and Wales are not yet up and running and therefore are not able to give evidence. That was a further constraint upon us — a kind of self-denying ordinance. There are things which may well be within the remit of the Assembly, but there must also be accountability at Westminster.

Another important factor which we contemplated at great length was the fact that, whether we like it or not, Westminster provides most of the funding for Northern Ireland and, therefore, it will require input and scrutiny on how those funds are spent, even though the matter may be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr Close perhaps sat on the fence, as is his wont, when the question was put to him by Mr Robinson. In the end, I believe we will produce a magnificent report; the input from the Committee will be of quality, and we will approach the task with professionalism and diligence. Of course, it is just possible that when the final report is presented to the Assembly, my party colleagues may point in derision at it, but I do not think that will be the case. The Committee has not rushed fences or produced superficial recommendations. The final report which this Assembly will receive will be one which will be of use to the Procedural Committee of the House of Commons and will ensure good governmental arrangements between this region and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

I support the comments made by my colleague, so I will be brief. Most people will agree that this is an inconsequential report. Indeed, some Members’ comments have also been inconsequential. We would love to have a serious debate on the real issues facing this country. We would love to be debating the issue of decommissioning, or whether terrorists should be in the Government of Northern Ireland. We would love to be debating those issues which concern every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland. However, the point is that we have been asked to deal with a technical matter, and we should not walk away from that, rather we should make the best go of it and ensure that the Committee brings forward a report.

Unfortunately the position outlined repeatedly in the Committee by Mr Wilson is not the one that his party appears to have adopted today, but I am sure that when we go back to the Committee we will find that the position is not as stark as it appears.

Turning to the content of the report, I think it is important that a principle is established. Indeed, many Unionist Members have already referred to it.

This is Westminster’s responsibility. We are an integral part of the United Kingdom, and it is up to the Government to determine our relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom.

However, it is fair that Westminster should say to the Assembly "Give us your advice. Tell us how you would like the procedures to operate." We have an opportunity to have an input into the Westminster Procedure Committee’s thinking about how devolution and the procedures of devolution should operate. I look forward to conventions and procedures being established which do not tie and restrict either this body or Westminster, which are durable and flexible and workable and which allow this Assembly, in terms of its relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, to function as best as is possible. It is important that we have the opportunity to scrutinise and, where Westminster deems us competent, to legislate. We must urgently establish a channel of communication with Westminster so that we have full access to information — for example, draft European legislation — and that we are able to give advice from a Northern Ireland perspective. I ask the Assembly to let us go back into Committee and prepare a more comprehensive report by 6 November which makes our views clear.

Mr McFarland:

I am reminded of the story of the tourist asking for directions who was told by a local "If I were going there, I would not start from here." The Committee has worked hard, but concern was expressed as to whether we would be able to report in time. As I understand it, the position of the legislation will be fairly clear by early November, which should give us time to reflect upon it.

3.00 pm

I am encouraged by the comments of the Democratic Unionist Party and by those of Mr Wilson, whom I thank for his support. The Committee was goodhumoured and, apart from some noises off, it has worked well. I also thank the Committee Clerk for producing all sorts of background material. He rarely got home before 8.00 pm. I urge Members to support the motion and the time extension.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Assembly takes note of the interim report prepared by the Committee on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution.


Pig Industry

Motion made:

To call attention to the unprecedented and ongoing crisis within the pig industry, and to call upon Her Majesty’s Government, in conjunction with the European Union, the banks and those involved in the processing sector, to take the necessary immediate steps to alleviate the present crisis and ensure the future viability of the pig industry within Northern Ireland; and to move for papers. — [Rev Dr Ian Paisley]

The Initial Presiding Officer:

Let me say something about how I shall, by leave of the Assembly, conduct the debate on this motion, which begins "To call attention to" and ends "and to move for papers." It is the practice elsewhere that such motions should not be contentious or amendable and are not pressed to a division. The mover of the motion is accorded the right of reply and will formally beg leave of the House to withdraw the motion.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

The motion was originally in the name of my deputy, Mr Robinson. As there are few farmers in East Belfast, I am taking it over for the farmers of North Antrim and elsewhere. I became uneasy when my colleague, Mr Sammy Wilson, also from East Belfast, spoke about guinea pigs. There are no guineas in the pig industry. It is in serious crisis, and it is right that public representatives should have this opportunity to express their views on the serious situation in farming.

The industry is important. It employs about 4,000 people, has 1,800 producers and 2,200 processors and is worth approximately £200 million to the Northern Ireland economy. Those who know the pig industry knows that its fortunes rise and fall, but this could be its final fall, and Northern Ireland could be left with no viable pig industry. When some Members of the Assembly met the Minister, Lord Dubs, they put just one question to him. They asked, "Do you want a viable pig industry in Northern Ireland or are you prepared to preside over its demise?" The pig industry is not on the road to recovery. We face its demise, and we had better wake up to that hard, terrifying fact.

The pig industry had the fire at the factory in Ballymoney, and that was a terrible blow. Forty per cent of the killing and curing power was taken out of the industry. Such a blow in any industry would have been seen as an emergency in any other part, not only of the United Kingdom but of the whole of Europe. Yet our Government, and those who sit farther down the road from us in this very estate, did not think it was an emergency. They did not go immediately to Europe and say that 40% of our industry had been destroyed. We expect them to do for us what has been done in Germany, in France, in Spain and in Italy in such situations. The Government have never acknowledged this to be an emergency situation. In fact, wearing the hat of a Member of the European Parliament, I approached the Government and asked what approaches they were making to Europe. They replied that they were making no approaches to Europe because there is no money in Europe for this.

I then went to Europe. I talked to Mr Fischler, the Commissioner, and he said that there is money in Europe. This is an emergency, but the United Kingdom Government have made no application for help. So I went back and they said they would consider the matter. After considering the matter they decided that they were not going to make an application. However, there will be a debate in the European Parliament this week on the pig industry and its tragedies, and I welcome that.

The United Kingdom Government, the Secretary of State and our Ministers should have been on the ball to get from Europe not charity but something that we have paid for. Northern Ireland, according to the Exchequer at Westminster, has never got out of Europe what we have paid in per head of our population while the United Kingdom has been a member. It is all right for the Irish Republic to get £6 million a day, but we have never got out what we have paid in. The Government have not been faithful stewards of the pig industry, and for that I castigate them.

Mr McCartney:

Dr Paisley has said that killing and processing have been reduced by 40% owing to the fire at Lovell & Christmas in Ballymoney. Is he aware that the remaining 60% capacity is increasingly being taken up by the processing of pigs imported from the Republic of Ireland?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I was about to come to that. I am very glad that things from the South can be slain in Northern Ireland, but our pigs should have priority.

I come now to the very important matter of pricing. It is very important. In the basement cafeteria here I asked for a sausage and was told that it cost 35p. I then asked for a slice of bacon to go round the sausage, and that was another 30p — 65p for one sausage and one slice of bacon. Look at the prices the farmers are getting for their pigs. Why is it, with the drastic fall in the price to the farmer, that the housekeeper and the buyer in the shops are getting nothing? In fact, it seems that the prices of pork and bacon are rising, not falling.

During the week that commenced 20 June 1998, around the time of the fire, the price was 85p per kilo. During the next two weeks Maltons had no pigs taken in, but in the week that commenced 6 July 1998 it shipped its first pigs to England at 85p per kilo. During the next week it shipped again, and the price dropped to 78p per kilo. No pigs were moved during the next week, but in the week that commenced 27 July 1998, the price dropped to 60p per kilo. No pigs were moved during the week after that, and during the following week the price dropped to 50p per kilo. These are drastic cuts in price.

The farmers waited impatiently — and rightly so — for Maltons to make a decision. There were lots of negotiations, which I will not go into today, and I am aware of them all but the Industrial Development Board paid a large subsidy to buy Wilsons, the Unipork people, and make the deal with Maltons. I must pay tribute to Lord Dubs and the Industrial Development Board because a lot of money was paid for this. Wilsons changed hands and did very well out of the deal — Mr Wilson got all his debts paid, and £10 million into his hand as well. He nearly did as well as he has done out of mushrooms, but that is a story for another day.

We all thought that the first priority in Cookstown would be to kill Northern Ireland pigs. What has happened? Northern Ireland pigs have been killed, but more pigs from the South have been killed in Cookstown than ever before. A backlog of pigs is now rising. Somewhere in the region of 20,000 pigs are waiting to be slaughtered. If that figure rises to 40,000, where will the pig industry be? We, as public representatives, have a duty to make known our alarm about what is taking place. There are no two arguments to this.

These are facts, and facts are stubborn things. I cannot give names, but I have studied these figures very carefully. Producer A, since the fire, has been able to ship just 28% of his pigs. All Members, even those who have no experience of farming, will know that pigs have to be fed. And, of course, if the pigs get too fat, the farmer will not benefit from all the meal that he has bought. In fact, the pigs become a liability. That is the tragedy. Producer B has shipped 39% of his pigs, while producer C has shipped only 30%.

It is important to remember that the farmers have to wait 12 days before getting a penny in payment. There is no cash flow in the pig industry today. These people have their backs against the wall. Indeed, some of them have contemplated suicide. That is a fact. They have had to be counselled. Why? Because people in the pig industry always had a cash flow and worked hard to make their industry viable. Now they cannot meet the feed bills. I understand that around £40 million is owed to the millers at present.

3.15 pm

What have public representatives done? Assembly Members have met all the bankers, together with the Secretary of the Northern Ireland Banks Association. We have talked to them. We have pleaded with them to ease their pressure on farmers.

They told us that they had difficulties, but we said that banks did not go bankrupt. They are all in the money. They boast of making millions of pounds every year but farmers are going bankrupt. The banking sector has a responsibility.

We have also talked to the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. Last weekend, we put pressure on it again about the slaughtering of pigs that had been raised in the Republic of Ireland. I was at a meeting at which the Social Democratic and Labour Party Member for Mid Ulster, Mr Haughey, proposed that pigs be sent to a factory across the border to be slaughtered. Instead of that, pigs from the South are being brought up to Cookstown to be slaughtered, thus preventing the slaughter of pigs that have been reared in Northern Ireland.

The Government must face their responsibilities. This is an ongoing crisis. The backlog that is starting in the pig industry will increase and, as it increases, farmers and pig men will go to the wall.

I know that I speak for all those who have the interests of agriculture at heart when I say that the Government must not allow this industry to go to the wall. How can the Industrial Development Board justify using taxpayers’ money to finance Maltons without first purchasing all Northern Ireland pigs, before topping up with Southern pigs? Is it for financial reasons? Are their commercial requirements more important than the preservation of a viable industry in Northern Ireland? It is annoying that Southern pigs are being killed in Cookstown, and it is totally unacceptable that the price paid for Southern pigs is approximately 10p per kilo more than for Northern Ireland pigs. That averages out at £7 per pig. That means that our farmers are losing £7 per pig in a factory that is financed by Northern Ireland taxpayers, and that should not be. The House needs to make its presence felt on this matter.

Mr Leslie:

Most North Antrim Members are here today, and the House will hear a great deal from us on the subject of pigs because the Agivey bacon factory is an important employer in our constituency. It was with some relief that we heard of the acquisition of Unipork by Unigate although, as Dr Paisley has ably pointed out, there seems to be a little more to it than meets the eye. By investing £27 million in the takeover, that firm is showing confidence in the future of the pig industry in the area. It remains to be seen whose pigs it will put through the factory.

We have to focus on the conduct of the Government and their attitude towards the structure of the pig industry: the unilateral legislation that forced our pig producers to get rid of the stall-and-tether method of keeping sows; the range of health and hygiene requirements placed on the rearing, slaughter and processing of pigs, which added considerably to the cost of producing pork products.

I stress the word "unilaterally" because the same measures have not been applied elsewhere in Europe. In the future that may mean that United Kingdom pork produced to the standards required by regulation will set the benchmark price.

At the moment pork producers elsewhere in Europe are not applying the same standards and are supplying pork to the pig-meat industry in the United Kingdom. This is yet another area where the United Kingdom, by assiduously applying regulation, has disadvantaged its own producers to the benefit of those in the rest of Europe.

This has coincided with a period when both the pound and the green pound, which sets our prices, are particularly strong. It has coincided with a period when pig production has risen by 10% over the previous year and, worse still, with a drop in the demand for pig products due to the financial crisis in Russia and parts of South-East Asia.

This is the situation that industry dreads. It has increased production; its production costs have gone up; and its market has been reduced by factors beyond its control and which it could not have foreseen.

These problems apply equally on the mainland. The difference in Northern Ireland is that we have come face-to-face with the problem sooner. Due to the loss of the Agivey bacon factory the build-up of pigs on Northern Ireland farms was much more rapid.

It is almost inconceivable that the Government can be so lacklustre in their approach to this problem. Any of these factors, if applied to some other industry, would have caused an equally serious problem.

The problem of a strong pound is universal. The whole of British industry is complaining about it. Other industries have lost part of their market due to financial problems elsewhere in the world. However, the pig industry has to face every one of these problems and in its case the only person who is losing money is the farmer. The loss is not being shared the whole way up the production chain. I feel that the Assembly should give careful consideration to the profit margins of the retailers.

One of the most unfair aspects of the pig crisis is that the best producers are the ones who are being burdened with the greatest debts. They were the producers who acted most promptly to take on board the new regulations, who accumulated debts to produce a better pig which would comply with the regulations due to take effect by the end of the year. They have invested in a pig industry which now has a distinctly reduced market.

This is not the first time that there has been difficulty in the pig industry. From time to time in the farming industry, there are periods of overproduction, lost markets and reduced profit margins.

This is the first time that so many parts of the agriculture industry are suffering from variations on the same problem. It is also peculiar how, just as only the pig farmer is losing money in this crisis, only the beef farmer is suffering from BSE. The meat processors are not having any difficulty at all. The Department, therefore, has an immediate responsibility to address this issue and, furthermore, being the custodian of the industry, it must look to the future. It would be daft to address this problem only for it to recur in a short time. We must be sure that we have a viable and sustainable industry for the future.

Since it invested so heavily in Northern Ireland, Unigate clearly believes that we have the highest standards of health, hygiene, pig production and pig processing available. These are essential to the future of the food business and, in due course, pork produced in the United Kingdom will set the benchmark and be the premium product. If we cannot get immediate action to address the acute financial problems of the pig producers or solve the problem of disposing of live pigs, that future — which may well be right, may well be rosy — will never come for many of our pig farmers.

We have a long history of successful pig production in Northern Ireland, and pig producers have coped with tight margins, with loss-making situations, with blue ear disease and with swine vesicular disease and have come through them all. We have a very high standard of pig husbandry in Northern Ireland. It would be an absolute disgrace if all that were to be thrown away by a lack of action now.

Mr Haughey:

I support the motion. Although I cannot always support what Dr Ian Paisley says, I am very glad to do so on this occasion.

I regret that the motion is not more inclusive, for the entire agriculture industry is in crisis - the worst crisis in recent times. A two-hour debate is not sufficient to deal with the problems of the pig industry, and is certainly not sufficient to deal with the problems of agriculture as a whole. The Assembly has a duty to look at that whole matter and to look at it very urgently.

We need at least one full day to debate the crisis in agriculture which is affecting our economy so drastically. Mr Initial Presiding Officer, can you advise us on how we might best make arrangements for such a full day's debate? Can you also advise on how we could arrange for the House to hear evidence from the Ulster Farmers' Union, the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers' Association and other relevant bodies? The crisis is one of monumental proportions, and the Assembly has a duty to deal with its effects and the impact of it on the community as a whole.

I further propose - this could be dealt with through the usual channels - that, having had a full day's debate on the agriculture industry and having taken evidence from the farmers' representative bodies and others, we take an all-party delegation to meet the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to try to impress upon him the size of the disaster facing the industry and the serious implications which that will have for the whole of our economy and for rural society in particular.


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