Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 8 March 1999
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (The Initial Presiding Officer (The Lord Alderdice of Knock) in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
The Committee to Advise the Presiding Officer, in making preparations for today’s sitting and appreciating the number of Standing Orders to be considered, and with a significant number of amendments likely, requested me to write to the Secretary of State asking that her previous determination that the Assembly would be able to meet until 6 pm on 9 March be extended to 10 March.
The Secretary of State has replied as follows:
"By virtue of Paragraph 1 of the Schedule to the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 it falls to me to determine where meetings of the Assembly shall be held, and when. In my letter of 26 February, I directed that the Assembly shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont at 10.30 am on Monday 1 March until 6 pm on Tuesday 9 March. Having considered your letter of 1 March, I withdraw that direction and now direct that the Assembly shall meet at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, at 10.30 am on Monday 1 March until 10 pm on Tuesday 9 March. I will consider making a further direction as respects this period, in particular in the light of any indication I may receive as to the wishes of Assembly Members after the Assembly has begun to meet."
The House needs to be aware that there are some 71 Standing Orders to be approved. In respect of item 3, the motion to take note of the report, I have received one amendment. However, in respect of item 4, the compendium of Standing Orders, there are some 87 amendments to be considered.
It is impossible at this stage to be sure how long these will take, but as we only have until 10.00 pm tomorrow, unless there were a different determination from the Secretary of State, Members may find as today proceeds that it will be difficult to complete business if the sitting is suspended at 6.00 pm today. Therefore I will take soundings, during the procedures this afternoon, through the usual channels to see whether the Assembly wishes to continue to meet into the later part of this evening and also tomorrow, or whether it wishes to suspend at 6.00 pm this evening, resume at 10.30 am tomorrow and sit until 10.00 pm, or as late as is necessary. I will take soundings on that as it becomes apparent what we need to do.
Mr Paisley Jnr:
Is it in order for the Assembly to congratulate Northern Ireland racing ace Eddie Irvine on his magnificent victory in the early hours of yesterday morning in the Australian Formula One Grand Prix? Over the first months of 1999 we certainly have seen sporting excellence —
The Initial Presiding Officer:
Order. The Member has gone substantially beyond a point of order. As he knows, it is not in order for the Assembly to vote on a matter on which a motion has not been tabled in due time. It would be surprising if some personal messages of congratulation were not sent. If the Member wishes to table a motion on the matter he is perfectly at liberty to do so.
At the sitting of Monday 1 March Mr David Ervine asked me to rule on the definition of fronting paramilitary organisations. I have reviewed the relevant extracts from Hansard and have nothing to add to my ruling at that time.
I should like to advise the Assembly on the procedure that I intend to follow on items 3 and 4 on the Order Paper. Item 3 is a relatively straightforward motion to take note of the report by the Committee on Standing Orders. After it is moved by the joint Chairs, I will take an amendment to it before inviting Members to address the general principles of the report. The amendment is for a general tidying-up — if I might put it in that way — and takes the form of a resolution on how the Assembly would treat the subsequent compilation of Standing Orders. I will take that at that time.
Because the report and the motion on it is not a change to Standing Orders, of itself it should not require cross-community support. However, because the amendment proposes to make changes, albeit of a largely typographical nature, to Standing Orders it will properly need to be decided by a cross-community vote. That means that the substantive motion, if the amendment is approved, will also have to be decided by cross-community vote.
Apart from the question of the amendment, I suppose that one might describe the debate as a second-reading type. In such a debate Members can deal with the report’s general principles outlined and with any other matters that arise from that.
I shall remind Members of some of what I am about to say at the appropriate point. Item 4 on the Order paper — approval of draft Standing Order — is a substantial piece of business. As I have said, there are some 87 amendments. As Members are aware, amendments can be presented up to one hour prior to the commencement of the sitting, that is to say, until 9.30 am. Amendments were coming in up to that time. I apologise to Members on behalf of the staff for the fact that it has not been possible up to this moment to provide a full, marshalled list of amendments. That work is in progress, and I trust that a list will shortly be available to Members. I hope that the House will understand that a substantial amount of work was involved.
I have outlined the process that I intend to follow on item 4. We shall take each natural section of the report. Some of those are quite short sections of perhaps half a dozen Standing Orders but other sections are much more substantial, with a considerable number of Standing Orders. However, we shall deal with the Standing Orders as they appear in their natural sections of the report. At each section we shall consider amendments to that section, discuss them in the order in which they are relevant to it, and debate the whole of that section at one time.
We will vote at the end of the debate on that section, and we must vote on each Standing Order. If there are no amendments it will be possible, as in the case of the clauses of a Bill, to take, say, Standing Orders 1 to 4. Strictly speaking, according to the Standing Orders every vote requires cross-community approval. However, if we were to vote on 71 Standing Orders and 87 amendments, about 160 cross-community votes would be required, and that would involve about 40 solid hours of voting. Members will agree that that is not a practical way to proceed.
In the case of Standing Orders that can be taken together because there are no amendments, I propose simply to put the Question and collect the responses. If there is no dissent I shall consider that cross-community support has been achieved. Any dissent on the vote on an amendment or on a Standing Order will allow no option but to proceed to a cross-community vote irrespective of the time that is involved.
When we come to the end of the consideration of the whole compendium of Standing Orders I will take a vote in the full fashion so that we can measure cross-community support for the Standing Orders as amended in the debate. I trust that that is reasonably clear, but I shall try to draw it again to the attention of Members.
The First Minister (Designate) (Mr Trimble):
I have no objection to what has been said about voting. A process that abbreviates the time spent voting is appropriate. Will there be a separate debate on each amendment? Taking amendments in groups means that there will not be a coherent debate on any one of them. We need to have a separate debate on each amendment.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
My proposal is to group the amendments according to the grouping of the Standing Orders. For example, the first group contains a small number of Standing Orders, and there would perhaps be some amendments at that point. I would ask the proposers of the amendments to speak to them in order, and we could debate all those amendments at that point.
If Members wish to proceed in another fashion, there will have to be a debate on 87 separate amendments. That would entail a substantial amount of work, and no matter how late we sit tonight and tomorrow we might have some difficulty in accommodating it. Some amendments would be more contentious than others. Each Member could speak for 10 minutes in moving his amendment, and there is the subsequent response. In that sense each will have to be treated as a separate debate. If I do not treat them as separate debates, Members may speak only once for 10 minutes during the consideration of the whole compendium of Standing Orders. That would be a completely unsatisfactory way to proceed.
If Members are content, we shall proceed to the debate on the report. Members will have the marshalled list of amendments delivered to them in the Chamber as soon as it is completed. I appreciate that Members must proceed to debate the report without having seen the list but the only alternative would be to suspend the sitting, and that could be done only by leave of the House. Unless I hear a proposal to that effect I propose to proceed to item 3, the debate on the report.
This Assembly takes note of the report by the Committee on Standing Orders. — [Mr Cobain and Mr Haughey]
The report of the Committees on Standing Orders is in two volumes. The first volume gives the essential detail, the remit, membership, what we did, how we did it and what we recommended, and so on. The minutes are appended.
The second volume contains the recommended Standing Orders. At our last meeting one might have expected that we would have agreed a cut and dried report — not so. The Committee was actively making changes to the report right up to the final bell.
Members should have also received the inevitable errata that accompanies this type of document. I would like to pay tribute to Denis Haughey, my joint Chair, who has done a marvellous job particularly on those occasions, one of which Members heard about last week, when the Committee found itself all at sea. At all times he has shown scrupulous fairness and a concern to keep the Committee together. I would also like to thank the Members of the Committee and the many substitutes.
Standing Orders is not an easy area for many people — indeed, it is not even an interesting one — but it was an essential area that had to be covered. All those involved, including the observers, must have been totally bemused at times. Our thanks are also due to Murray Barnes and Denis Arnold for all their hard work and support.
The Committee first met on 6 July 1998. We have held 22 meetings and, bearing in mind the diverse make-up of the Committee, we have achieved much in bringing together this agreed report. When Denis Haughey and I were elected as joint Chairs of the Committee we resolved to proceed on the basis of consensus, as far as possible. The documents before the House today are there as a result of consensus.
Party size and the voting power that comes with it was not used to push things through. The smaller parties will testify to this and agree that their concerns were taken on board in a fair way. The Committee had its ups and downs, but everyone, including the substitutes, contributed in a constructive and helpful way. In the minutes Members will see that the 19 strong Committee was well attended at all meetings.
We began by looking at the Standing Orders of different assemblies — the European Parliament, the Commons and the Dáil. In the absence of any guidance, we decided that the best basis on which to proceed would be to look at the Orders of the 1973 Assembly. We considered these, armed only with our knowledge of the agreement. We also looked at Initial Standing Orders and considered how we could adapt them.
We reported our progress to the Assembly on two occasions. Of course, all of this was overtaken by the Bill and the need to base many Standing Orders on this. The business of devising Standing Orders by committee is not an easy task. For a time some reliance was placed on officials to get on with the job and consult when necessary. The hastily drafted Bill underwent major amendment, as is usual, particularly during its passage through the Lords. Therefore complete clarity could not be expected until it was enacted. Standing Orders are, above all, procedures. Some of these are prescribed in the Act. The rest were devised by the Committee after lengthy deliberation.
We have produced 71 draft Standing Orders over a relatively short period. This compares with the Welsh who have drafted their Standing Orders in advance over a year. The Scots are also in the process of doing something similar. The advantage in our case is that we, the elected politicians, will have had a hand in producing our own compendium and that will result in a greater feeling of ownership.
The Standing Orders in the compendium are divided into nine sections dealing with all facets of the Assembly. The first section deals with preliminary matters that must be addressed at the beginning of any assembly. These Orders stick rigidly to the requirements of the Act, and there is little scope for any fundamental change.
The next section deals with the day-to-day business of the Assembly, and it owes as much to an updating of the 1973 procedures as to anything else. The Clerks at Westminster have been consulted on the updating process.
In respect of voting, we have adopted the Westminster-style Division system. This is not to say that we are against modernisation, and we can certainly look at alternatives in the future, but we have decided to opt for what we believe is a tried-and-tested methodology. For the time being, I believe, this is the safest route to take.
The next section deals with legislation. Once again we have proceeded according to the Act, and because this Assembly is unicameral we have decided to build in safeguards. Bills will normally undergo a five-stage process, which will include a full Committee stage, during which the statutory committee will consider the Bill in detail and may, if necessary, take evidence on the matter. In addition, the Assembly will have the opportunity to examine the legislation in detail. Should issues of equality arise, provision has been made for such issues to be referred to a special Assembly committee and, where necessary, to the Human Rights Commission. Again, these are requirements of the Act and of the agreement.
There may be incidences where primary legislation has to be passed quickly — for example, on social security matters where the Assembly will want to maintain parity with Great Britain — and so provision has been made for a process we have called the accelerated-passage procedure, which will enable Bills to be enacted within a relatively short period. However, this very necessary mechanism must not be abused. It should be used in exceptional cases only, and a considerable onus will be placed on Ministers to justify using it at all.
We have also given consideration to subordinate legislation. The agreement envisages a role here for Statutory Committees, and we have had to take account of this. But Statutory Instruments are generally of a technical nature. In many ways, they are best dealt with at a technical level, and we recommend the appointment of an examiner of statutory rules to assist the statutory committees in this field. We believe that the provisions of these Orders are capable of dealing with the full range of legislation — including financial legislation — that is likely to come before the Assembly.
The legislation section is followed by a short section on Ministerial appointments. You will note that there is no reference in the compendium to the appointments of the First and Deputy First Ministers. There is no need. Where the Act itself stipulates procedures, we have not repeated these in Standing Orders. Members may be surprised at the structure of the Standing Orders in this section, but I should point out that, like other Orders, they must be read alongside the Act. Here we differ from Westminster. The Westminster Parliament is sovereign, and we are not.
The next section deals with Committees. In addition to the Statutory Committees, we envisage having what we have called Standing Committees; examples of these are given in the compendium. These named Committees will include a representative from each party. We believe that in an Assembly of this type this is important.
There will also be other types of standing Committees in the future. These may be less central to what we do, and we recommend that, like the statutory Committees, they have a fixed membership of 11.
We also see scope for a further type of Committee which we have simply called "ad hoc Committees". Such Committees would be set up to deal with issues over a specified time and would then be stood down; the present Ad Hoc Committee (Port of Belfast) may well be an example. The Committee membership figure of 11 was arrived at following much debate, and the Committee considered using the matrix at the back of Volume 1 of the report — the impact that different sizes of committees would have on parties. We believe that the Chair and Deputy Chairs of Statutory and Standing Committees should be appointed using the d’Hondt system, but it will be up to the Assembly to decide on the appointment of Chairs to ad hoc Committees.
There is another issue to do with committees which I must mention. There is no Statutory Committee for central functions. There could be a non-statutory Committee with powers to call for persons and papers, but the Act does not allow for any Statutory Committee. I could say more about Committees, but time is against me.
The next section deals with order and is self-explanatory. The only point I want to make here is that the Keeper of the House, a functionary whom we equate, in some respects, with the Serjeant at Arms at Westminster or the Captain of the Guard in the Dáil, will not have the full powers that are deemed to be necessary in the Standing Orders until the Assembly legislates on this matter. This should not present any problems.
Last week the Assembly adopted the proposals on Members’ interests. I will say something about that because it is a matter for Standing Orders. Ideally the Assembly should have its own Commissioner on standards. This will be the case in Wales and probably in Scotland, and it would be appropriate here also. The Commissioner would have duties similar to those of the Commissioner at Westminster and would report to the Assembly’s Committee on Standards and Privileges. This committee’s principal officer would be the Clerk of Standards and the custodian of the register of Members’ interests. This is the structure envisaged, but, as pointed out by the other joint Chairman, a deeper consideration of the whole issue will have to await the formation of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
The last section of the report is called "Other Orders". It contains two late entries on language and the Commission. The language Standing Order is the briefest in the compendium, and its conciseness belies the time spent by the Committee on it.
The Committee has worked for inclusiveness, as is borne out by its decision to recommend that the much over-burdened Commission be given the assistance that is due to it. We suggest that five-a-side is far too strenuous a game for the elderly quantity surveyors, and we recommend a full team of 11.
In moving the motion with my Colleague, I commend the report to the House.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
I understand that Members have not yet received copies of the amendment that is about to be moved. I have asked, somewhat unusually, that the Doorkeepers make themselves available to distribute it in the Chamber. As soon as we have the full list of marshalled amendments, I will arrange to have it distributed as well.
Mr P Robinson:
I beg to move the following amendment: At the end of the motion add
"and further notes that the Standing Orders, once approved by the Assembly, shall be renumbered where necessary, punctuated and proofed to ensure consistent language".
As someone who never darkened the door of the Standing Orders Committee, it falls to me to be the first person to welcome the publication of its report. I congratulate the Committee on the very substantial task that it has performed. I would also like to point out that the 70-odd amendments that are down in my name are not meant as a criticism. It is inevitable that any substantial document listing Standing Orders is open to amendment.
Most of the amendments are of a tidying-up nature. The amendment to this motion is of a general character, and there is no party-political edge to it whatsoever. It simply allows me to do what it would otherwise have taken another 200 amendments to do — it is one catch-all amendment.
There is a series of punctuation errors and a proliferation of instances where different terms are being used for the same activity. For example, "lodged" and "deposited" both appear, as does "left with" on one occasion, and there are many similar references. There needs to be consistency. And if any of the amendments are passed, or if any of the initial Standing Orders are deleted, there will have to be a renumbering.
I have no emotional capital tied up in the wording of any amendment. They are there to show that there is a gap to be filled or that a change is required. They can be concluded in whatever terms Members wish. I do not know — and this is a question for the Initial Presiding Officer — what the procedure would be in the House if Members wanted to change the terms of an amendment. I know that Members still have not seen the amendments. They may, however, agree with the thrust of an amendment but find its terminology awkward or unsatisfactory. Will they be permitted to table a manuscript amendment, or is there another way of dealing with such a case?
In the last two meetings of the Assembly we have been dealing with matters that are of equal importance to every Member. The normal party political divisions did not take place, the pro- and anti-agreement factions did not take different sides. That should also be the case in relation to Standing Orders. Although some of us may not have recognised it yet, we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the Standing Orders we produce this week are reasonable, fair to everyone and can stand the test of time.
When we propose an amendment to a Standing Order, we do not know whether it will eventually be used in our favour or against us. At this stage we can only judge what is right and proper and create a set of Standing Orders that ensures we regulate our business in a fair and reasonable way.
The amendments in my name, in general, will not need to be debated. Most of them are self-explanatory and I hope they will be accepted. Most of them are meant to be tidying-up measures, but some might be described as probing amendments. It could be that, in debate, the Committee will be able to show that the substance of an amendment has been dealt with elsewhere, in which case I shall be content to withdraw. However, should we discover that the matter has not been dealt with, I will obviously wish to move that amendment.
As I said, some of my amendments are intended to fill gaps. On some occasions these are gaps that we are required to fill by the Northern Ireland Act. Where the Act requires us to bring in a Standing Order on a particular matter, we must do so. In some instances the first draft of the Standing Orders fails to do this. There are also one or two areas where I have raised new issues. Members will take a view on these as they are raised.
I am concerned about the premise that our Standing Orders must be read alongside the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Belfast Agreement. This means that every good Assembly Member is going to have to go around with three documents tucked under his or her arm. We could get to the stage where one consolidated document, even if it only imported the language of other documents which are referred to in it, became a consolidated volume of Standing Orders.
As the Standing Orders Committee has recognised, there is an ongoing role for that Committee, particularly in the early stages of any institution, and no doubt after today, as we work through the Assembly, we will have many occasions on which Standing Orders need to be framed, and the Committee will be able to do that. I hope that in doing so it will also attempt to get a consolidated volume.
In moving the amendment, I was not sure if there was some confusion on the part of some of the officials of the Assembly or of some of the members of the Standing Orders Committee about the process that has to be followed. My concern about that arose as soon as I was handed a copy of the list of errata. An errata list is quite acceptable if one gets it along with a report or printed document that is not amendable, but if it is an amendable document the only changes that can be made to it are by way of amendment, and that has to be done in the Assembly.
Indeed, the reason there is an amendment to the take-note motion is to ensure that: no one outside the Assembly can tamper with the end product of our deliberations after Tuesday evening. That can be done only by ourselves unless we instruct somebody specifically to carry out a task in relation to it. So, in case no amendment was moved by the Committee to agree the errata as a change, one of my amendments is to do just that. However, there should have been an errata to the errata, because there were some errors in it.
Other amendments take account of some matters that should have been included. Whether or not there was a misunderstanding about the process, the only change that can take place to the published document is by way of an amendment during the course of this debate or subsequently in the Assembly.
I should indicate that the general issue behind these amendments is to provide the Assembly with a document that does not require to be amended after each meeting of the House. It is undoubtedly the case that we will have to define further many of the Standing Orders that we are producing or allow the Speaker certain discretion in their interpretations or accept Erskine May or some other volume as a mechanism whereby we can adjudicate on issues not covered by the Standing Orders.
Mr C Murphy:
A Chathaoirligh, I acknowledge the work done by the Standing Orders Committee and pay tribute to the officials who have serviced that Committee over the last eight months. The task given to the Committee last July was not an easy one in view of the political importance that is attached to the rules which govern the conduct of the Assembly and the diversity of political opinion around the table. An early indication of this came with the number of meetings that it took to elect the people who eventually became the joint Chairpersons.
Further problems were created by the timescale in which we had to complete our business and by the fact that the legislation, which had a direct impact on the Standing Orders, was processing through Westminster during this time. This caused our deliberations to be suspended for at least two of the eight months during which we were sitting.
Despite all that, in the main the atmosphere in the Committee was constructive and businesslike. There was a great deal of agreement on most issues. We were able to reach compromises on many other issues, although it is a matter of regret that compromise could not be achieved on the recognition of the Irish language within the Chamber. That matter will be dealt with by my Colleague.
I should like to deal with an issue that caused great concern to the entire Committee and which is reflected in paragraph 7 of the report. It is the issue of a statutory committee to scrutinise the executive functions of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. When the Committee discussed on 11 February the appointment of statutory committees I raised the question of a statutory committee to scrutinise the executive functions of the First and Deputy First Ministers. On my proposal, the Committee agreed to add the phrase from paragraph 8 in strand one of the Good Friday Agreement which states
"There will be a Committee for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration."
That became part of the Standing Order. At the subsequent meeting on 17 February, we were informed that provisions in the Northern Ireland Act prevent the establishment of a statutory committee for the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers because they are not considered to be Northern Ireland Ministers. Standing Order 44 (1)(a) was rewritten to reflect the requirements of the Act, and removed the word from the Good Friday Agreement. The detailed explanations for that are in the appendix to the minutes of the meeting on 17 February.
Therefore the Committee on Standing Orders has been rendered powerless by the Act to provide the Assembly with the range of scrutiny powers of executive functions that was envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. What can benignly be interpreted as a serious flaw or gap in the drafting of the legislation contradicts not only the wording of the agreement to which it was to give legislative effect, but has serious consequences for the ability of the Assembly to provide completely open and accountable government.
Regrettably, that is not the only derogation from the Good Friday Agreement by the British Government. The flying of the Union Jack on this building today is in direct contravention of paragraph 5 of the section on "Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity" in the agreement. We intend to bring the matter to the notice of the Secretary of State.
If the full impact of this legislation on the Committees had been evident during the negotiations on the departmental structures in December, there would be considerably fewer functions in the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. The only slight relief to be drawn from this situation is that the argument to locate Finance and Personnel in the centre did not succeed.
Important executive functions such as those of the economic policy and equality units, liaison with other institutions, international relations, legislation progress unit, office of the legislative counsel, public appointments policy, freedom of information, victims, Nolan standards, public service office, machinery of government, emergency planning, women’s issues, policy innovation unit and an Assembly ombudsman are not, as it stands, subject to the scrutiny of a proper statutory committee. That should not be accepted by the Assembly.
I have heard it suggested that issues such as equality and community relations could be covered by non-statutory committees, but those do not have the same powers of scrutiny as statutory committees, and those two functions are only a small part of the remit of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
It has also been suggested that a single statutory committee would be inappropriate for such a range of executive functions. The Assembly will note that the recommendation from the Committee on Standing Orders is not prescriptive. If a number of committees are needed, so be it, but it is in the interests of the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Assembly and the electorate to ensure that there is proper scrutiny of all the executive functions of this administration.
The Committee has not proposed how this matter will be addressed or who will address it. It may require an amendment to the Act. If that is the case, the Assembly should speak with one voice on the issue to ensure that any such amendment is dealt with as a matter of urgency by the British Government.
The Committee has also expressed the view that its work should not end with the adoption of the report, but it may be the best vehicle to ensure that this issue is dealt with satisfactorily. Whatever the decision of the Assembly this is one issue that should not be allowed to go by default, and we intend to return to it as often as necessary until it is resolved.
The adoption of the report from the Committee on Standing Orders, which I support, is another significant step in the preparation of the Assembly for the transfer of powers from Westminster. The way in which the Committee completed its task with every party in the Assembly represented at the table, with many disagreements — sometimes heated but more often in a constructive atmosphere — is firm evidence of the ability of all parties to agree the way forward. It is further progress in the establishment of the institutions that were envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. There is no reason why that task cannot be completed in the near future.
Sinn Féin does not have a problem with Mr Robinson’s amendment. The document was produced in a rush so that the Committee could meet the deadline. Perhaps that is an example to both Governments. It was inevitable that there would be minor flaws in the document, and we are not opposed to the tidying up of its text. Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh.
It was eight months ago that we set out to produce this compendium of Standing Orders for the good governance and conduct of the House. Today, let us hope, we have fulfilled that task.
It would be remiss of me, on behalf of the Alliance Party, if I did not extend my thanks and congratulations to the co-Chairmen for assisting all of us in the business of this difficult task. As Mr Cobain has said, the devising of Standing Orders and the drawing up of a compendium of Standing Orders is a somewhat tedious and, at times, rather boring task. Thanks to the co-Chairmen’s humour and cohesiveness, we managed to get on with the job and produce a report which, I hope, will receive the support of the House.
I also wish to pay a special tribute to the Clerks, and particularly to Murray Barnes and Denis Arnold, who worked, it is fair to say, far beyond the call of duty. The fact that there are errata is no fault of theirs; rather these are the result of the enormous amount of work that they were endeavouring to do in meeting rather strict and at times rather false deadlines.
While I have not seen the amendments, their large number gives me some cause for concern. I hope that they are of the nit-picking variety, the tidying-up type which, essentially, reflect the fact that we were operating under strict and difficult deadlines. If some commas et cetera have been left out, that is perfectly understandable.
The Committee would obviously have been well-served if Mr Peter Robinson had found time to come on to it. The Democratic Unionist Party had five substitutes, as well as their three members, over the 22 meetings. They were well-represented. But it would have been very helpful, and it would have facilitated the speedy agreement of the report, if the Member for East Belfast had graced us with his presence on some occasions and helped us not to make so many mistakes. However, since one of the Standing Orders permits me now to use the language of my choice, errare humanum est — we are all human, and we all can make mistakes.
Most of today’s debate will be taken up by Members who were not on the Committee and who will want to have their say — and that is right — but there are a number of issues that I would like to flag up.
The first one is in reference to Standing Order 3(7), which refers to designation. I recognise that this cannot be changed strictly through Standing Orders — we will have an opportunity to do that if we review the Good Friday Agreement — but we have always felt that designation represents the institutionalisation of tribalism and that having it in Standing Orders does not augur well.
We have flagged up the problems with designation before, and we will continue to do so, with the ultimate goal of having removed the necessity for people to be bunched into the little tribes of Unionists, Nationalists or Others. To perpetuate tribalism does not help our society.
The other issue that I want to flag up has already been referred to. It is in relation to Standing Orders 42 to 44, which refer to the statutory committees. I was surprised to learn that the functions Department of the Centre will not be, or could not be, subject to statutory scrutiny. It could be that this omission was an oversight when the legislation was being passed, but I question that. Given the number of amendments that were put forward to the Bill on its passage through Westminster, such an obvious and glaring omission suggests a degree of deliberate intent rather than merely oversight.
If I am wrong — and I have already said that to err is human — the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) will join with the rest of the Members and ensure that a change in legislation is brought about quickly so that there can be proper scrutiny by the House of the Department of the Centre.
When we were discussing the various functions to be held by the Department of the Centre it struck some Members that an attempt was being made to suck too many functions into that Department. Efforts should be made either to withdraw some of those functions from the Centre or to bring about a change in the legislation to enable there to be full scrutiny of that Department.
The final issue that I wish to flag up — and I know that some of my Colleagues will be referring to this by way of an amendment — is the number of members on these committees. It is only fair that there should be the widest possible representation of all Members on the committees of the House. Members from four parties will form the Executive, and it is up to the rest of us to scrutinise fully, with the best possible representation, all the functions that are retained by the Executive. For that reason the number of members on the statutory and other committees should be increased, but this will be discussed later.
The overall job was done well. It will stand the House in good stead, and I look forward to the debate on the various amendments when we are able to see them.
While congratulating the Committee on Standing Orders, it does seem that an opportunity may have been lost to remedy what is a fundamental fault in the Belfast Agreement. In the agreement we have on the one side the all-Ireland institutions, the North/South Ministerial Council, the implementation bodies and the Intergovernmental Conference. On the other side we have the Assembly, and the link between those two is the Executive.
The North/South Ministerial Council and, indeed, all those institutions appear to have two fundamental features. First, they are embedded in international law. This means that it is absolutely beyond the competence of the Assembly ever to remove them once they are set up. Second, there is something extremely ambiguous about the functioning of these institutions in relation to the Assembly. Paragraph 13 of the Belfast Agreement states
"it is understood that the North/South Ministerial Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly are mutually inter-dependent, and that one cannot successfully function without the other."
Whatever that statement means, it does not mean that one cannot function at all without the other. There is a distinction between what someone would perceive as successful functioning and no functioning at all. So this statement does not mean that in the event of the Assembly’s being deadlocked or collapsing the institutions would cease to function. That raises the issue of what control the Assembly can have over the all-Ireland dimension of the agreement in the event of these institutions being established and, in particular, in the event of their starting to function.
The key issue is what control the Assembly has over the Executive, because the Executive is the link between the Assembly and the all-Ireland institutions. There are two points of contact between the Assembly and the Executive in terms of control. One of them is the capacity of the Assembly to vote annually on a programme of government presented by the Executive, and the other potential area of control is through the statutory committees. The problem with the Standing Orders is that they specify that the statutory committees are simply to advise and assist each Minister. In other words, they are to be as weak as they possibly can be.
Once this mechanism is up and running, there will be a fault line between the Assembly and the all-Ireland institutions that means that the Assembly will have virtually no control over the all-Ireland aspect of the agreement, and to some extent the opportunity to remedy that situation has been entirely lost by the Committee.
I commend the report and the work of the joint Chairmen — Fred Cobain and Denis Haughey — and our very capable Clerks.
A two-day or three-day debate on Standing Orders would not inspire the most intrepid political scientist, let alone our friends in journalism. However, it is important that they stop and read between the lines. This simple, unassuming report is, in fact, a document of tremendous significance as it outlines the rules and regulations that will govern the making or the breaking of new laws in Northern Ireland. The report outlines the procedures to be followed to guarantee that every piece of legislation is in accordance with anti-discrimination, equality and human-rights legislation.
These Standing Orders exist to ensure that every check is balanced and that every balance is checked. It is simply the translation of the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Act into the conduct of business on the Floor of the House.
However, there is an important difference. These Standing Orders were agreed by representatives from every political party in the Assembly. In fact, the Standing Orders Committee is possibly the best example so far of all parties working together for the common good. Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists, Republicans and "Others" sat side by side on the Committee, and together they wrote, rubbed out and rewrote the rules for the operation of the Assembly.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. It should be on record that the Northern Ireland Unionist Party did not have a member on that Committee. It had only observer status.
The Initial Presiding Officer:
That is noted.
I thank Mr Boyd for that point of order.
Things started to look good from the outset when it was agreed that the UUP and the SDLP should jointly chair the meetings. At almost every meeting there was an obvious sense of people listening to and learning from each other. It surprised the Committee that political adversaries backed each other on several occasions. It has already been mentioned that there was only one occasion on which the deliberations became uncomfortably tense. That was at the second last meeting, about a week ago, when the sensitive issue of language was broached. At the last and possibly the best meeting, there was a very definite sense of compromise and agreement on the need to move forward.
This is our rule book. Mr Cobain has said that we got here by looking at what happens in Parliaments in London, Dublin and Strasbourg and at what happened in the last parliamentary body in Northern Ireland and by choosing the bits that suited us best. We have in this rule book the potential for a thoroughly modern Assembly. It will place human rights and equality at the very top of the agenda, and cronyism at the very bottom. It will be open and transparent and will allow for a system of government which will be a role model for other Parliaments.
One great achievement, of which we in the Women’s Coalition can feel proud, is the decision to end sittings at 6.00 pm. I was, however, disappointed to learn this morning that a decision could be made to change that, because of the task that is before us, for this sitting. The reason we decided to end sittings at 6.00 pm was that this would represent a family-friendly working day. The problems that have been caused in other Parliaments by the need for Members to stay for late sittings or overnight sittings have been obvious. This applies not just to women with families but also to men with families. We can leave at 6.00 pm and get home to our families, which is very important. In fact, I understand that the Scottish Parliament will be following our lead in this respect.
I am also especially pleased on International Women’s Day — and let me repeat, for Members who may not have heard, that today is International Women’s Day — to see that the language of the Standing Orders exhibits gender consciousness through the use of "he/she" and "his/her". I am also pleased to note that Members exhibit a similar consciousness when they are speaking in the Chamber.
I have referred to the tremendous potential which the Assembly has to create a unique system of coalition government, which could be the envy of the world. However, it must be based on the principle of inclusion, which means including the smaller parties as well as the larger ones. Those of us in the smaller parties have demonstrated that we are ready to roll our sleeves up and work hard. We should not be squeezed out of Committees to which we can make a valuable contribution by way of constructive opposition and as another voice that adds breadth to their deliberations.
Mr Cobain, in his opening remarks, said that he felt that the concerns of smaller parties had been fairly considered. However, we in the Women’s Coalition still have some concerns about this, some of which have already been raised by other Members. Standing Orders 43 to 45 refer to the principle of proportionality in the make-up of Committees which will enable them to reflect party strengths in the Assembly. However, if these Committees are to have only 11 members, this will not happen. Number 23(2)(b) of the draft additional Initial Standing Orders drawn up by the Secretary of State says that proportionality will apply to "each Committee" rather than to "all Committees", as set out in these Standing Orders. Mr Close has said that this matter will be discussed further. Inclusiveness must apply to everyone.
When the Assembly approves this report we will be ready to open for business. The foundations have been laid, and the bricks and mortar are in place. We will have our rule book, and we will be ready, at last, to roll up our sleeves and start working. We have fulfilled our legal obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. It is now up to us to fulfil our moral obligations to the people of Northern Ireland.
One of the key issues, as identified by a number of Members, is the relationship that will exist between the Assembly and the Executive. It is very evident from its behaviour that another Executive is becoming increasingly indifferent to the views of Parliament and that the influence which can be exercised by elected representatives on the Government is diminishing. Indeed, it has almost become a habit for the Government to release to the media what they intend to do before bringing it to the House of Commons. I therefore share the views and anxieties expressed by some Members about the control, if any, which the Assembly can exercise over the Executive.
From the earliest meetings of the Standing Orders Committee, which I attended, I made it evident that there should be a strong committee system to control, insofar as it can be controlled, the work of the Executive. That is particularly so when one realises that the composition of the Executive in the Assembly is rather different from that in most democracies.
We have consensual arrangements here. Consensual arrangements have certain benefits, and they have particular benefits to those who actually exercise power under those arrangements. Put bluntly, that power will be exercised by the larger parties, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, who will have a majority of members on the Executive. Other parties, such as the DUP and Sinn Féin, will have a smaller membership. What is very important is that the activities of the Executive can be controlled — and controlled effectively.
I therefore have a degree of sympathy with the arguments that have been put forward for a committee to control the activities of the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate). These Ministers will have a great deal of power outside the remit of the specific statutory Committees. It will be a power over a broad range of issues of important and extreme significance, yet, in formal terms, there is no committee to which these Ministers will be directly accountable. I appreciate that there is no statutory provision for such a committee and that therefore it was not within the remit of the Standing Orders Committee to create a committee specifically charged with the supervision and control of the offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I also appreciate that, subject to that omission, it was necessary for the Standing Orders Committee to make whatever arrangements it could for the control of the powers exercised by the First and Deputy First Ministers. Those Ministers represent the two largest parties, and Members must avoid, in an arrangement which is supposed to be a consensual one for the exercise of power, power being effectively exercised by the two largest parties without a formal means of control.
This principle applies whether one is a Nationalist or a Unionist, though doubtless Nationalists would want different objectives controlled than Unionists. Mr Roche has quite properly pointed out some of his worries and anxieties, which I share, about the Executive’s role as the link between the Assembly and cross-border bodies and about the general influence by another independent sovereign state on the internal governance of Northern Ireland. Those are very important matters and were quite properly addressed.
I also have a deal of sympathy with the views expressed by Sinn Féin about the absence of a specific statutory committee. Doubtless it would have very different objectives from those which I share with the pro-Union community, but the essential element that Members must ensure is that the Executive come under the control of the Assembly. The Executive must be fully accountable to the Assembly, even if it is engaged in activities considered to be inimical to the objectives of the pro-Union community or to those of a more extreme Nationalist view. It must be under control. I share the view, which has been expressed by some Members, that there should be some change in the legislation to ensure this element of control over the two Ministers who will, in effect, exercise more individual power than anyone else.
It is a curious anomaly that even the power of junior Ministers — and I am talking not about junior Ministers within the definition of the Act, whom I once referred to irreverently as the ministerial piglets, but about Ministers who will be in charge of the Departments — will be much more limited than those of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Presumably the First and Deputy First Ministers — representatives of the largest parties — will have the greatest overall input into the preparation of the annual policy document which the Assembly will subsequently be required to ratify as the Executive’s policy objectives and functions for that year. They will be at the centre of power.
In terms of a wheel with 10 spokes, all the Ministries will be accountable down to the central hub, which will be the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. As the hub of that governmental wheel, they will control the office which is in touch with all of those Ministries, yet that hub will not be subject to any statutory committee, upon which all parties should have representatives, that could have a direct input and exercise direct control over what those Ministers are doing.
In terms of the matters that were raised by Assemblyman Roche, it seems that the area, functions and powers of the North/South Ministerial Council and of the implementation bodies are necessarily painted in rather vague terms. I was amazed to hear the First Minister (Designate), on the radio programme ‘Inside Politics’, refer to me, saying "Poor Bob does not seem to realise that international treaties are not written in plain language." Mr Trimble ought to know, because if ever there was an exponent of obscure and obscurantist language, of circumlocution, of fudge, of any form of language that is particularly utilised to ensure that his listeners have not got a damned clue about what he is talking about, it is the First Minister (Designate).
A proposal to set up a committee to ensure that the gobbledegook of the First Minister (Designate) is analysed and examined and turned into plain language that not only the Assembly but the entire electorate of Northern Ireland can understand would be well worth implementing. For the benefit of all parties, whether Republican, Nationalist, Unionist or Loyalist, the Assembly should have a degree of control by way of a strong central committee over the activities of those who will exercise more power than anyone else.
I join other Members in paying tribute to the work of those who have been instrumental in getting the Committee’s work to its present stage.
I omitted to express my sincere praise and commendation for the two Chairmen of this Standing Orders Committee, whose behaviour at the meetings at which I was present was absolutely exemplary.
Everybody on the Committee agrees that a tremendous amount of work was carried out, not just by its members, but also by Mr Denis Arnold and Mr Murray Barnes. I am happy to join my Colleagues in paying tribute to them and also to the joint Chairmen, who guided the Committee. I also want to pay tribute to my party Colleagues who, on occasions, substituted for some of us who could not attend — people such as Mr Sammy Wilson, Mr Jim Wells, Mr Mark Robinson, Mr Paul Berry and Mr Edwin Poots. They made a considerable contribution to the Committee, and I thank them.
As the joint Chairman said in his introduction, the original intention was that we should report by 14 September last year. We always thought that this was somewhat optimistic and, as events have turned out, meeting even today’s deadline was a bit of a rush, although the interim report, issued on 26 October, dealt with some of the issues contained in the final report. It must be stressed — as it was by the joint Chairman — that not all the issues that the Committee spent much of its time on eventually ended up in Standing Orders. Some ended up in the minutes, some in notes which will accompany the Standing Orders —
Some ended up in the bin.
An enormous amount of work was done, not all of which is reflected in these documents we have before us. We have had to deal with the fact that the Northern Ireland Bill was going through its various stages in Parliament at the same time as we were trying to draw up Standing Orders. There was a period when we were not sure what the legislation would say about the Standing Orders. This lead to the suspension of the work of the Committee in its plenary form, although officials carried on working behind the scenes. That was one reason why the Committee was not able to progress its work as quickly as some of us would have liked.
The Committee also had to deal with additional Initial Standing Orders, sent by the Secretary of State. At the beginning of September, we spent some time debating the draft additional Initial Standing Orders, and we returned them to the Secretary of State. She commented on our recommendations, but we have not heard anything about those additional Standing Orders since. Some of us asked what had happened to them. We queried why, at a crucial time in its work, the Committee was burdened with having to deal with these additional Standing Orders when nothing ever came of them, but to this day, the Secretary of State has not given the Committee a satisfactory answer.
We will be dealing with the Committee’s work section by section. There will be specific amendments, and we can, at that time, deal with some of the minutiae and some of the individual Standing Orders as they come along.
I want to make some general points about the more significant issues. Mr Close mentioned the issue of changes in designation. We had this debate, I think, at the 26 October Assembly meeting. Mr Close still maintains that it is a nonsense to have people divided up into tribes — Unionists, Nationalists and Others. He has argued this point in Committee. The difficulty for him, of course, is that he and his party signed up to this designation, this division of people into tribes, under the terms of the agreement.
As we tried to point out on a number of occasions, it was a bit late expecting the Standing Orders Committee to argue about this when the Member had already agreed that tribalism should be enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and, therefore, in the Act itself. There was nothing we could do about it, and the reality is that we now have a system of voting which ensures that we have these designated blocks for ever within the lifetime of the Assembly — Unionist, Nationalist and Other. That is the way in which votes will be taken on key issues.
The Initial Standing Orders which we were given by the Secretary of State included a provision to enable Members to jump from one designation to another — from Unionist to Nationalist and then the following week, if Members so decided, to Other and then back to Nationalist or Unionist. Some Members actually argued in the Committee that we should continue with that — astounding though it may seem.
I am glad that common sense prevailed and that Standing Orders say that while it is possible for someone to change once during the term of the Assembly, it will be once and once only. There will be none of the nonsense that was intended by the Secretary of State and encouraged by some parties here of Members being able to change their designation with seven days’ notice in order to influence a vote in the House. We were successful in deleting that piece of nonsense from the Standing Orders.
The matter of language raised its head in the Committee on numerous occasions, and we had exchanges on this subject at the meeting on 26 October. No special recognition is now given in the Standing Orders to any foreign language that may be used in the Chamber. The Standing Orders provide for Members to speak in any language other than English should they wish to do so, but there is no provision for translation, simultaneous or otherwise, and no special recognition or place is given to any particular foreign language.
I thought that the purpose of debate was to try to influence how other Members vote or think by having one’s voice heard and opinions expressed. But if some Members are so discourteous that they want to speak in a foreign language that others do not understand, that is a matter for them. If they want to waste their time in that way, that is a matter entirely for them.
Ms Morrice said that she was glad that the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition had achieved a family-friendly time for sittings: 10.00 am to 6.30 pm. However, I am disappointed that it is a woman Secretary of State who has told the House to meet until 10.00 pm both today and tomorrow in order to get through its business. I am sure that the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition will be taking this up with the Secretary of State, and I hope that they will be as vehement in raising that with her as they are about other issues.
As I understand it, however, this was not an issue. Members from other parties will agree that this was something that found broad agreement among all parties. We all agreed that we should have a sitting arrangement which would be family-friendly and family-orientated — this was not something that just the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition wanted. Indeed, the only dissenting voice on this, as reported by the joint Chairman, was that of the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party, who proposed that the Assembly meet at 2.30 pm each Monday and finish at 10.00 pm. I am glad to say that the Committee unanimously rejected that view. I do not know whether there is to be an amendment on this or not, but we will wait and see.
A problem has arisen regarding the scrutiny of statutory committees of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and this has caused the Committee a great deal of concern. I will not rehearse all the arguments. I agree with the arguments that other Members have made about the importance of this issue. It is absolutely unacceptable that the important executive functions of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers will not be subject to scrutiny by the appropriate statutory Committee. This is a very significant matter. We must address it, and one of Mr Robinson’s amendments does just that. The Assembly will have an opportunity to do something about this later in the debate.
There are other issues that I could raise, but I will reserve some of my comments until later when we deal with some of these amendments in detail.