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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 9 March 1999


Assembly Standing Orders

Assembly Business

Nursery School Units: Admission Criteria

The sitting begun and suspended on Monday 8 March 1999 was resumed at 10.31 am.


Assembly Standing Orders


The Initial Presiding Officer:

Yesterday Mr David Ford asked whether the draft Standing Order referring to "Unionist", "Nationalist" and "Other" might be in contravention of Her Majesty’s Government’s undertakings internationally. I have sought legal advice on the question, but it may well be that clear legal advice will not be forthcoming prior to our having to take a vote at the end of today’s proceedings.

If such advice is forthcoming I will at a convenient time bring it and, insofar as I can, its consequences to the attention of the Assembly. If such advice has not been received by the time the Assembly votes, the Standing Orders that we will, I trust, approve will not, by dint of that, be determined. They will go to the Secretary of State, who will then make the determination in advance of devolution.

As it is the Secretary of State’s responsibility, as far as I understand it, to ensure that Her Majesty’s Government’s international obligations are maintained she will be scrutinising the Standing Orders that we put forward. If it is her belief that one of them is in contravention of international obligations, she would be within her rights were she to make a determination different from that of the Assembly, either in favour of the Alliance amendment or otherwise. In any case the matter will go to the Secretary of State following any decision of the Assembly.

Of course, if definitive legal advice comes to my attention before we come to the vote, I will at a convenient point bring it to the attention of the Assembly.



The Initial Presiding Officer:

We move now to the section on legislation. The amendments on the Marshalled List begin with No 22, which stands in the name of Mr Peter Robinson.

Mr P Robinson:

This amendment deals with how the Committees will operate when they are considering matters in relation to, for instance, a Bill brought to them by the Assembly. The words whose removal I am suggesting —

"to be made to the Bill" —

indicate something that definitely will occur. I am suggesting they be replaced by words which indicate that a Bill may be proposed. That would give an option. I imagine that this Committee will make a series of recommendations, which may, indeed, become proposals for amendments, but I suspect that, as the purpose of the Committee is to advise and assist a Minister, it would be a very foolish Minister indeed who would not take the recommendations of his Committee and consider them very seriously.

At that stage he might well agree to adopt some of those amendments as part of the Bill and therefore there would be a Government amendment relating to them. There may be others which he might be able to convince the Committee should not be accepted in the way that it has suggested, and the Committee may decide not to move the amendment.

Amendment No 22 provides for that degree of flexibility which will allow a Minister to adopt Committee recommendations and for the Committee, on reflection, to accept whatever argument is put by a Minister. As it stands at the moment, the amendments have to be made. I am not sure if the word "made" is appropriate. The word "moved" would be more appropriate if one were to stick with the original text. The amendment should allow more flexibility in the working of the Committee system.

I need not spend much time on amendment No 21. A Bill is set down "on" and not "in".

Amendment No 20 seems to have been caused by an error in the typing of the report or in its compilation. With the erratum being applied to Standing Order 31, the heading is "Public Bills: Human Rights Issues". The heading for Standing Order 32 is "Public Bills: Equality Issues". However, in No 32(1) there is reference to "human rights" instead of "equality requirements". Amendments 17, 18 and 19, whose purpose is to remove the words "and observance of human rights", are consequential. Legal advice is that if the original Standing Order is clearly wrong some further tidying up might be required, and the Committee might want to look at that. Indeed, it might fall within the context of the catch-all amendment that we had to the notice of motion, which allows some tidying up to be done.

Mr Farren:

With regard to Standing Order 32(1), the point which has been made regarding the reference to "human rights" and its replacement by "equality requirements" is one that is well taken. However, with reference to the following amendments that the Member is proposing, would he not accept that all references to "human rights" might well be required, given that all equality measures may not be covered simply by a reference to "equality rights"?

Mr P Robinson:

It is my understanding that the Standing Orders Committee was attempting to divide human rights and equality issues, recognising that a particular statutory responsibility for human rights has been placed on the Human Rights Commission. There is a real legal difficulty if an Assembly Committee seeks to take over responsibilities which have been given to a statutory body, the Human Rights Commission, no matter what one might think of the present composition of it. I am quite happy that the lawyers look at it and tidy it up in whatever way is necessary. It is not that I want particularly to take out the reference, but we may be getting into legal difficulties if we give a task which has to be performed legally by a Human Rights Commission to a Committee of the Assembly.

Mr Haughey:

Would Mr Robinson be prepared to withdraw the amendments Nos 17, 18 and 19 on the basis that he has properly brought the House’s attention to what may require some legal expertise? If he were to withdraw them it would save us having to vote them down in order that they go back and be reconsidered. I would be glad to give such an undertaking as joint-Chairman of the Committee on Standing Orders.

Mr P Robinson:

I am comfortable with Mr Haughey’s proposal. As I have said, I have no emotional capital tied up in the wording of the Standing Order. We need to deal with it, but I would not like to keep it in and find that we are in conflict with the law. That is the last thing I should want.

Amendment No 16 seeks to replace "bill" with "Bill". I hope that there is no controversy over that proposal. Amendment No 15 is similar to an earlier amendment, inserting "on" in place of "in".

Amendment No 14 requires "main" options to be considered. I suspect that when a Department is preparing a Bill it considers a plethora of options. Some of them might not be seriously considered, but if the Department were required to include all the options the Bill would be a very untidy document. Simply to include the main propositions seems sensible. For consistency, a change is required to brackets in Standing Orders 37 and 38. I have not referred to those specifically as they should be included in the catch-all amendment at the beginning.

With regard to amendment No 13, there seems to be an assumption on the part of the drafter of the Standing Orders that there must be more than one reason for everything, because throughout the Standing Orders we have to give reasons. It should be "reason or reasons" in case there is only one reason. I am sure that the Women’s Coalition will applaud me for amendment No 12, in which I am being gender-sensitive. Mr Sammy Wilson helped me to word the amendment.

Regarding amendment No 11, it is not the responsibility of a Committee to "require" Departments to do anything. The person who is responsible for a Department is a Minister, and the Committee has direct control of the Minister, as the Assembly would. The amendment should tidy up the Standing Order.

Those are all the amendments in my name, and I beg to move them.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

I have no requests from Members to speak on this group of amendments, so we shall simply take decisions on them and on the relevant Standing Orders.

Standing Order 27 (Public Bills: Introduction and First Stage) agreed to.

Standing Order 28 (Stages in Consideration of Public Bills) agreed to.

Standing Order 29 (Public Bills: Second Stage) agreed to.

Standing Order 30 (Public Bills: Committee Stage)

Amendment (No 22) made: In paragraph (3) leave out "to be made to the Bill" and insert ", to the Bill, that may be proposed". — [Mr P Robinson]

Amendment (No 21) made: In paragraph (5), line 3, leave out "in" and insert "on". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 30, as amended, agreed to.

Standing Order 31 (Public Bills: Human Rights Issues) agreed to.

Standing Order 32 (Public Bills: Equality Issues)

Amendment (No 20) made: In paragraph (1) leave out "human rights" and insert "equality requirements". — [Mr P Robinson]

The Initial Presiding Officer:

Are amendments Nos 19, 18 and 17 moved or not moved?

Mr P Robinson:

Not moved.

Standing Order 32, as amended, agreed to.

10.45 am

Standing Order 33 (Public Bills: Consideration Stage) agreed to.

Standing Order 34 (Public Bills: Amendments)

Amendment (No 16) made: Leave out "bill" and insert "Bill". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 34, as amended, agreed to.

Standing Order 35 (Public Bills: Final Stage)

Amendment (No 15) made: In paragraph (1) leave out "in" and insert "on". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 35, as amended, agreed to.

Standing Order 36 (Public Bills: Reconsideration) agreed to.

Standing Order 37 (Public Bills: Explanatory and Financial Memoranda)

Amendment (No 14) made: In paragraph (c), after "the", insert "main". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 37, as amended, agreed to.

Standing Order 38 (Public Bills: Special Scheduling Requirement)

Amendment (No 13) made: In paragraph (2)(a), after "the" insert "reason or". — [Mr P Robinson]

Amendment (No 12) made: In paragraph (2), after "he" insert "/she". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 38, as amended, agreed to.

Standing Order 39 (Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland)

Amendment (No 11) made: In paragraph (3), after "require", insert "the Minister responsible for". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 39, as amended, agreed to.

Ministerial Appointments


The Initial Presiding Officer:

We now move to the section on the appointment of Ministers.

Mr P Robinson:

Paragraph (1) of Standing Order 40 ends with the words "are as follows". Either the next two paragraphs must be incorporated into this one or we must make the reference contained in amendment No 45. It is simply a tidying-up amendment.

Standing Order 40 refers to the "Northern Ireland Act". It should be the "Northern Ireland Act 1998". I do not believe that there is any substantial point there.

Amendment No 46 proposes that after Standing Order 40(2)(e) we insert a new subparagraph.

There are a number of areas where it is necessary to provide cover in this Standing Order. There is a gap or a route back into an Executive for those who are determined not to be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, for those who are found not to have fulfilled the pledge of office or carried out the task which they were to perform. There was a way of filling a position when a vacancy occurred by retirement, resignation or death. There is no way back.

I shall give some examples of what might arise from a principled decision. None of the examples should be taken as an intention. A party might decide that the Assembly needed a much stronger constitutional and legitimate Opposition, and might decide to move into Opposition rather than remain in the Government. That would be a principled decision. Will the members of that party be given fewer rights than those who were put out of the Government because they were involved in violence or because they broke their pledges? That would be wrong, particularly as all the parties that supported the agreement say that it was about inclusive government. My proposal seeks to fill a gap in the Standing Orders.

Amendment No 47 is necessary because 40(2)(e) is inaccurate. It is prefaced by Standing Order 40(2), which states

"Ministerial offices must be filled by applying the procedures set out in section 18(2) to (6)".

However, in the circumstances referred to in 40(2)(e) the nominating officer does not go through the procedure set out in 18(2) to (6). He simply appoints a replacement. The amendment corrects that inaccuracy.

I now turn to amendment No 49. Standing Order 40(3)(b) refers to asking

"the Assembly to extend that time limit, and gives reasons for so asking".

Again, plurality is required by the Standing Orders, though there may be only one reason.

In Standing Order 41, the removal of "(1)" is simply for tidying up. As there is only one part, there is no requirement for "(1)".

Amendment No 61 is a tidying-up exercise. The reference in the Standing Order to "Minister" should be to "Ministers".

Mr Haughey:

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. There are two elements to amendment No 46, and Members may wish to vote differently on them. I ask you to rule that the two elements can be separated and that separate votes may be taken on them. The first element is to leave out Standing Order 40(2)(e), and the second is to insert a new paragraph (f).

The Initial Presiding Officer:

There is a legitimate argument for these two matters to be taken separately. On occasions, amendments have been separated into sections because they could legally be taken as separate matters. I accept that these could be taken as two separate votes. We will take these as amendments No 46(A) and No 46(B) — 46(A) being "Leave out Standing Order 40 (2)(e)", and 46(B) being the insertion of a new subparagraph. Given that change, Mr Robinson may wish to comment on the difference that it would make.

Mr P Robinson:

I do not object to the change. I am not sure whether I had them separated when I submitted them. The request is slightly disturbing because it suggests that people might deal with them in a different way. If that is the case, it would be a remarkable shift in SDLP policy. I hope that if there is a policy shift we will be given an explanation for it.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

That, of course, is a political matter.

Mr Haughey:

Our view is that it would be proper to accept Mr P Robinson’s amendment to the existing paragraph (2)(e), as that provision runs contrary to the provisions of the relevant legislation. We would support that.

It seems to us that the second part of amendment 46, which relates to the rerunning of the d’Hondt system in circumstances where the nominating officer did not exercise his rights under the legislation when the Executive was formed but wishes to do so subsequently by notifying the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Speaker of his intention to do so, requires further thought. If it is left open in this way, it will be open to abuse. Therefore we would wish to consider this matter further and will not be accepting the amendment in its current form.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

As I have no further requests to speak, I propose that we proceed to the voting.

Standing Order 40 (Appointment of Northern Ireland Ministers — Time Limits)

Amendment (No 45) made: In paragraph (1) leave out "follows" and insert "set out in Standing Order 40(2), (2a) and (3)". — [Mr P Robinson]

Amendment (No 48) made: In paragraph (1), after "Act", insert "1998". — [Mr P Robinson]

Amendment (No 46A) made: Leave out paragraph (2)(e). — [Mr P Robinson]

Amendment (No 46B) proposed: After paragraph (2)(e) insert the following new sub-paragraph:

"(f) the nominating officer of a party who did not exercise the power conferred by section 18(2) notifies the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Speaker of his/her intention to do so." — [Mr P Robinson]

11.00 am

Question put That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 27; Noes 62.





Paul Berry, Norman Boyd, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Robert McCartney, Rev William McCrea, Maurice Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Mrs Iris Robinson, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Jim Wells, Cedric Wilson, Sammy Wilson.


Mrs Eileen Bell, Seamus Close, David Ford.



Alex Attwood, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, John Dallat, Ms Bairbre de Brún, Arthur Doherty, Pat Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, Ms Michelle Gildernew, Ms Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Dr Joe Hendron, John Kelly, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Donovan McClelland, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Eddie McGrady, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, Mrs Mary Nelis, Danny O’Connor, Ms Dara O’Hagan, Eamonn ONeill, Mrs Sue Ramsey, Ms Brid Rodgers, John Tierney.


Dr Ian Adamson, Ms Pauline Armitage, Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs Jnr, Billy Bell, Esmond Birnie, Mrs Joan Carson, Fred Cobain, Rev Robert Coulter, Duncan Shipley Dalton, Ivan Davis, Sir Reg Empey, David Ervine, Sam Foster, Sir John Gorman, Derek Hussey, Billy Hutchinson, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, David McClarty, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Dermot Nesbitt, Ken Robinson, George Savage, Peter Weir.


Ms Monica McWilliams, Ms Jane Morrice.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

There voted 89 Members. Thirty four Nationalists voted, all of them Noes. The number of Unionist votes was 50, 24 of them Ayes, and 26 Noes. The total number of Ayes is 30.33%. The amendment is lost.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment (No 47) made: After paragraph (2) insert the following new paragraph:

"Where the office becomes vacant as mentioned in section 18(10) the nominating officer of the party on whose behalf the previous incumbent was nominated shall nominate a person to hold the office within a period of seven days." — [Mr P Robinson]

Amendment (No 49) made: In paragraph (3)(b), after "gives", insert "a reason or". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 40, as amended, agreed to.

Standing Order 41 (Junior Ministers)

Amendment (No 44) made: Leave out "(1)". — [Mr P Robinson]

Amendment (No 61) made: In line 3, leave out "Minister" and insert "Ministers". — [Mr P Robinson]

Standing Order 41, as amended, agreed to.



The Initial Presiding Office:

We now come to the section on Committees.

Dr Hendron:

On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. This is a point that I should have raised yesterday, but it only occurred to me a while ago. I have not discussed it with either Chairman of the Standing Orders Committee. I am thinking of a vote where the cross-community aspect was important to either side. If a Member were suffering from a chronic illness and unable to attend the Chamber, he or she could come by car, as happens in the House of Commons — and you will be aware of this — to the precincts of the Building. An officer appointed by the Speaker could go out, see the person and record his or her vote. That should happen here. I am not proposing an amendment, but could the Chairmen of the Standing Orders Committee take that on board for the future?

The Initial Presiding Officer:

Your remarks, while strictly speaking not a point of order, raise a useful question of procedure. Since the matter is now on the record, I am sure that it will be given consideration by the joint Chairmen.

We now come to the section on Committees — a substantial section from Standing Order 42 to, I think, 56 — and there is a considerable number of amendments. There may be matters arising which we will have to address.

11.15 am

I want to draw Members’ attention to amendments 3A through to 3E, which were submitted as a single amendment. They have been divided up for ease of reference as Members go through the Marshalled List, but I will take them as a single amendment.

Amendments 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 refer to precisely the same matters as amendments 3A to 3E. When we come to the vote — and it makes no difference in terms of our consideration of the matter — I will take amendments 3A to 3E as a single vote. If Members are agreed on that, amendments 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 will therefore not be moved as they will have already been agreed.

If, however, Members do not agree to take amendments 3A to 3E on the first and single vote, then amendments 4, 7, 8, 9 and 10 may, if the proposer wishes, be moved separately, and there will be a separate vote on each of them. I trust that this is clear. When it comes to the vote, I will draw it to Members’ attention again in order to avoid confusion.

The first amendment in this group is No 60, which stands in the name of Mr Peter Robinson.

Mr P Robinson:

I will not try to speak to all of the amendments in my name in this section. It might make more sense if I were simply to address the issues relating to the establishment of Statutory Committees in Standing Order 44 and resume my seat at that stage. There is a substantial piece of business to be transacted on that single Standing Order, and it might be appropriate for Members to look at this one — even to vote on it — before coming back to the others.

Of the amendments that I have, the substantive one is No 59, which is to do with the setting up of a Special Scrutiny Committee to deal with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The other two or three amendments immediately surrounding it on the list of groupings are consequential amendments.

This subject was discussed during our meeting yesterday, and considerable concern was expressed at the gap in the legislation in relation to the setting up of the Statutory Committees. It is clear — and cannot be disputed — that the legislation specifically requires the Assembly to set up statutory committees dealing with all the subjects that are the responsibility of Northern Ireland Ministers. I think that the legal advice correctly defines them as being the Ministers responsible for the 10 new Departments. Therefore there is no statutory requirement — I use the word "requirement" advisedly — to set up a committee in relation to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Having looked at the synopsis of the legal advice given to the Standing Orders Committee, I am not clear if the legal adviser was asked if a Statutory Committee was one which was required by statute or one which was permitted by statute. I have no doubt that, under the Standing Orders provision contained in the Act, permission is given to the Assembly to set up committees of whatever shape and variety. Whether it is a statutory committee because the statute so permits, I am not legally competent to answer. I have asked those who should be legally competent, and they are unsure as to the position.

Therefore instead of tabling an amendment, which I think I could have done, stating that a Statutory Committee is one that is permitted rather than required by statute, I have taken the softer option, which is not to attempt to call it a Statutory Committee but to set up a special scrutiny committee. We are empowered to do that by the legislation. That committee will have all of the powers and functions of a Statutory Committee and will look at the roles of the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, and junior Ministers within their Department. It is a Statutory Committee by another name, but it is within the Assembly’s legal competence.

Being charitable, I imagine that the wise owls in London who drafted the legislation made a mistake when they did not insert a clause to cover this matter. Perhaps they never considered such a possibility. It could be that they did not expect the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to grab so many functions and place them in the central Department. As it stands, the First and Deputy First Ministers, who have the authority to issue determinations, could take more and more responsibility to the central Department. Without scrutiny, they could take key government issues away from the eyes of Members and the public.

I cannot imagine anyone being prepared to state publicly that the actions of the First and Deputy First Ministers are such that they should not be scrutinised. In a general acceptance that there should be scrutiny, the only two not fighting hard for it would be those two Ministers. They might enjoy the chance to justify their actions to a committee. A more malevolent view creeping around the Assembly is that we are witnessing part of a conspiracy. It is said that it is impossible for legislative draftsmen not to have foreseen the possibility, and that there was a deliberate exercise to ensure that there would be no scrutiny, or inadequate scrutiny, of what the First and Deputy First Ministers are doing.

I do not need to take sides on this issue. It is sufficient to say that the amendment suggests a mechanism by which we can fill this unfortunate gap until such times as the legislation may change. The Assembly has the power to do that. I hope that the committee wants to do it and that there are no vested interests in the Assembly that would seek to protect the First and Deputy First Ministers from scrutiny. There will certainly be matters under the control of the central Department that will need to be scrutinised. The equality agenda will clearly require scrutiny. Those who are the guardians of equality would place themselves in a weak position if they were not prepared to have their actions scrutinised.

There has been an attempt to withdraw powers from the Department of Finance and Personnel, especially in relation to the Economic Policy Unit. That key government function — the strategy for the Northern Ireland economy — will be determined by that body. Is it conceivable that the Assembly would be unable to scrutinise such an important function? There is a clear requirement to scrutinise, and my proposal allows the Assembly at least a stop-gap measure until the legislation is corrected.

There are one or two other amendments in my name in relation to the setting up of the Statutory Committees. Standing Order 44 requires the speaker to supervise the establishment of Statutory Committees. The word "given" in 44(2) suggests that Members must accept, but that may not be what every Member wants. Amendment No 57 seeks to insert the word "offered", which would allow Member to decide whether to accept.

Also, the Speaker should be excluded from being a member of a Statutory Committee, yet the Standing Order does not specifically indicate that. That is normal practice and that should be reflected in the Standing Order.

Standing Order 44(5) says

"For the purposes of paragraph (4) a nominating officer has a party interest in a Committee if it is established to advise and assist a Minister who is a member of his/her party."

The present thinking of the current First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) is that there may not be junior Ministers in Departments, but the Standing Orders that we are devising are not simply for the first term or for the duration of their tenure. They will go beyond that, and it is conceivable that, in the future, the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate) will change their minds and there will be junior Ministers in Departments. I do not believe that any party should nominate a Chairperson or a deputy Chairperson to a Committee if it has a junior Minister from its party in the Department that that Committee is to scrutinise. This amendment is not for immediate use, it is for the future .

That covers all the amendments in my name to Standing Order 44, and I beg to move them.

Mr McFarland:

My comments refer to amendment 59. A situation has arisen that means that some areas are not going to be scrutinised because of the legislation which was passed in November 1998 before the parties’ negotiations in December 1998 which led to an agreement on 18 December 1998 to move various areas of responsibility from Departments into the centre. That is the reason for this anomaly.

This is not a simple issue. It is complicated in that the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) will clearly have a view on this. While I agree that there are areas that appear to require some degree of oversight by the Assembly, it would be sensible to discuss this with the First and Deputy First Ministers (Designate), obtain their views and reach an agreed outcome. This is something that requires further scrutiny and should be referred back to the Committee.

Mr Haughey:

The SDLP feels that with regard to amendments 60, 59, 56 and 55, which have to do with oversight of the Executive functions carried out by the First and Deputy First Ministers, there is a lack of clarity in the Act. Whereas the Good Friday Agreement makes reference to the need for scrutiny of the main Executive functions of the new Administration, it is not clear how this can be done in a way that is consistent with the legislation. I agree with Mr McFarland that this is a matter which requires further study to enable us to come up with a formula which would accomplish the purposes of the Assembly.

The SDLP also feels that amendment 54 is a matter that needs to be looked at more carefully. As the amendment is currently drafted, it could be restrictive and, in certain circumstances, impracticable.

Mr C Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. One of my Colleagues will speak to the amendments on the special scrutiny committee proposed by Mr P Robinson. I wish to address amendment 84, put forward by the Alliance Party, which will alter the number on the Statutory Committees from 11 to 12.

Mr Ford:

To save Mr Murphy’s time, the Alliance Party does not propose to move that amendment, given the assurances it has received.

11.30 am

Mr C Murphy:

That is fine. I was going to put on record our position. We supported 11 but were prepared to go to 14 to accommodate the smaller parties such as the Women’s Coalition and the PUP. The amendment, as suggested, would accommodate the Alliance Party but not these smaller parties.

On amendment 52, proposed by Mr P Robinson, the issue is whether committees should be forced to suspend their business when a vote is being taken in plenary session, or whether they have discretion. Members may be stuck dealing with a vital vote in a committee when there is also a vital vote in the plenary session. Our opinion is that committees should retain discretion in such cases. Our experience is that most of the committees have operated sensibly to date. If there are vital votes being held in plenary session, Members should be allowed to leave.

There are a number of amendments regarding deleting the reference to membership of non-statutory committees. We will not support these, on the understanding that the issue will revert to the Standing Orders Committee who will deliberate further on it and that it does not go back to 11.

Mr Wells:

I support Mr P Robinson. Mr McFarland felt that the First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) would have a view on this matter. I am sure that they do. Human nature is such that their view would be that they will not want to be scrutinised. They will want to hide behind the privilege of being able to control a huge section of the Government of this Province without being subject to adequate scrutiny.

No one will want to be brought to account before a Statutory Committee of this Assembly. That is the nature of politics. If they have a view on the subject, they will have realised weeks or months ago that this issue was going to come up. They have had plenty of time to consider their view. The matter came up several times at the Standing Orders Committee when I was present. They will have seen that there are a whole series of amendments on the subject, and they should be in the Chamber to give us their considered view.

My concern is that if we take up the suggestion made by Mr McFarland and Mr Haughey — if we sideline this issue and go on — an attempt will be made quietly to forget it. This is our opportunity to get the Standing Orders that this Assembly needs and to get them right. This was one of the most debated issues in the Committee and one of the most important matters that we discussed. We cannot allow a huge section of the Government of the Province to be controlled by those who are not accountable to this body.

Mr Ervine:

I concur with what the Member says and with the sentiments contained in this amendment. Given that it says there will be a committee for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration — and that wording means that there must be — does the Member share my concern that if we set up a committee which is different from the statutory committees it will be a diluted committee, that it will not be a committee with the proper standing? Given the speed with which the political development Minister was able to put proposals before Parliament last evening, should we not wait for proper legislation?

Mr Wells:

The hon Member for East Belfast is reading from the agreement, not from the Act. It is the Act which gives us our statutory powers to scrutinise the work of the various Departments. My view is that this issue will be gently pushed aside, and we will not have an opportunity to get it right from the start.

Mr McFarland made the point that various powers were added to the central control of the First and Second Ministers; that is true. That happened — very conveniently — after the establishment of the Standing Orders Committee and before the issue of its final report. I wonder if that happened by chance. Did they realise, as the legislation was going through, that they could get away with not having a statutory scrutiny committee? Did they, therefore, take the opportunity to add on as many powers as they could to their control so that they had absolute authority on a whole range of issues?

Now, not only have we to be fair in the Chamber, but we have to be seen to be fair. We have to be able publicly — and it is very crucial that it is publicly — to bring the First and Deputy First Ministers to book on issues and guard the rights of minorities. This is the first opportunity we have had to address this issue, and it may be the only one we will have.

Mr Leslie:

Does this mean that the Member and his party are abandoning their adherence to the principle of majority rule?

Mr Wells:

The hon Member is showing his inexperience. Scrutiny committees are there to see that justice is done for everyone. We as a party have never stood in the way of adequate scrutiny of the Executive. During the last Assembly from 1982 to 1986 we were the strongest proponents of scrutiny committees. The rights of every party in the House have to be guarded, and, as things stand, if we do not have some form of control over the central Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, they will be able to ride roughshod over the rights of all the parties in the Assembly except their own.

I am deeply suspicious when Mr Haughey and Mr McFarland, who are known to be the lieutenants, the right-hand men, of the two Gentlemen concerned, are quick to their feet to say that we must wait for the considered views of Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon. It is only about a three-minute walk from their offices to the Chamber, so let us have them here, hear their considered views and vote on this important issue.

The Initial Presiding Officer:

It is clear from comments that were made earlier, particularly by the Members who moved this list of amendments, and from the number of Members who want to speak that there is very considerable interest on the part of the Assembly in addressing this matter.

The proposition was made that we would speak to this matter rather than consider the whole raft of amendments for this section on Committees as one piece and then vote on all of them right at the end. It does seem to me that that proposition has some merit. We are going to be debating for some time, before and after lunch, and then voting later on.

I therefore rule that we will now take all the speeches on the set of amendments up to amendment 54, that is the amendments to Standing Orders 42 to 44. A substantial number of Members have indicated that they wish to address those matters. We will then vote on them and then continue with the rest of the amendments to the section on Committees.

If we do not do this we will be debating backwards and forwards on a whole series of matters and then voting on them very much later in the day.

Mr Close:

I find myself in total agreement with the sentiments that have been expressed by the Member, Mr Peter Robinson, particularly on amendment No 59. There is a responsibility — indeed, a duty — on all Members to ensure that all areas are subject to proper scrutiny. I hope that there will be no dissent from that view. It should be a matter of principle on the parts of everyone that all Ministers, be they the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister, be subject to the utmost scrutiny by all elected representatives who operate on behalf of their constituents. I have no difficulty with amendment No 60 at all.

While agreeing with the sentiments, I do have a difficulty with the proposal that this special scrutiny committee should have the same powers and perform the same functions as a Statutory Committee. I question if that is not ultra vires in respect of Standing Orders.

I am not legally qualified, and I recognise that I speak in the presence of people who are qualified in law. However, it is my contention, and I am subject to the correction of those eminent lawyers in the Chamber, that to try to give the same powers to a scrutiny committee that have been given by the Act to another type of committee is really cutting across the point of the Act itself. Why have an Act at all, if, through Standing Orders, we can give the same powers to committees as those set up and empowered by the Act?

I have difficulty with that. I want the centre to be scrutinised, and it must be subject to exactly the same scrutiny as all other Statutory Committees. I share the concern of Members who question whether this was some sort of an accident or an oversight. I am on record as saying that I believe that it is probably deliberate.

Mr P Robinson:

I think that I am right in saying that he is a member of a district council. District councils decide their own standing orders, and can draw up whatever standing orders they want, provided they do not conflict with legislation. We are in exactly the same position. Section 41 of the Act allows the Assembly to determine its Standing Orders, provided it does not go beyond its powers. By carrying out the job that the Act asks us to do, we can hardly be ultra vires.

Mr Close:

I understand Mr Robinson’s point. Section 29 of the Act gives the statutory powers for the establishment of the committees. If we try to establish committees that have the same powers as those Statutory Committees, I question whether we would be operating ultra vires the Act. Perhaps we both require legal advice on that matter.

Mr P Robinson:

Section 29 requires the Assembly to do something. Nowhere does it try to stop it from doing something else. It is a requirement, but it does not take away the permissive powers within the legislation for us to set up committees.

Mr Close:

The Act is establishing Statutory Committees. Now it is really getting difficult.

Mr McCartney:

The provisions in the Act relating to the establishment of the Statutory Committees are mandatory. Those committees must be established. Mr Robinson is referring to the fact that although it states that some must be established and therefore cannot be done without, that is no bar to the creation of others should the Assembly, under its inherent statutory powers, decides to do that.

Mr Close:

I know when I’m bate — to use a well-known Ulster expression. I do not propose to take on an eminent QC.

I share the view that the utmost scrutiny should be applied to those who will be at the centre, and they should not run away from that fact. If amendment No 59 enables that to happen, I shall be content to go along with it. If it is ultra vires, I will have difficulty with it.

I understand that on the completion of our discussions on the report it will be subject to full legal scrutiny. In that context, I am prepared to go along with it because I feel strongly that there must be power to scrutinise the centre. Neither I nor any member of my party believes in dictatorship, be it benign or otherwise. The more power that is sucked into the centre, the more difficult it will be to hold people to account without proper Statutory Committees.

On the clear understanding that the report will be subject to legal scrutiny and advice, my party can go along with the amendment.

11.45 am

Mr McCartney:

In my speech yesterday I referred to the balance between the legislative process and control of the Assembly and the Executive. This has, to a degree, been recognised in the legislation itself, in as much as the Act provides that the 10 Ministries be subject to the scrutiny of 10 committees. As I have already indicated, the fact that the Act requires, in a mandatory fashion, that committees be established to supervise and scrutinise each of the 10 Ministries recognises the principle that there must be control by the legislature and by Assembly Members over those exercising executive power.

It follows inevitably from that principle that there should be a scrutiny committee for members of the Executive, as they are collectively exercising more power than any Minister of a Department. Whether one believes in the conspiracy theory or in the "cock-up" theory, it may be that it was originally intended no such scrutiny committee would be required. It may not have been envisaged that the First or the Deputy First Ministers would have control of a specific department, but rather that their work would be more like that of a Prime Minister, supervising the whole range of Cabinet activities under other Ministers. However, during the passage of this legislation, the Centre was clearly given a full range of powers over some very fundamental and essential areas of government.

It is an established principle of democratic government, no matter where it is practised, that the legislative process, the judicial process and the executive process should be subject to a series of checks and balances, a principle already recognised in the legislation that set up the 10 Ministries. Members must realise that we have one thing in common in this Chamber: we are all elected representatives and Members of the Assembly as a legislative body before we are members of individual parties. It is as a Member of the Assembly, rather than as a member of a party, that I strongly recommend the amendment that would create a scrutiny committee specifically to check the activities of the two Ministers who will exercise the most central and fundamental power in the Executive.

It is an established principle in the United States that the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary all have to be totally independent in order to work. Indeed, the French political philosopher Montesquieu misunderstood the British constitution, which in a sense is flawed in this regard, in that he believed that the British legislature and its Executive were separate. We know that Labour, with a majority of 176, can control the legislature and can make it nothing more than a rubber stamp, that the Executive is currently triumphant and virtually uncontrolled in the House of Commons — save for the intervention of the fourth estate, and even that safeguard has been seriously weakened by the partnership between Mr Murdoch and Mr Blair.

We must not make that mistake here: it is vital that a scrutiny committee be established to check the activities of the First and Deputy First Ministers. These Ministers have significant executive power over areas, such as equality, that are likely to be the subject of conflicting views and interests. The Assembly, if it is dedicated to the equality agenda in the way that has been suggested it is, should also have control of these areas.

Some Members may feel that equality is being sidefooted for political expediency. Others may think that servicing another political agenda is thrusting further into the agenda of our politics than is required. In either event it is an area that ought to be scrutinised and brought within the control of the Assembly. If we fail to do that we shall throw away one of the few elements of control that lie within the Assembly.

Members should seriously consider whether they are content to be treated as lobby fodder for the SDLP or the Ulster Unionist Party. Independent voices must be raised, not only in the smaller parties within and without the Executive, but by those of independent mind who have a specific and honourable view which may not, in all circumstances, be shared by their party leaders. The only place where their voices can be heard is within either the Assembly or in a scrutiny committee that can call to account all those who will exercise executive power.

Members voting on this amendment should vote as democrats, as individual elected Members of the Assembly. They should bear in mind that their duty is to the entire people of Northern Ireland, and that we must serve their interests. Those may not necessarily accord with party interests, should they conflict with a broader, wider and much more important public interest.

Mr Farren:

I rise not as a piece of lobby fodder, but as one who subscribes fully to the principles of accountability which, having formed the approach to the establishment of the committee system, will be very much at the heart of the operation of the Assembly.

I wish to dispel any notion that the First and Deputy First Ministers do not want to be accountable. The present holders of those offices would certainly want to make themselves fully accountable to the Assembly in all aspects of their responsibilities. I also wish to dispel the notion that the office of the First and Deputy First Ministers has been endowed with powers and functions that will enable it to minimise the powers and functions of Departments that will be established by the Executive.

There is a danger of Members exaggerating the range of powers and functions that will rest with the First and Deputy First Ministers. As my Colleague Denis Haughey has said, we recognise that we need to address the accountability gap which became apparent to the Standing Orders Committee in respect of some aspects of the work of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. We have highlighted on a number of occasions our intention to ensure that the issue of equality is adequately scrutinised and addressed. We want a committee established with responsibilities for that.

We do not believe it is necessary, and this brings me to the heart of our opposition to the amendment.

We do not want all the detail of the First and Deputy First Ministers' responsibilities to be subject to the type of scrutiny that is implied by the proposal. Again, I emphasise that that is not to say that they will not be accountable. Indeed, the Act itself prescribes just how accountable they will be on some matters. For example, on matters relating to the North/South Ministerial Council, matters that excite and concern some Members, the Act clearly lays down the manner in which the First and Deputy First Ministers are to be accountable to the Assembly. Part 5, section 52 of the Act states the manner in which some of that accountability is to be discharged.

We need to look carefully at how we can ensure that the main Executive functions which now lie within the Offices of the First and the Deputy First Ministers can be subject to scrutiny, but the manner in which they will be subject to scrutiny should be much more discrete than that which is proposed by this catch-all amendment.

The Ministers will ensure full accountability to the Assembly and to the Executive in general. With regard to discrete functions - and I highlight equality in particular - the House can ensure, by way of a dedicated committee, that such responsibilities are adequately and effectively subjected to the type of scrutiny that we all wish to see established.

Mr Poots:

As a member of a "No" party, I have always suggested that the agreement was fraudulent. I am not surprised that Members from the "Yes" camp are trying to avoid scrutiny of the First and Deputy First Ministers. Not all the "Yes" parties are trying to do that, but the two main proponents, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, are. I am peeved about that since for years the Ulster Unionist Party has talked about accountable democracy. I have already raised this in the House: if the people of Northern Ireland are to believe that we carrying out our duties effectively, accountable democracy is essential.

From the beginning of the Assembly, the areas of responsibility of the First and Deputy First Ministers have increased and it has been agreed that they should appoint junior Ministers. It was noted that on 18 December 1998 and on the 15 February 1999 the main increase in departmental responsibility was in the Department of the First and Deputy First Ministers.

I ask the Assembly, the Members from the Ulster Unionist Party and from the SDLP, why the Ministers for Regional Development or the Environment or for the Culture, Arts and Leisure need to answer to a scrutiny committee when the First and Deputy First Ministers do not have to? Open and accountable Government should start at the top. The First and Deputy First Ministers must be held to account for the decisions they make. Their reasons should be made public, and nothing should be decided behind closed doors.

Those decisions will be made by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister without reference to the Assembly. Therefore I support Mr P Robinson's amendment establishing this committee to scrutinise the work of those two Ministers. Much of what they do will be supported by the Assembly, but there may be things which will cause concern to my party or to other parties, so it is essential that this scrutiny committee be set up.


Ms Gildernew:

Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. I wish to speak against amendments Nos 60, 59, 56 and 55, relating to the formation of a committee to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The creation of a scrutiny committee would only create another tier of committee work. It is the view of Sinn Féin that what is required is an amendment of the relevant legislation to create a Statutory Committee, or committees, to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Such a committee would have full powers of scrutiny and would ensure that there was accountability and transparency in relation to the work of the Offices of Trimble and Mallon.

The proposed amendment may not be sufficient to scrutinise the work of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers. Therefore this amendment should be referred back to the Committee on Standing Orders to allow it to analyse and assess whether or not it provides the level of scrutiny envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. I am greatly concerned that the kind of detailed scrutiny envisaged in the agreement for the work of other Departments will not apply to the central Offices.

I am particularly concerned that matters relating to the rights of women and gender equality issues are to fall within the remit of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Ministers. This will mean that Trimble and Mallon will have carte blanche to decide whether or not to act on a particular issue, and there will be no safeguard in the form of a scrutiny committee. I fear that issues relating to the rights of women will be placed far down the list of priorities if they are left in the hands of these two Gentlemen.

As evidence for this, I would like to remind Members that yesterday I hosted a discussion in the Long Gallery, attended by women from all sectors of society, the purpose of which was to acquaint the Assembly with their concerns and aspirations. Each delegate had a number of issues to which they felt the Assembly should attend. These included matters as diverse as health, education, violence against women, telecommunication masts situated close to homes and schools, childcare, poverty, prisoners and hospital closures.

With the exception of my Sinn Féin colleagues, no male Members of the Assembly attended. The fact that neither the First Minister (Designate) nor the Deputy First Minister (Designate) attended gave a very clear message to those hoping to address them that they were of little or no consequence. In the limited time available to us, we agreed some very valuable points. However, most of those at the meeting were already converted, and our discussions would have been of most benefit to those on the other Benches.

The disregard shown to this gathering of women, on International Women's Day, gives us an indication of the importance attached to gender equality by the Assembly. This is why I am arguing strongly against amendments Nos 55, 56, 59 and 60. I want to ensure that adequate attention is given to the rights of women, victims, minorities and to the whole issue of equality.

Any body with responsibility for scrutinising the work of the Offices of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must have real powers to protect the rights of the individual. There is a great need for this scrutiny, and we cannot accept a half-hearted attempt at this. We must get it right, and we cannot allow this issue to be sidelined. We must ensure that the necessary structures are in place to scrutinise the work of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

Go raibh maith agat.


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