Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 14 December 1999 (continued)
May I draw the attention of the Assembly to the first page. The public-duty section says that Members have a duty to uphold the law and to act on all occasions in accordance with the trust placed in them by the public. Members have a duty to act in the interests of the electorate and the community as a whole, and they have a special duty to their constituents. It is therefore obscene and appalling that Members who, in the words of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, are inextricably linked to terrorist organisations which carry out shootings, bombings, robberies, racketeering and extortion are now in positions in Government. Thus we are seeing all the evil of the "ballot-box and Armalite" strategy.
I would like to draw the Assembly's attention to the seven principles of public life. The first principle is that of selflessness. Holders of public office should take decisions that are solely in the public interest and not to get financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
Back in 1986 the new Minister of Education said
"In the whole of Western Europe there is not a revolutionary or socialist organisation that enjoys as much popular support as we do, and we must be conscious of that fact and build on it."
How does Martin McGuinness reconcile the IRA Army Council with that first principle of selflessness?
On the second principle of integrity, the Minister of Education -
I must return to what I said earlier. If the Member raises specific issues which are almost accusations - and the Member of whom he is speaking is not here to respond - he will prejudice any due process. If the Member wishes to comment on the Code of Conduct itself or on the Guide, that will be perfectly appropriate, but comments about Members who are here, and especially about those who are not here, are not in order.
The point is that since the Belfast Agreement there have been murders, shootings, beatings and exilings by Sinn Féin/IRA.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is the matter before us not whether the Code of Conduct is appropriate to the needs of the House rather than whether individual Members are observing it? Will you please give a ruling that will make it clear to the Member that this is the case and that he is not entitled to raise these matters now?
Mr Haughey is correct. The Code of Conduct must be appropriate to the needs of the House, but it goes further than that: its purpose is to fulfil the law. Were we not to agree this issue it might be argued that the House was in default of its responsibilities. That is an entirely separate issue from any questions, queries or accusations in respect of Members which, as I have already ruled, are out of order.
I must say to Mr Boyd that if he is merely going to raise questions about other Members, individually or as a group, I will have to rule that his speech is out of order and proceed to the next item of business. If, however, he is going to address what is in the document under discussion, that is another matter.
I must caution the Member not to return to his original line.
If the Code of Conduct is to mean anything, it should not be abused by certain Members who are now in positions of authority.
Mr B Hutchinson:
The whole point of the Code is that Members will be able to be tested against it, but it will not be possible to apply that test until the Code has been agreed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly agrees the resolution set out in Annex A to 'The Code of Conduct together with the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members' [NIA 1] as made by the New Northern Ireland Assembly on 1 March 1999.
There is a misprint on the Order Paper. In the words "After Standing Order 52(4)" the reference should be to Standing Order 53.
I beg to move the following motion:
In Standing Order 53 add the following paragraphs:
"(5) The Business Committee shall consist of thirteen Members.
(6) Each party delegation shall be entitled to cast the number of votes equivalent to the number of Members who adhere to the Whip of that party."
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. Ba mhaith liom an leasú ar Ordú Seasta 53 a mholadh agus ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá. I wish to propose this amendment to Standing Order 53, and, a Chathaoirligh, I wish to say a few words.
These changes are supported by all of the parties that are participating in the Assembly's Committees. The intention is to carry on from the model which was used in CAPO in the early days of the Assembly. In spite of the fact that there were Members who were politically opposed to one another fundamentally, they nevertheless worked well together in a consensual way to try to ensure that the business of the Assembly was conducted in a proper and orderly way.
I also wish to point out that the changes seek to re-establish the very important principles of inclusivity and proportionality - I believe that this was lost sight of today by some senior Members, including the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister - by increasing the membership from 11 to 13. This will allow all the other parties to have representation on this Committee and will give proper weight to the proportionality principle, since voting, if there is voting, will be on a proportional basis.
Because the motion seeks to change Standing Orders, it requires cross-community support. As I have accepted in the past that no dissent implies cross-community support, I will treat this on the same basis. However, if there is any dissent I shall have to call a Division.
Question put and agreed to.
In Standing Order 53 add the following paragraphs:
"(5) the Business Committee shall consist of thirteen Members.
(6) Each party delegation shall be entitled to cast the number of votes equivalent to the number of Members who adhere to the Whip of that party."
That the Business Committee shall consist of
In Standing Order 54, line 1, delete "Standing" and insert "Ad Hoc". - [Mr J Wilson]
I no longer have any authority in relation to Standing Orders, but Members will recall that I was co-Chairman of the Committee on Standing Orders with Mr Cobain during the shadow period of the Assembly. I am therefore in a position to inform the House about the deliberations of that Committee and its conclusions.
At the end of our period on the Committee several matters remained to be tidied up. As Members, Mr Cobain and I have attempted to assist the House in tidying up those loose ends, and a number of matters have been dealt with in that way. Unfortunately, this matter is one that we missed, and I should like to inform the House of the circumstances in which it arose.
The Standing Orders Committee considered the matter, and it was agreed that equality proofing of certain legislative measures which would come before the House should be carried out by what would effectively be an Ad Hoc Committee. There were discussions about what this Committee and others, apart from the statutory departmental Committees, should be called. It was in that context that the Standing Order which mistakenly referred to the Equality Proofing Committee as a Standing Committee came before the House.
Standing Committees are set up to exist throughout the lifetime of the Assembly, but that would not be appropriate for this Committee. I chaired the meeting in which this issue was considered, and it was agreed, after legal advice had been taken from the Office of the Clerk of the House, that I would propose amending Standing Order 54 accordingly. I will read briefly from the speaking notes which were prepared for me by the Committee staff. They say
"The Committee on Standing Orders wishes to make a minor amendment to Standing Order 54. Originally, when drawing up Standing Orders, we had thought it appropriate that the special Committee on Equality Matters referred to in paragraph 11 of Strand 1 of the agreement should be a Standing Committee. However, on further reflection, and having taken more advice on the matter, we are clear that this Committee is not one which should have the fixity of a Standing Committee. It needs to be constituted and reconstituted as necessary to deal with the matters referred to it. Its membership will vary according to the subject at hand to ensure that its deliberations are not prejudiced and that no conflicting interests are allowed to bear upon matters. This Committee is unique, or, as the agreement puts it, 'will be a special Committee', but its constitution is intended to be ad hoc and not permanent. It is therefore a special Ad Hoc Committee and should be so described, and that is the effect of the change to the Standing Order that is being proposed."
I thank Mr Wilson and congratulate him on spotting this deficiency. I support his motion.
Go raibh maith agat. I do not entirely accept the explanation given by Mr Haughey. Indeed, I wish to draw attention to the fact that during the last few meetings of CAPO - now the Business Committee - it was the fairly universal, if not unanimous, opinion of its members that the final work of the Standing Orders Committee was not of a very high standard. Indeed, it was most unsatisfactory, and I made that point myself. I can name Members who shared my view. If I remember correctly, it was shared by Members from all the parties sitting around the Committee table.
I do not accept for one moment that paragraph 11 of Strand 1 intended this to be an Ad Hoc Committee. In spite of what the Deputy First Minister said, we did have lengthy discussions in the Good Friday negotiations on equality and related issues. This very question came up, and it was deliberated upon at length. We can deal with that later. Recent work by the Standing Orders Committee has not been good. Mr Wilson, as I recall, is not even a member of the Standing Orders Committee. There is an agenda at work here.
This motion is seeking to downgrade the functions of this Committee. In my view - and I have argued this at the Committee in the last week or two - if a Committee is reduced from being a standing one to being an ad hoc one, its standing is reduced. There is no doubt whatsoever that our society needs to do a great deal of work on refocussing and reorientating itself on this very complex question of equality.
A Standing Committee becomes an expert Committee, a Committee that can draw upon the relevant people in any Department. If the Committee feels that there is a difficulty with legislation in a Department, it can call on people from that Department and from the departmental Committee - perhaps even Ministers and Chairpersons - and any other expertise it may require.
I ask the Assembly to take this matter seriously. The best thing to do is appoint a Standing Committee. Indeed, it is a Standing Committee and should remain so in order to gain expertise. In view of the likely response to the other changes on the agenda tonight, it is all the more important that the equality issue is protected in the Assembly.
This Committee is being downgraded, and I have no doubt that the equality agenda will be further downgraded as a result of other changes tonight. This is a disgrace. I understand why some people in the Chamber wish to downgrade the equality provisions, but I do not think that other parties should collude in that. I ask Members not to support this motion.
There is a degree of confusion here. As a member of the Standing Orders Committee, I would like to say a few words. I do not wish to address items of business concerning the Department of the Centre, which is where the equality issue rests. However, if this motion is resolved, there will be a Committee to examine equality issues.
That Committee, if the Assembly agrees to it, will be permanent. The Assembly agreed this Committee last week, but a change has been proposed. The Equality Committee under discussion is specifically designed to have the legal aspects of equality referred to it by the Assembly. If someone in the Assembly is not happy about the equality aspects of a particular Bill, he can have it referred to the Committee for re-examination. In theory it will have been examined already, but if a Member is not happy about it the Assembly, if it agrees this motion to amend the Standing Order, will be able to set up an Ad Hoc Committee to examine the matter further. As I understand it, this Committee was not designed to look at equality matters per se, which is why it is changing from being a standing one to being an ad hoc one and why there will be a Committee looking at equality, in one form or another, I hope, after these deliberations.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr Durkan):
I listened to what Mr Maskey said about the contribution to the negotiations and to his suggestion that Mr Haughey's reference to paragraph 11 of the agreement was a misrepresentation of what was intended by those who negotiated the agreement. As one who had a considerable hand in drafting paragraphs 11 to 13, which is essentially the special procedure that will concern this Committee, I can tell Mr Maskey, and assure the House, that what Mr Haughey is saying is correct. That was the clear intention of those who negotiated and drafted those paragraphs.
I know that Mr Durkan was involved in those negotiations, but so were we. This was not our intention, though it may have been his and the intention of others. I need clarification on that. He is entitled to his opinion.
I note Mr Maskey's point, but I have no recollection of Sinn Féin's involving itself in that point of the negotiations whatsoever. Sinn Féin did make a case in relation to the Equality Commission. Some of us pointed out that the provisions for the Equality Commission on its own were not enough. The Equality Commission is outside this House, and so too are the courts, so we cannot rely on them. We said that we needed an equality provision that would allow the House to test whether the Equality Commission had been given full information on any particular measure.
At any time when a Petition of Concern is raised that a measure be tested in terms of its impact on equality or rights, this Ad Hoc Committee will be able to examine the matter and call for all relevant persons, including people from the Equality Commission and the Departments, and papers. It will really be quite powerful. You, Mr Speaker, in a former life, knew something of the provenance of this matter and were involved in the negotiations on it.
This was designed to be an ad hoc measure because we believed that, depending on what the issues were, parties would want to put different people forward who had expertise in particular sectoral matters, be that expertise economic, social, legal or whatever. We thought that the parties would want to pick horses for courses precisely because there would have to be thorough investigations and that this would allow them to put their most specialised people to work. In fact, it was envisaged that there might be several versions of this Committee at any given time, several Ad Hoc Committees, created by this special procedure, to examine different measures. This was not seen as downgrading equality proofing in any way. It was actually seen as adding to it and substantiating it in a way that would make its work transparent and effective to the House. It was aimed at complementing all the other equality measures and not, as Mr Maskey wrongly suggests, downgrading them.
Mr J Wilson:
I am grateful to Members for their contributions. However, I remain convinced that a Standing Committee with a fixed membership is not the best way in which to proceed. The Assembly must set up a special Ad Hoc Committee which can draw on the expertise which is in this Chamber as the need arises. I urge Members to support the motion.
A change to Standing Orders requires cross-community support. If there is no dissent the motion will pass. If there is any dissent we will move to a Division.
Question put and agreed to.
In Standing Order 54, line 1, delete "Standing" and insert "Ad Hoc".
I beg to move the following motion:
After Standing Order 57 insert a new Standing Order:
"( )Committee of the Centre
(1) There shall be a Standing Committee of the Assembly to be known as the Committee of the Centre, to examine and report on the exercise of the executive functions carried out in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, other than those addressed by the Standing Committee on European Affairs, and the Committee on Equality, Human Rights and Community Relations, and on any other related matters determined by the Assembly.
(2) The Committee shall have the power to send for persons and papers.
(3) The procedures of the Committee shall be such as the Committee shall determine."
At this time of night Members may be gratified to know that my comments will be shorter than they might otherwise have been. This motion was put down because there is a gap in the Standing Orders.
Today we have debated the enormous range of functions which rest with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the centralisation that has taken place there. In effect, we now have joint Prime Ministers who are also heads of the largest single Department. This is not just because of Standing Orders. The Good Friday Agreement lays down procedures for Committees in paragraphs 9 and 10. It is sometimes forgotten that paragraph 8 says
"There will be a Committee for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration."
Some of us are concerned that this scrutiny function appears to have been lost. The more paranoid of us have been wondering what has happened to it. There are clear crossovers with other Departments. I am not sure that the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who has just spoken, would be very happy if his areas of responsibility were subject to scrutiny while the Economic Policy Unit within the Committee of the Centre was not. The issues which we have already debated on equality, community relations, human rights and victims also need to be covered.
This motion has been put forward because a gap has opened up and some issues are not being properly covered. An amendment is to be moved which appears to my Colleagues and me broadly to cover our concerns. Given the frequency with which Standing Orders have already been amended, further amendments may be forthcoming. Having said that, I welcome the change.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr Mallon):
I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all of paragraph (1) after "Committee of the" and insert
"Centre to examine and report on the following functions carried out in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and on any other related matters determined by the Assembly:
(a) Economic Policy Unit (other than the Programme of Government);
(b) Equality Unit;
(c) Civic Forum;
(d) European Affairs and International Matters;
(e) Community Relations;
(f) Public Appointments Policy;
(g) Freedom of Information;
(i) Nolan Standards;
(j) Public Service Office;
(k) Emergency Planning;
(l) Women's Issues.
(2) This Committee shall replace the Standing Committees on European Affairs and Equality, Human Rights and Community Relations. Standing Orders "Standing Committee on European Affairs" and "Committee on Equality, Human Rights and Community Relations" are, accordingly, revoked.
(3) The Committee shall consist of 17 Members."
This amendment, which relates to how the Assembly will scrutinise the work of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, is in the names of David Trimble and myself.
It is clear that all sides in the Assembly agree that there should be scrutiny of the policy functions that fall within the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers. The Good Friday Agreement says
"There will be a Committee for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration".
It is important to note that the Good Friday Agreement refers to "a Committee".
The Assembly previously approved the creation of two non-Statutory Committees - one relating to equality, community relations and human rights, and the second to look at European matters. The motion on the Order Paper calls for a third Committee to examine the remaining functions of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
The effect of the amendment would be to follow the practice which exists for all the other Departments and to create a single Committee to perform the scrutiny function for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, thus complying fully with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
The amendment proposes detailed and specific policy functions for which the Committee would have a scrutiny responsibility. In the debate on junior Ministers we made clear the importance that we attach to these policy functions. Issues such as equality, community relations and economic policy go to the very heart of the new institutions that have been established, and it is right and proper that the Assembly should be able to scrutinise those functions fully.
David Trimble and I have considered very carefully what was said in the debate that was held in the Assembly in March, when the Standing Orders were debated. In that debate there was widespread support for scrutiny of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Our proposals are designed to meet that concern.
It is important to recognise the difference between what we are proposing and the call for a third Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the motion. Our amendment clearly recognises a critical distinction.
That distinction is between the policy functions carried out by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the institutional roles which David Trimble and I play as a consequence of the positions we hold. It would be without parallel for Executive Committee business or any institutions relating to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to be the subject of Assembly scrutiny.
It is essential that discussions in the Executive Committee or the negotiating positions for the Northern Ireland Administration in relation to the North/South Ministerial Council or the British-Irish Council remain private. The Executive collectively, and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister specifically, are accountable to the Assembly for those decisions and their ramifications. That accountability to the Assembly is critical, and it is one that we fully recognise.
The other key difference between our amendment and the motion is that we are seeking to remove the requirement placed on the Committees dealing with equality, community relations and human rights and European matters to examine only matters "referred to it".
The amendment to the proposed Standing Order is cast in the following terms:
"to examine and report on the following functions and on any other related matters determined by the Assembly".
In the amendment we are seeking to expand the role which the scrutiny Committee can play in relation to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and that would bring that Committee into line with the departmental Committees established for the Departments of all Members of the Executive Committee.
The amendment is fully reflective of the Good Friday Agreement, which refers to a committee to scrutinise the main Executive functions. It places the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the same footing as those of all the other Ministers and ensures that the Committee established to scrutinise the work of the Centre will operate in the same way as all the other Committees. It establishes very clearly the functions that the scrutiny Committee will cover.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr P Robinson):
I detect some sleight of hand in what is being proposed.
The initial motion was put down on the basis of what the Assembly considered was the best option, and it had decided that two Committees should be set up. It decided, following the judgement of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, that one Committee should deal with European matters and the other with equality issues.
I did not agree with that decision. My party made it clear to you, Mr Speaker, in a private meeting, that we felt that serious issues were arising from the First and Deputy First Ministers' refusal to come forward with a proposal to cover other areas within their remit. We attempted to address this through a motion -and I think its terms would have been broadly acceptable to a number of parties, outside of those whose representatives were in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister - and that would have dealt with all of the other matters that fall within the responsibility of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
The amendment which we are discussing today produces, to me at least, a better structure - one in which it will be possible to have those responsibilities scrutinised. Having taken that step forward, however, and having suggested one Committee through which this can be comprehensively dealt with, they step back and, I regret to say, do not include in the amendment all of the functions that are their responsibility. That is to be regretted, and I hope that they will reconsider, even before this debate is over.
The division suggested by the Deputy First Minister is somewhat spurious. Any Minister could choose to distinguish between the type of functions that are operated in his or her Department. It would be very easy to say that the Committee should be allowed to look at the policy issues that we deal with but not at the administrative matters that are our responsibility. I do not think that that would be satisfactory to the Assembly in respect of any other Department, so why should it be so for the Department of the Centre?
It is apparent, from earlier discussions, that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister consider that their Department has such a weighty burden that they need to draw in further assistance to help them carry it, that they have matters of significance and substance to deal with. But that is contrary to the kind of open government that many of us are arguing for. Only today, I said that we should move away from colonial-style government where you do not produce the facts, where you do not allow people to scrutinise a Department in detail. In effect, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are saying that their Department is different from the others, that only some of its functions may be scrutinised, but not all.
Speaking as a Minister, at least for the present, I admit that it is not comfortable to have to defend one's policies and provide answers to questions from awkward people on the Committee - and I am not looking at anybody in particular - who want to get to the bottom of an issue that is important to them. But that is what a democracy is about. One should not be advocating policies that one cannot defend, whether it is to do with North/Southery or anything else.
In annex 1a of the report from the then First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate) Members will see that they raised fewer than half of the number of issues that the Committee will be capable of scrutinising. That report itemised very clearly the various issues for which they were responsible. I expect that it did not take into account many of the other areas on which they will make their opinions known, express views and even take decisions, areas that we will never be able to address because as soon as the Chairman of the Committee wants to move from the issue that is before him to one that a Member raises, he will have to look at his remit. The remit states that the Committee of the Centre is only to examine and report on the specific functions that are laid down as subjects that the Committee is entitled to scrutinise. If the Committee goes outside those specific functions, it will be acting ultra vires, and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will hold up their hands and say "I'm sorry, but it is not within your remit to look at those issues; you will have to have a special motion resolved by the Assembly in order to do that." The amendment is saying that the Assembly can deal with other issues, if it so determines, but that it will require a further vote in the Assembly, and a weighted vote at that.
I say to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that it would be far better if they came clean on the issue and made themselves subject to the same kind of scrutiny that other Ministers will be subject to. It is in the interests of any Department to put forward its arguments on issues publicly and to stand over matters that it has been dealing with privately.
The Deputy First Minister advanced the argument that they could not talk about the private negotiations that go on on a North/South basis and so forth in a Committee and that they are subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly. Well, if the negotiations are so private, it might be a lot easier for them to talk to the Committee rather than to the Assembly in a public session. That might be an easier route for them to take.
This does look, at best, a little indecisive. Last week Members sat here and set up two Committees, and this week we are demolishing those two Committees and setting up a different one in their place. The public might just expect people to think a wee bit ahead of the game and not set up one thing one week and then try to get a new structure going in its place the following week. If they have this new flexibility, next week they will come and add on the other 12 or 13 subject matters that they have not included in the amendment today.
I say, most assuredly, that this matter will not go away. They are not going to get off with it. They are going to be scrutinised, and if they are not scrutinised in a Committee, they will be scrutinised here. And it would be far better for scrutiny to be done in the atmosphere of a Committee, where we can lay the facts open and have proper discussion, than in the Assembly.
Clearly there are matters that the legislation enables the Assembly to deal with in open session, particularly North/South matters. But in spite of what the legislation says there is a plethora of issues in the report from the then First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) that have not been included.
I ask the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to think again. If they are not prepared to do that today, and to include all the areas over which they have responsibility for scrutiny, we shall put down a substantive motion to have them included. We cannot amend their amendment, so we cannot do that today, but we will do it at the earliest possible opportunity and continue to bring this issue up until it is properly addressed.
The public have a right to be certain that not just 10 Ministers but all Ministers will be subject to this kind of scrutiny. Many of them are likely to ask "What have these two guys got to fear? Let them stand on their own feet in exactly the same way as every other Minister and be answerable in the same way as every other Minister. They should not be different."