Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 26 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill: Briefing
On behalf of the committee, I am pleased to welcome Mr. John McCallister, MLA, Independent Unionist, and Mr. Peter Hutchinson, policy adviser, to brief the committee on Mr. McCallister's Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill.
Before inviting Mr. McCallister to make his presentation, I advise the witnesses that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they will be entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their remarks. They are directed that only comments and evidence connected with the subject matter of this meeting are to be given, and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I am delighted Mr. McCallister is here and I ask him to make his submission.
Mr. John McCallister:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation and warm welcome. I appreciate seeing the committee in action and listening to some of the evidence presented in the previous session.
I will make some brief remarks on the thought processes that went into developing the Bill. The Good Friday Agreement, the implementation of which is the focus of the committee, was about addressing historical divisions in Northern Ireland. The Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill is, in no small measure, about how we continue to address the divisions in Northern Ireland by moving from a system of governance to good government that is delivering for people. In the past three years, we had the Haass talks, the first Stormont House Agreement and, more recently, a second Stormont House Agreement. There is widespread recognition, and not only among politicians, that we have lurched from crisis to crisis for almost 18 years.
At the next election, some of those who will vote will have been born after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. How have our institutions evolved or changed to ensure we can deliver good government? The rationale for the Bill was to address the question of how to deliver on good governance and reform of the way in which the Executive operates. I am pleased that significant differences have emerged between the provisions made in the Stormont House Agreement of last year and the recent Stormont House Agreement, known as A Fresh Start. These differences are related in no small measure to the Bill and the agenda it sought to push in areas such as speaking rights and recognition of the Opposition. While the agreement does not go as far as I would like it to go, the Bill certainly pushed parties and the Governments in the direction of thinking about the issue.
In forming the Executive, I would like a programme for government with broad budget headlines to be agreed before Ministers take office. I would allow up to four weeks for this to be achieved. There is broad agreement in the document, A Fresh Start, agreed at Stormont House that this must happen and that the programme for government must be set out in a way that is much more outcome-based. There has been broad acceptance among all political parties on that issue.
The Bill also seeks to introduce collective responsibility, an issue with which people down here are familiar. It is in the Irish Constitution that the Government will act as one unit. The Bill proposes to rename the Offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers. I believe there is a major debate to be had on whether the current position entrenches to some degree the tribal nature of our politics, as we all know the two offices are completely equal.
The Bill also seeks to introduce a hybrid system which adheres to the d'Hondt system in that once a party reaches a certain threshold, it will have the right, under the d'Hondt calculation, to be in government, while setting a lower threshold which would allow a party to negotiate its way into government, albeit without having an absolute right to do so. Nevertheless, parties would have an absolute right to be included in the political process. This proposal adheres to the key strands of the Good Friday Agreement and reflects its principles on inclusivity. If a party achieves a higher level of electoral support, it would have an absolute right to be in government, whereas a party with a slightly lower level of electoral support would have an absolute right to be in the political process and could act as an effective opposition.
On the reform of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Bill proposes to enhance speaking rights for the opposition - for example, by setting aside Opposition days for debates. It would create roles of leader and deputy leader. The Bill passed Second Stage on 12 October and is currently going through Committee Stage. I accept that the language used - "leader" and "deputy leader" of the Opposition - reflects the traditional parliamentary system much more than the consociational model. I will probably seek, through discussion with other parties, to change the language to have party leaders or the leader of the largest non-Executive party.
The Bill would also ensure that the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee would come from a non-government party - that is, an opposition party. It also proposes the creation of a budget committee. One of the issues with which many legislators grapple is how to give adequate scrutiny to the budget process. Most of us probably find that we struggle to do the budgetary process much justice. A report produced some years ago by the Committee for Finance and Personnel accepted that this was the case and set out a number of options, but no changes were implemented. This will be important if we move towards acquiring greater tax-varying powers or if greater fiscal devolution to the Northern Ireland Assembly takes place. In that regard, corporation tax is the issue alluded to in the first Stormont House Agreement and A Fresh Start.
The Bill also proposes to introduce the possibility of creating technical groups. I understand seven of 166 Members of the Dáil, or 4% of the Dáil's membership, are required to register for a technical group. I have proposed a threshold of 5% for the Assembly. We have used a 5% threshold which would allow qualifying parties to be in opposition. My slight criticism of the proposals on opposition in A Fresh Start is that they only really allow a party which qualifies for but then opts out of government to form an opposition.
The reduction to nine in the number of Departments provided for in A Fresh Start is welcome. It will, however, make it more difficult for some of the smaller parties to secure a ministerial post under the d'Hondt mechanism because fewer ministerial posts are available.
In the 2011 Assembly election, for example, the Alliance Party would not have qualified under the d'Hondt calculation. It is important that if it or other parties - whether the Ulster Unionists or the SDLP - ever fell out of the process, they would still be recognised. It is important to use the 5% or six members provision to allow that.
Some of the issues that have been problematic for us over the years have also been written into the Bill. I now feel it is time to move away from community designation. I accept that will be controversial for some parties but we certainly need a debate. Judging from the responses from the committee, from academics and across the board it has stoked an awful lot of debate. It begs the question of what we were using community designation for. Is it simply copper-fastening our communal divide?
I want to replace the petitions of concern mechanism with a minority protection mechanism requiring 30 signatures from three different parties. A Fresh Start has addressed the petitions of concern problem with a protocol but that is not strong enough. We need some protection mechanism but we also need it to be used when one garners wider support. As regards the move from the cross-community designation vote to a weighted majority vote, I propose 60% but that could be varied or set at the start of each mandate.
The Bill would run and stick with d'Hondt but would seek to run d'Hondt as one piece through the executive committee chairs. This means if one opted out of the executive one could pick a committee chair and the Opposition parties would end up with a larger selection of committee chairs. Members who have followed the Bill will notice that-----
Mr. John McCallister:
-----the process of the Bill is slightly unusual. We can do much of what is in the Bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly but we need the Secretary of State to change the 1998 Act for parts of it. She indicated, in a letter to me of almost a year ago, that if broad cross-party support is achieved in the Assembly, she would be happy to make those changes. From the start, the Bill was about making parties move to a point where they had to vote "Yes" or "No" and to decide what they can and cannot accept to make sure something happens. The Assembly has a tremendous track record of producing reports and looking at things but of not actually getting to the point of doing anything.
It also changes the way we elect the Speaker. The Ceann Comhairle, elected by Members of the Dáil, is automatically returned to the next Dáil. The current Speaker in the Northern Ireland Assembly is not seeking re-election but, if he were, he would have to go back and get selected by his own party and face the electorate again. In the House of Commons, the Speaker is re-elected but traditionally does not face any electoral challenge. It also causes a difficulty when the Speaker cannot write to Ministers or question Ministers in the same way that Deputies, MPs or MLAs can. I propose that we elect the Speaker by secret ballot in a weighted majority vote. The Houses of Commons use a secret ballot, which is an idea I like because the speakership should not be a gift of the Executive arm of Government but of the backbenchers and members of the legislature. The Speaker is out of the party and of constituency politics and we would like to replace him or her, filling the seat with a Member from the party from which he or she was elected.
I will run through the various clauses in the Bill. It starts with the purpose of the Act and addresses how the Opposition is formed, the timing of the Opposition and when people can opt in. People make a decision at the start of the mandate as to whether they are going into Government or into Opposition. Following some of the committee scrutiny, we will look at whether we can create space if some Members do not want to be identified as being in Opposition. On the question of the dissolution of the Opposition, if there is no executive to hold to account there can be no Opposition. We are looking at amendments concerning the Leader of the Opposition and are considering changing the language to a more consociational form, such as in Scotland and Wales where they have a leader of the largest non-executive party, or in the Dáil where there are simply Leaders' Questions. Topical questions and Question Time will be split, allowing an unballoted question from the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and a similar provision has been built into the fresh start agreement, which I welcome.
Speaking rights would be slightly amended so that when Government and Opposition are established we will increase Opposition speaking rights by 20% at the expense of Government time, meaning no more Assembly time would be needed. The Opposition would also have the right to chair the public accounts committee and to be on the business committee and we would use the financial review panel to look at the money allocated to Opposition parties and salaries for office holders in the Opposition.
There are clauses around how the Assembly and Executive reform motion is tabled and there is a provision on the right to form a technical group, which is a very important development for independents and small parties as it would give them some voice and the right to be represented on the business committee. It is important because at present, as an Independent Unionist, I have no way of tabling a motion whereas a technical group would be entitled to do so, though not particularly often. Members will be very familiar with that concept and its technical group might be the largest Opposition group in Dáil Éireann with 20 or 21 Members, almost equal to the official number. The technical group would not, however, have precedence over a political party so Fianna Fáil, the largest party in Opposition in Dáil Éireann, would remain so even if the technical group was bigger.
Renaming the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is also suggested and the various parts of the motion are set out. These include: the removal of community designation; changes to petitions of concerns; the way the speaker is elected given the reference to our current speaker's letter in response to the Bill; the question of adding deputy speakers elected by secret ballot with a weighted majority; collective Cabinet responsibility; the threshold for nomination of Ministers; agreeing a programme for Government up to four weeks before running d'Hondt; and enabling the budget to be passed by a simple majority.
There is much I welcome in fresh start and the Bill has moved the debate forward but this goes significantly further in how we can continue to address our historic divisions and deliver good, effective governance on the very issues on which the Chairman questioned officials when I was in the Gallery.
I thank Mr. McCallister for his presentation and for taking the time to travel to engage with the committee on his Bill. I suspect some of the issues have been resolved with the so-called fresh start for the Stormont House Agreement, but before I ask a few questions I invite Mr. Maskey to speak.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
I thank the Chairman and I thank Mr. McCallister for coming before the committee today. I refer to some of the figures and how Mr. McCallister came up with some of the percentages. The Bill refers to the introduction of a threshold. It stipulates that political parties must gain 16.6%, which is 18 out of 108 MLAs. How was that figure arrived at? In the fresh start document it is proposed to reduce the number of MLAs to five, rather than six, per constituency. What does that mean for the Bill?
I am glad the Bill has reached Second Stage. There will be time to work through it and take evidence. I chaired the Public Accounts Committee for about five years and we scrutinised all Departments, including those with which my party colleagues were involved. Not once did we get any criticism about taking a fair and equitable approach with regard to the public accounts and scrutiny of all Departments. Over the years the Public Accounts Committee has allowed political parties to work together and leave their political baggage at the door of the committee room. That is a good thing because of the circumstances of our past. There was a certain level of mistrust, but the Public Accounts Committee has allowed trust to build up over the years. I ask Mr. McCallister for his thoughts on my comments.
Mr. John McCallister:
I appreciate that Mr. Maskey welcomes the Bill. He and several of his colleagues spoke during the debate on it.
I have a couple of points on percentages. The reason I referred to percentages was to future proof the Bill for the reduction in the size of the Assembly. A figure of 16.6% reduces the number in the Assembly from 18 in a 108-member Assembly to 15 in a 90-member Assembly. As I said, my commitment to D'Hondt has been rock solid. However, we are not yet at that place. The figures were developed to build a sort of hybrid between a very pure consociational Government, with everyone in government and actually delivering good governance. From talks with the First and Deputy First Ministers, I found very often their biggest problem tended to be the smaller parties in the Executive. The approach taken in the fresh start involves the two main parties in government driving the fresh start. Some people say that is a bad thing, but I think it is a good thing because it involves people stepping up and saying they have to lead the process.
At times it is easier to deliver things like collective responsibility when there are fewer parties in government. There are currently four parties in government; there were five until the very end of August. My fear is that we will have a five-party coalition next May. Such a government could continue to keep going for a while under the new mandate but very quickly we will get back to a situation whereby parties are trying to jockey for position and we will be back to the days of dysfunctionality.
The figure of 18 concerns what in our view is the reasonable size one needs to achieve the D'Hondt right to be in government. Below that it is questionable. One could still negotiate one's way into government but one would have to sign up to a programme for Government and collective Cabinet responsibility. That was the reason I came up with the figure of 18 and I wanted to write it as a percentage into the Bill in order that we could future proof a move to a 90-member Assembly.
Mr. Maskey referred to the Public Accounts Committee. He was very thorough in his role as chairman of that committee. The advice from many legislators around the world and the World Bank on the role of public accounts committees tends to be that somebody who is not a member of a government party should chair such committees. If such a committee is examining any regulation or regulatory framework, it is probably better to have a chairperson at whom nothing can be thrown and who does not have some sort of vested interest. That is why it is much better to separate the chairman from government departments or Ministers.
As a result of our consociational government, Mr. Maskey would have had three ministerial colleagues, but every other department involved a different party. The committee is not as badly tied by that. If we moved to a system whereby the two main parties in government and the Alliance Party were involved in justice, it would become more problematic for a member of the government parties to then chair the Public Accounts Committee. Best practice would point to us going down this road.
Mr. McCallister's proposals are interesting, constructive and a great contribution to politics in Northern Ireland. He is to be congratulated. How does he think the Assembly will react to them in its debates on them?
He referred to moving away from party designation and petitions of concern as a means of reducing the tribal nature of politics in Northern Ireland and focusing more on policy issues. There is some concern that this could be used over time to erode the principles of power sharing as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. What are his views on that?
Mr. John McCallister:
I thank the Chairman for his opening comments on the Bill. It is key that we start to move to policy issues. There is a complete deficit in policy development. I sometimes envy parties in Dublin which are now putting together manifestoes for an election which will take place, it is to be presumed, in early spring. Whatever happens after that, the parties will come together and negotiate a programme for Government. At that point, there will probably be more genuine power sharing than we have in the North.
I am committed to power sharing, but I want to see genuine power sharing. I fear what we have currently is shared-out power. Dr. Eoin O'Malley gave evidence to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. His comments were very strong:
Northern Irish ministers and departments operate almost as dictators within their own portfolio, not subject to the requirement to have cross-community support in areas that don't require primary legislation. That seems at odds to the purpose of institutional structures set up in the Belfast Agreement.
I am not sure I would go so far as to use the term "dictator", but unless primary legislation is needed, when a Minister in a Department can do things by regulation, there is very little control over such a Minister, unless approval needs to be sought through the Executive, at which point executive members can stop the Minister. Mr Maskey's colleague, the Minister, Mr. John O'Dowd MLA, admitted when he brought a Bill through the Assembly that one pretty much lost control of it in the Assembly because one may not have the numbers to get all that one wants or be able to block things that one does not want. This model is a much better way of delivering real genuine power sharing rather than shared-out power.
We have had too many divisions based on having some for this community and some for that community, and not enough based on genuinely delivering on the issues we heard about earlier with regard to educational underachievement, whether with regard to the Protestant or Catholic working class, and getting into real policy development. There are not enough consequences for the failure to deliver on any of this or to reform the system. In health, transforming care is the flagship policy, but is it a DUP flagship policy or the Northern Ireland Executive flagship policy? When any difficult decisions must be made, everybody runs for the hills. It is the same with education, employment and learning. This leads to the dysfunctionality of the Government and the very fact Ministers can sue each other. I am rock solid on power sharing, but I want to see genuine power-sharing. It is within the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, for which I voted in 1998. I want to see inclusivity in practice, but inclusivity can also include being in the political process.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
With regard to A Fresh Start and Mr. McCallister's proposed legislation, A Fresh Start gives us choice so that if people want to go into opposition, it will be possible for them to do so. Mr. McCallister's legislation would not give us choice because if a certain threshold is not reached people will not be allowed in. Given our past histories and from where we have all come, it is about building up trust so that one community does not damn the other. This is very important. We must learn from the past and make sure it never happens again. Is choice not a good thing with regard to A Fresh Start?
Mr. John McCallister:
I am sticking to d'Hondt, which means the demographic and vote would literally need a seismic shift before either of the two communities would be excluded from government. The difference is whether we want to have two or three parties in government or five. Speaking to various ministers about this, there are problems with having five parties in government. By right, I want the larger parties to have a right to be in government. They also have a responsibility to act and look as though they are in government. With regard to the choice in A Fresh Start, there is only a choice if a party qualifies for the Executive, and the problem I have as a legislator and voter is this means we can have an opposition only if one or two parties decide we can. There is not the same choice. There is a saying down here that the worst day in government is still probably better than the best day in opposition.
Mr. John McCallister:
The Chairman is good. It is probably more the case if one is a Minister than if one is a backbencher. If everybody is in government, as is the case with the Good Friday Agreement, I want them included in the political process. D'Hondt gives the parties the right to be in government and we would need a seismic shift away from this. I want an opposition to be recognised not just if a party qualifies to be in the Executive and then chooses to be in opposition. This will get tighter with the reduction of Departments. If the SDLP was reduced to five seats and the Alliance went up by two, the SDLP would not be in the d'Hondt process and this would make a fundamental difference. It would have nowhere to go in opposition. My Bill's provision on qualifying parties would give it the choice of going into it and would give them more rights.
The Bill proposes the Speaker would be elected by Assembly Members by weighted majority in a secret ballot. This is something that has been called for in our Parliament. What are the down sides to this? Are there any down sides?
Mr. John McCallister:
I do not see any down sides because the provisions for weighted majority and secret ballot mean nobody could game the election. The Chairman has been in a political party for a reasonable number of years, and he knows that trying to tell all of his colleagues they need to vote for something in a secret ballot is very difficult to organise or arrange. I feel strongly the speakership should be a gift of the Members of the Assembly and not of the Executive arm of government or the result of a deal between the two main parties in the Executive arm of government. Having a speaker who is truly independent would change the dynamic of building a parliamentary culture.
We have been fortunate that in my time we have had two good speakers in Mr. William Hay and Mr. Mitchel McLaughlin, and there has been no question about impartiality. In his letter, the current speaker, Mr. Mitchel McLaughlin, speaks about the difficulties of being a constituency Member and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Speaker cannot get involved in constituency planning issues. As one newspaper I read put it, under the House of Commons model if Buckinghamshire was being tarmaced the Speaker could not do much about it as a constituency MP. This becomes a problem because 70,000 electors in Buckinghamshire are disenfranchised.
What I like about the system here is that the constituency is reduced by a seat. Taking our previous two speakers, Mr. Willie Hay was the only Unionist representative in the Foyle constituency and Mr. Mitchel McLaughlin is the only Nationalist representative in South Antrim. I like the idea of lifting them out of the constituency and letting the parties in those two cases, Sinn Féin and the DUP, replace them. It would not upset the constituency balance. I suggest this is a more mature democracy and is at the point that it can do so. We are not at that point. This is why I would lift the Speaker entirely out of constituency politics. A secret ballot provides the protection that the election cannot be gamed because Members will have to vote on merit as to who they think are the best people. The weighted majority means it would be very difficult, and I would say impossible, for one party to dominate or game the election.
I certainly agree with Mr. McCallister's views on the two previous speakers, Mr. Willie Hay and Mr. Mitchel McLaughlin, because they certainly transcended the loyalties or various traditions. Tomorrow the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association will meet. It, along with the Ceann Comhairle, has made significant inroads in bringing a certain trust and cross-party respect. I am delighted this certainly has been a major progression and I want to put this on the record.
We have spoken about A Fresh Start and it has many aspects which are also in Mr. McCallister's Bill. What are the next steps for the Bill?
Mr. John McCallister:
I have always viewed the Bill as a great way of bringing parties to negotiations.
They have completed A Fresh Start. The Bill has left committee and it must come out of Committee Stage in late January. I hope to meet representatives of most of the parties on Monday. I will be with the committee again on Tuesday. There is stuff I know now I will not get and I will change it. We have been working with the drafter in the Bills office to get amendments. The committee process has been excellent in that we have engaged academics from North and South, political parties and a range of civic society commenting on the Bill and how we get that difference. It is about sticking with a consociational type of government and language. I accept that I will probably have to make amendments to make sure we stay within that. It certainly puts it on the agenda. I want to keep that conversation going.
I am getting a picture now of where most of the parties are on it. Traditionally, nationalism as a whole has been the most nervous about any changes that the Bill would bring. That is why I am keen to meet Mr. Colum Eastwood and, I hope, Mr. Raymond McCartney, on Monday to go through and see what bits we need to examine and change. We need to see if language can be altered and what we can do to reassure people. For some parties, the big debate is probably about having legislation and just changing standing orders. My answer is that legislation gives security that just changing standing orders does not. Some criticism would be that the executive has too much control over the legislature and that is the debate to be had. Some are pushing for this to be done through standing orders but legislation is important. It is crucial to have those standing orders based in legislation. The other advantage of legislation is that it lets parties know what they are signing up to, what was agreed and what is in the Bill. This is what came out the other end. The other advantage is that in tabling a Bill, at some point people must put up their hands, saying "Yes" or "No" for it.
In promising to bring standing orders or change something, we are never quite sure when that is going to happen. Effectively, we have debated and talked about the need for an Opposition right from when the Assembly was founded in 1998. We have always found a reason to say the question is for another day. The Bill forces people to act. As with all legislation, and even if I brought it as a Government Minister, I will not get everything I want in the Bill. It is a question of what we can do or agree to improve scrutiny in government and improve the delivery of that government. That is all for the good. We are plagued with voter apathy and falling voter turnout because they see the Assembly and Executive as dysfunctional and not having delivered anything. That is a major danger for people who support the Good Friday Agreement and all that has been achieved in the past 20 years.
Mr. John McCallister:
No. One of the professors very categorically indicated this was not going back. One of the bigger criticisms I laid out in the Second Stage debate was of the arrangements between 1921 and 1972, where there was no real opposition that could provide choice and change, with today's opposition being tomorrow's government. We did not have that. It was all focused on creating a single-party state. Even as an independent Unionist, the electoral system was changed in 1929. That was not about excluding nationalism but it was as much about the worry of independent Unionists with the move from proportional representation to the first past the post system. The d'Hondt mechanism gives a guarantee in the government if a body reaches a certain size. There would have to be a seismic shift in voter intention.
We are absolutely committed to genuine power sharing but it must be about how departments work together and co-ordinate, with the government acting as one unit. That is very important.
Mr. John McCallister:
There are various reasons. Some are nervous about any changes that look like we are moving back to that or any changes at all. To be fair to the parties and with the engagement we had during Committee Stage, it has been very straight and honest, as people are looking very genuinely at the implications of the Bill. They are hearing from academics, with some people being very supportive of changes. Others are less so. That is the value of the process of going through a Committee Stage. From that perspective, the Bill has stimulated much talk about what an opposition would look like and what a collective government might look like. For too long, the word "opposition" was bandied about but nobody had put flesh on the bones of what it would look like or how this would fit in with the consociational style of government. There is the question of marrying those two, as we are more used to a Westminster model. It would be better to look at the example here, Wales or Scotland. The electoral system here is the same as ours. There will never be a stand-off with two big parties because proportional representation and the single transferable vote does not give that. If the UK election had seen the use of proportional representation, there would have been approximately 80 UK Independence Party MPs, 50 Liberal Democrats and a coalition government all the time. I forget but I think 1977 was the last time we saw a majority here. It was quite a while ago.
Mr. John McCallister:
It was Jack Lynch. The rock of our electoral system will give multi-party government and the guarantee of d'Hondt gives that cross-party government. I just want to see how we can ensure that those in the government can act and look like a government while those in opposition-----
Mr. John McCallister:
They are the only two parties to have signed up but at the moment they are the only ones that need to sign up. They know that the smaller parties do not have to deliver any of this. They are the parties with the votes. Even in a cross-community vote like a budget that we have now, the DUP and Sinn Féin have the numbers to do that. That is why I want to move to weighted majority. That could change if unionism fractures somewhat. The DUP only needs to lose something like five seats to the Ulster Unionist Party, UUP, for example, and suddenly the UUP could lock any cross-community votes and we could end up not having a budget. That changes the dynamic, as would not being able to get all their pieces of government business done.
One is always trying to find a balance between a government having the right to get its business through and a protection mechanism that says: "Wait, the government must think again about this". For example, in Westminster the House of Lords voted down tax credits, and the government thought again and changed its mind on it. That is the balance we are trying to strike, between sticking strictly with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and the genuine power sharing, trust and consensus that we want to build with allowing opposition or non-government parties to start to co-operate and develop a policy agenda that they can take to the electorate, so they can look at times like an alternative government. That is a great way of putting pressure on a government.
For too long in Northern Ireland there have been no political consequences for the failure to deliver on educational under-achievement, health, housing or infrastructure. Even in the recent political crisis nobody was particularly bothered if there was an election, because they knew most of the same people would be back doing the same things. Therefore, there are no political consequences. The Republic, however, could not have got through the last eight or nine years without a sense of collective Cabinet government or the Government acting as, and looking like, one unit, with some very difficult decisions to be made.
We have an arrangement here whereby the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts is from the main opposition party, and it brings the Government to task effectively. It is a very powerful brief. Paul Maskey MP said that it works fine. Is there a balance in between the two or any compromise in that regard? I am not saying either one of them works in one way or the other, but when parties are in opposition it is very powerful to have the chair of the Committee of Public Accounts. It certainly holds the Government to account.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
If one's party colleague holds the Department of Finance and Personnel, for example, one cannot be the chair of the Public Accounts Committee. It is the biggest distributor of the budget, so one cannot belong to that party. It must be somebody from another party. However, one can belong to a party where one's colleague has any other Department.
I was chair for four or five years and it was good. It allowed one to get seriously involved in the local politics with regard to scrutiny of the other Departments. Also, I had to get it into my head that I had to leave any political baggage I had at the door, regardless of whether it was a party colleague who held the ministerial post. My ten colleagues on that committee would have made sure I did that. I believe we did it well.
Mr. John McCallister:
Under the model no committee can be chaired by somebody from the same party as the Minister. We currently have a Sinn Féin chair of the finance committee and a Minister for Finance and Personnel from the DUP. The Minister for Health is from the DUP and the committee chair is from Sinn Féin, while the chair of the education committee is from the DUP and the Minister is from Sinn Féin.
The difference when Paul Maskey was chair is that effectively everyone was in government. Certainly, for most of that time there were four or five parties in government. That meant the parties in the Assembly or in a committee were probably represented in the executive arm of the government. There are 11 members in a committee and a five party coalition meant most of the committee was represented in the Executive. After the 2011 election to the Assembly, 104 of the 108 members were in parties that were linked to the government, so there were very few people in that situation. What the Bill would seek to do is have a limited, smaller number of parties in government, for example, DUP, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party. That gives a broader pool and one would want to have that additional scrutiny.
The Chairman commented on taking the Government to task. In Dublin, Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff that has been a key role, so people can really put a spotlight on what governments are doing. It is seen as a very crucial role. There has been probably not universal support but quite strong support from other parties and academics around that, because they see it more as the norm. There are also the recommendations from the World Bank regarding the best traditions.
Our current situation and Paul's term can be different from if one starts to build other parties in opposition and, indeed, technical groups. That would be one of the committees where they should, and rightly so, shine a light on the activities of the government. It is seen as a key scrutiny role that an opposition must provide.
I thank you for meeting with the committee. The discussion has been very informative. I commend your commitment to the future of the Assembly in initiating the Bill.
I also thank all the parties for the fresh start, as we might call it, and all the people involved in the deliberations. I believe it is a good step forward. The committee's duty is to monitor the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The important issue for us is the integrity of that Agreement, which was constructed with a very careful constitutional balance, and that it is maintained.
This has been an excellent contribution. Thank you for taking the time to attend this meeting to put your views forward with this Bill. I thank the members for their questions and the witnesses for their forthright replies. We wish you every success for the future.
We will adjourn until 17 December next.