Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 31 January 2012

Assembly and Executive Review Committee

Northern Ireland Act 1998: Review of Parts III and IV

The Chairperson: We move on to the review of Parts III and IV of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in the context of reviewing the size of the Assembly and the number of Departments.  The purpose of this agenda item is for the Committee to consider and agree the approach to its review and the terms of reference for the immediate review work up to the end of June 2012.

Members will recall that the Committee agreed that I would write to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to clarify what work is being done and/or planned for 2012 in relation to a reduction in the number of Departments post-2015 by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and/or the efficiency review panel.  That letter is at tab 4 of today's papers.  To date, I have had no substantive response to it.

As regards how we proceed with this agenda item, I propose that the Committee hears the legal advice on possible changes in the membership and structures of the Assembly.  I propose that, before the Committee moves into closed session to take legal advice, the Committee Clerk outlines the paperwork to set a context to the decisions before the Committee today.

Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson: In that case, we ask the Committee Clerk to outline the papers before the Committee.

The Committee Clerk: Thank you.  Members, I will be referring to the memo at tab 3 when giving my summary and I will highlight a few of the papers before the Committee.

We have draft terms of reference, which can be found at tab 6 of today's folder.  That has been developed on the basis of the Committee's consideration of the subject area to date, taking into account the key points raised by members following briefings from the Assembly's Research and Information Service on the size of the Assembly and Assembly structures.  In short, it is proposed that the purpose of the review is to consider the discrete subject of the size of the Assembly in terms of the number of MLAs.  As proposed and agreed at the Committee's meeting on 17 January, the issue of coterminosity or decoupling from Westminster constituencies has been included in the draft terms of reference for consideration today.

Other paperwork on the Committee's forthcoming review relates to evidence gathering.  A draft stakeholder list is at tab 7 in the pack.  That has to be mindful, of course, of the agreed terms of reference following today's deliberations and the timescales that we have to follow for the review.

On the subject of timescales, a detailed — or not so detailed — proposed timescale has been tabled today.  That takes into account the fact that, as members will recall, the Secretary of State wrote to the Committee on 24 October 2011, stating that there was the potential for legislative changes to be delivered by a Bill in the third session of the Westminster Parliament.  That, in itself, presents a challenge in that the Secretary of State has asked this Committee to conclude its review and to report to the Assembly de facto in early June 2012.  The proposed timetable has been tabled for members' consideration later in the meeting.

Mr Beggs: The Committee Clerk indicated that we discussed the issue of coterminosity at the previous meeting and that it was agreed that it would be included.  The minute states that a member raised the issue.  I actually raised a contrary view.  I do not necessarily have to have my name mentioned in every minute, so I did not raise it as an issue when the minutes were agreed earlier.  However, the minute does not state that the Committee agreed with the point that the issue should be included, and I certainly did not agree with it.  The Committee may have voted on it, but we did not do that to take a decision.  It is incorrect to say that the Committee agreed collectively, at that stage anyway, that the issue of coterminosity would be included.

The Chairperson: We will take that into consideration at the point when we consider the draft terms of reference.

Are members content that we move into closed session?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson: I ask any members of the public in the Public Gallery to leave the room, please.

The meeting continued in closed session.

On resuming —

The Chairperson: The Committee Clerk will now take us through the draft terms of reference. 

The Committee Clerk: I will read out the draft terms of reference for the record. 

"The Assembly and Executive Review Committee will review the potential benefit of streamlining government institutions, and the number of MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly should be reduced at the next Assembly election."

 

Linked to that will be a phase of looking at the number of Northern Ireland Departments and the structure of government therein.  Specifically, in undertaking that review, the Committee will take evidence on:

 

"The reduced number of MLAs required to ensure that the effectiveness of the Assembly in delivering its key functions is maintained; The implications of the reduction of the current number of MLAs, as in Westminster legislation, and, indeed, the number of MLAs."

 

Thirdly, the Committee will consider:

"Proposals to mitigate the impact of reducing the number of MLAs on the effectiveness of the Assembly in delivering its key functions, including in particular, proposals to ensure a robust and effective committee system".

 

The final part of the review is:

"Whether the statutory link between Westminster and Northern Ireland constituencies should be removed and the implications of removing or retaining this link … The Committee will report and make recommendations to the Assembly on these matters by early June 2012."

 

The Chairperson: Are members agreed? 

Mr Beggs: Will you read the opening paragraph again?  It did not read smoothly to me, so I would like to hear it again, please. 

The Committee Clerk: It is: 

"The Assembly and Executive Review Committee will review the potential benefit of streamlining government institutions, and the number of MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly should be reduced at the next Assembly election."

 

Mr Beggs: We are saying that it should be reviewed, but the second part does not follow on from that.  The grammar is not quite right. 

The Committee Clerk: Perhaps we could add "and as a result"? 

Mr Beggs: Or even:

"and reviewing the number elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at the next election."

 

The Committee Clerk: OK.  Will you repeat that wording? 

Mr Beggs: After "streamlining government institutions", add:

"and reviewing the number of MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at the next election."

 

We know that the number will be reduced.  Perhaps someone could come up with some other form of words.  The language used just did not read well. 

The Chairperson: There needs to be a bit of work on the wording. 

The Committee Clerk: I can bring that back to the Committee, but that is it in essence. 

The Chairperson: Are members agreed? 

Members indicated assent.

 

The Chairperson: In agreeing the terms of reference, members agreed that the following are outside the scope of the review:  alternative electoral systems and models; and the statutory basis for the current committee system. 

Are members agreed?

Members indicated assent.

 

The Chairperson: The Committee Clerk will now read the proposed stakeholder list. 

The Committee Clerk: The list will include all political parties of the Assembly.  All registered political parties will be written to and invited to submit.  The other subset is the First Minister and deputy First Minister; the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister; and the Committee for the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister. 

The Committee has also agreed to write to the following:  constitutional experts, of whom there is a list of six at present; the Clerks of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Oireachtas; the 26 local authorities, which will involve writing to the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA); Platform for Change; and the Clerks of other Parliaments, including those of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Mr McDevitt: And a public notice? 

The Committee Clerk: Yes, there will be a public notice encouraging wider stakeholder contributions. 

The Chairperson: Are members agreed? 

Members indicated assent.

 

The Chairperson: We move on to the proposed timetable. 

The Committee Clerk: Chair, that has now been brought forward by one week. 

The Chairperson: Are members agreed on the proposed timetable? 

Members indicated assent.

 

The Chairperson: In taking forward the review, I seek the Committee's agreement that Committee staff draft the proposed consultation options paper in line with the terms of the review agreed today.  That will be considered by the Committee at its next meeting.  Are members agreed? 

Members indicated assent.

 

The Chairperson: There is no other business.  Our next meeting is on Tuesday at the same time, same place.

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