John McCallister’s reform proposals worthy of urgent consideration

Independent MLA John McCallister has unveiled a set of proposals which he wishes to turn into a Bill on reforming the structures at Stormont. These are often described loosely as “Opposition proposals”, yet in fact they are much wider-ranging than that.

I don’t think there’s any harm in noting that I met him yesterday, and constructed my own proposals in a purely personal capacity on the back of the meeting, which I have placed here.

There is the practical difficulty that they contain measures which would need to be legislated at Westminster, and others at Stormont. Let us leave that aside for now.

I emphasise my response notes here (not in italics) are in a purely personal capacity.

1. Rename the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) to Office of the First Ministers (OFM) – Coordinating Department only.

I would rename it simply the “Executive Office”, but we’ll not quibble – fundamentally this is spot on. There would, additionally, be no requirement for Junior Ministers.

2. A broad Programme for Governement (PfG) and headline budgets to be agreed during the time between election results and D’Hondt. Extend the time between election and D’Hondt by at least four to six weeks.

I would expand the time between election and “selection of Ministers” to considerably longer – maybe six months, even. However, again, the fundamental point here stands, and is very important – negotiation of Ministerial appointment follows negotiation of an agreed programme.

3. Collective Cabinet Responsibility to be enshrined in statute.

I would add to this a method of enforcing the Ministerial Code by advice of an Independent Commission – this would include the requirement for collective responsibility.

4. Election of Speaker – once elected he/she should be elevated to be the MLA for Stormont no longer representing constituents. His/her party will replace the Speaker in their constituency. The Speaker’s election, by secret ballot, should be through either a weighted majority vote or majority support within each party, ensuring the speaker gains legitimacy from across the Assembly.

To be clear, in the Republic of Ireland the Speaker is deemed non-partisan and is automatically elected if standing again, taking one of the seats allocated to that constituency. This makes sense for Northern Ireland too, at least as long as we use the same electoral system (I would be specific about this condition in legislation). I like the idea of the secret ballot (as widely used elsewhere, including within the UK). One other option would be to elect two Speakers by Single Transferable Vote to serve half the Assembly term each (this would remove the need for weighted majority).

5. (a) D’Hondt to run through from Executive to Committee Chairs and Committee make up as a single process. Therefore incentivising parties to opt out of the Executive with an enhanced role in the Assembly.

(b) Set a threshold of seats to qualify for Executive positions, possibly around 15-18 seats? May well shift if the size of the Assembly is to be reduced.

I have previously advocated that ‘D’Hondt’ be only a back-up measure if an Executive commanding “Weighted Majority” support (i.e. with support at least of a large minority of each identity bloc) cannot otherwise be agreed. I do agree, however, that first Committee positions should go to parties not forming part of the Executive (as, importantly, should the role of Chair of Public Accounts Committee, see 7 below).

6. (a) Leader of the largest political party, not in the Executive, to be recognised as the official Leader of Opposition and second largest non-executive to be Deputy.

(b) Party or grouping would need to be of sufficient size to gain these titles ie possibly greater than six Members.

This seems reasonable enough. The term “second largest non-executive” requires some expansion, however – ideally, there would be a joint Opposition Leadership in exactly the same way Joint First Ministers are proposed.

7. Chair and Deputy Chair of Public Accounts Committee must be from non-government parties.

An absolute requirement – see 5 above.

8. Assembly to have dedicated Supply days/Opposition day debates.

This is also important. I also wonder if there could be a ‘Citizen’s Initiative’ system whereby citizens could force the Assembly to debate a certain subject – requiring perhaps 25,000 signatures with at least 500 in all (or a majority of) constituencies, or some such.

9. Any Party or individual to have the right to form technical groups and to have representation on Business Committee.

This is important too, and could be quite straightforward.

10. Committee Chair gets the first Topical Question for their Department at Question Time. Opposition Leader and Deputy to get first and second questions respectively at OFM question time.

This makes sense too (the assumption is, in the main, that Committee Chairs would come from the Opposition, although it may not work out that they all are).

11. Financial support should be made available to the non-government parties.

I agree with this in principle, although I would not push it. The parties are already fairly well funded, and the Assembly has a vast (and effective) Research Service all MLAs can use.

12. A new statutory budget committee of the assembly with similar roles to that in the Scottish Parliament; particularly applicable if Government Departments are reduced.

It is crazy that this does not already exist.

13. Designation

i. Option one

(a) Remove the requirement for Community Designation in the Assembly.

(b) Establish a new mechanism for minority protection based on weighted majority voting, initiated by 30 signatures from at least two different parties. A new Assembly should determine what percentage the weighted majority should be for that Assembly term – with 60% being a minimum.

(c) Ensure the PfG and the Budget can be passed by a simple majority of Assembly members.

(d) Accelerated passage would automatically trigger weighted majority vote.

13.ii. Option two

(a) Limit the current use of Petition of Concern mechanism to primary legislation only. When a Petition of Concern is initiated an Ad hoc Committee must be established to examine the issue as per the Good Friday Agreement.

(b) Establish a parallel Petition of Concern mechanism based on weighted majority voting, initiated by 30 signatures from at least two different parties (29+1 sufficient). A new Assembly should determine what percentage the weighted majority should be for that Assembly term – with 60% being a minimum.

(c) Ensure PfG and the Budget can be passed by a simple majority of Assembly members.

(d) Accelerated passage would automatically trigger weighted majority vote.

I’m not sure I’ve fully understood these, as (c) seems to clash directly with (d) in each case (perhaps the requirement for a Budget Committee reduces this contradiction). However, (d) is important.

If I have understood (a) and (b) in each case, I don’t see why they couldn’t be merged – although on reflection, I think that there should be at least two signatures from two parties. For any hope of Nationalist support, I think the “Weighted Majority” would have to be established in advance (i.e. within the actual legislation).

It seems to me that the way to achieve this is as follows:

a) remove designation;

b) reduce the Assembly to 90 members;

c) establish the Petition of Concern as above (requiring a third of signatures, i.e. 30, with at least two from two different parties); and

d) in addition to allowing Petitions of Concern to delay potentially controversial legislation by sending it to an ad hoc committee (as already envisaged), three specific things can be blocked by Petitions of Concern:

  • Programmes for Government (and associated Legislative Programmes) and Budgets,
  • Legislation which is either outwith Programmes for Government and Budget or being passed by Accelerated Passage, and
  • Certain appointments (e.g. Attorney General, perhaps First Ministers and/or Justice Ministers).

The Bill

Overall, the proposals are fundamentally sound and important.

I do think there is a clash between the absolute requirement to run d’Hondt on one hand, and the requirement to agree a Government Programme before appointing Ministers on the other. I would argue (as I did here) that John McCallister’s requirement to provide Sinn Fein and other Nationalists with assurance is met by the potential to use d’Hondt as a back-up means of forming an Executive; but that there does need to be potential to negotiate Executive positions against policies in the Government programme. The lower sections, severely limiting capacity to govern if more than a third of Assembly members are opposed, provide further insurance.

It is important also that these proposals are seen for what they are – an attempt to make the Assembly and Executive work better for the people who elect them. It is not so much about “Opposition” as, in fact, about “good government”. The word “Opposition” is relevant, but should be limited in any discussion of the proposals – the real issue we have currently is not that we lack an “Opposition”, but that we lack a government! (Of course, the likelihood is that one would help bring about the other.)

Whether they agree with the proposals or not, other parties should place the basics into any Talks process, and the Business Committee should bring them forward for debate urgently – otherwise it will look like other parties have something to hide and that they fear the electorate being given a real choice…

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One thought on “John McCallister’s reform proposals worthy of urgent consideration

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    I don’t think that setting a minimum number of seats for Executive representation would work. Even if the intention were to exclude both the smaller Nationalist and the smaller Unionist party, there is no guarantee that it would work in practice, and the end result might be to encourage a sense of grievance through excluding only one side. It is also the case that one community bloc (the PUL one) is much more given to party-political splits / diversity than the other, which in a 50/50 future would make it more likely that its second-largest party would be denied Executive seats. Were that to happen, the smaller Unionist party (DUP or UUP) would be likely to criticise the larger for “being in bed with Sinn Féin” and mobilise sentiment that wanted to bring down the Assembly.

    One of the enduring questions about the early UUP/SDLP days of the Assembly is whether the set-up would actually have worked had it not continually been in crisis because of decommissioning, boycott, and suspension. Be that as it may, it’s obvious that the current system of having to seek Executive approval for so many issues does not work. It was probably negotiated as a DUP fig-leaf to allow Ian Paisley to become First Minister, and it should be done away with.

    The Petition of Concern system was clearly abused in the recent case of Nelson McCausland and Red Sky. It would be helpful to have some kind of independent validation or judgment of whether such a petition were in fact vexatious. Alternatively, the threshold could simply be raised (40 instead of 30 MLAs, perhaps, probably meaning that both major parties in a given bloc would have to support it).

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