I was heartened to see some SDLP backing for the basics of John McCallister’s proposals for reform of the institutions.
So, what are they?!
The purpose of the Bill is to facilitate an “Opposition”, in common with models elsewhere in the British Isles but taking account of Northern Ireland’s peculiar circumstances.
The Bill outlines how one would be formed and gives it certain rights. This, of course, is easier said that done and involves wide-ranging reforms no matter how it is done.
It is formed under the Bill automatically of all MLAs not forming part of Executive parties.
The largest party group nominates the Leader of the Opposition, and the second largest (if there is one) nominates the Deputy Leader.
There is an inherent risk here that the Opposition would be headed by two people of the same current designation. Some may regard that as important; others maybe less so.
The Bill adopts, from the Dail, Councils and elsewhere, the notion of “Technical Groups” which are treated for most intents and purposes as single party groups, but consist of people elected individually or in small groups under different banners.
These are relevant (seemingly – it is not entirely clear) to determining who would be Leader or Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
They also have rights with regard to membership of the Business Committee.
This is important. The current model, of effectively a governing party scrutinising the accounts, is ludicrous.
Questions / Speaking Rights
Similarly to Westminster but adapted to Stormont, the first and second Topical Questions in the Assembly would automatically come from the Leader and Deputy Leader.
They would also have enhanced speaking rights, the right to nominate the Chair the Public Accounts Committee, and fifteen days’ business in Assembly plenary. They would also have a place on the Business Committee.
These seem highly technical, but do constitute best practice.
The Bill suggests a financial scheme for support, but goes into little detail. Opposition Leaders will also have an additional salary.
There is an issue here – the public is unlikely to accept yet more funding for MLAs!
Perhaps it should be combined with a reduction in Assembly numbers; perhaps the Office Costs Allowance of Ministers should be reduced to make up for the fact they receive policy advice from Special Advisers; or perhaps Special Advisers’ salaries should have a lower cap with the extra going to Opposition Research.
The Bill also requires the Secretary of State to reform the Executive. This is an attempt to get around the fact that much of the required legislation to establish an Opposition is not under devolved competence.
The exact nature of the Reform is left open to debate.
It allows for but does not require any party with a sixth of MLAs being allowed to nominate a Minister to the Executive.
It allows for but does not require an obligation on parties to agree a Programme for Government before entering the Executive.
It allows for but does not require the function of Committees to change to scrutiny rather than assistance.
It allows for but does not require the passing of the Budget by simple majority.
There is a requirement added to the Ministerial Code for “Collective Ministerial Responsibility”.
It allows for the potential removal of designation and its replacement by Weighted Majorities (requiring support or absention of all MLAs except 29 or another chosen proportion, in practice), but does not require it.
Similarly but not identically to the system in the Republic of Ireland, the Speaker is deemed separate from the Assembly upon election by private ballot. He/she remains in office through elections.
This is, perhaps by necessity, the weakest part of the Bill (as much of it is not devolved, and much of it is left open to maximise support).
For me, the most essential thing is to have a Programme for Government in place before an Executive is formed, and to enforce Collective Responsibility. Parties disagreeing with the Programme then form the Opposition; those agreeing are committed to Collective Responsibility.
The Bill proposes, perhaps counter-intuitively given the Opposition would have a Leader and a Deputy Leader, an ‘Office of the First Ministers’, although it appears the First and deputy First titles would remain.
The Stormont House Agreement in fact renames this in any case, to “Executive Office”.
Executive as Legal Entity
As has recently happened in Wales (and as happened in Scotland from the very start of devolution), the NI Executive would be constituted separately as a single legal entity, with Departments subject to it.
This is very important. Currently Departments operate with a silo mentality and are legally distinct entities, with no requirement to co-operate (indeed, with every reason not to).
Instead, there should be a single Executive with a single agreed programme.
The Bill is very unlikely to pass.
In reality, it is best seen as a discussion document to help the parties at the talks.
What it does do is demonstrate the value of ideas. There is too little of that going on at Stormont!