Assembly urged to reduce its size
The Northern Ireland Assembly should not shrink dramatically, the Government said today as it sought to encourage a cut in MLA numbers.
Andrew Robathan, Northern Ireland Minister, said its proposals aimed to limit the reduction of Members of the Legislative Assembly from six to five per constituency.
He insisted smaller parties and minority voices would still be well represented if the assembly, with "cross-community support", opted to follow the suggestion.
Mr Robathan reiterated the final decision on the change would be for the Assembly to take.
Speaking during the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, consideration of Lords amendments, Mr Robathan said: "Under the previous provisions of the Bill, the larger parties in the Assembly could legislate to reduce its size by a substantial number.
"The House of Lords was of the view that there would be limited safeguards to prevent them so doing.
"Many in Northern Ireland hold that at 108 members the Assembly is too large. But it's not the Government's intention that it should shrink dramatically.
"When it was established it was the intention it should be a widely inclusive body and that is essential to the healthy functioning of the Northern Ireland settlement.
"The Government therefore put forward this amendment to ensure the drafting of the Bill better reflects that policy.
"We hope the Assembly will carefully reflect on the possibility of a reduction in size at a time when spending in all parts of the public sector is under pressure."
Social Democratic and Labour Party MP Margaret Ritchie (South Down) said her party colleagues believed the amendments were "sensible" and it should be for the assembly to make a decision on any cut.
She said: "While my party agrees that there is a case for reducing the number of MLAs at some stage, any discussion of this must take into account the sensitive local considerations at stake and such a move may be inadvisable at the current time.
"We firmly believe that any change to the assembly composition must be guided by the principles that it should be representative, proportionate and reflective of both traditions in the wider community."
Ms Ritchie said care was required to ensure certain areas are not left "unbalanced or unrepresentative", adding: "We have a clear interest in retaining a plurality of representation and must pay keen attention to factors that are specific to Northern Ireland when making these decisions."
Democratic Unionist Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) backed a reduction, telling the Commons: "Can I say that certainly as far as our party is concerned, we are strong supporters in the reduction of size of government generally in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom for that matter - and that goes for the number of government departments in Northern Ireland and we are on record of wanting to see a reduction of assembly members.
"We believe Northern Ireland can function more efficiently and in a leaner and better way with fewer politicians, as it were, for the size of the country and population."
MPs accepted all of the Lords amendments to the Bill, which is now set to receive Royal Assent and pass into law.