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Why do proposed new laws never cross the finish line?

By Michael Wolsey

Legislation from Stormont is like a Belfast taxi – it can take a long time to arrive and sometimes it doesn't come at all. Five years ago the Assembly approved a motion calling for reform of the law governing cabs in the city.

The idea was that they should all be treated equally.

Private hire cars would have to install meters as black taxis do – in return they would share the privilege of using bus lanes and the public would be able to hail them on the street without having to pre-book.

In the five years since it got the Assembly's green light this simple plan has been driven up a number of legislative cul-de-sacs and political one-way streets.

It has twice been out for public consultation.

Environment minister Alex Attwood had promised the new law would be operating in September. Now he says Belfast's cab-using public will have to wait another year.

Opening up the taxi business is a bone of contention among cab drivers but for the wider public it's a no-brainer. More competition. More taxis on the street. Easier access. What's not to like?

So how can such a non-contentious proposal still be under discussion after five years, going on six? The sad fact is that, for Stormont, this snail's pace is normal. Northern Ireland's legislative process is a Bermuda Triangle. Ideas sail into it and vanish without trace.

In March 2011, under the headline, 'Belfast to set minimum alcohol price', the Financial Times reported that: "Northern Ireland's power sharing executive aims to become the first government in Europe to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol.''

But there's many a slip between beer cup and lip.

What actually happened was that Alex Attwood, then Social Development Minister, and Michael McGimpsey, then Health Minister, launched a 16-week consultation.

By March 2012 there was still no sign of a minimum pricing policy but we did have a different health minister. Edwin Poots promised legislation in 2013 and noted that England, Scotland and Wales were considering the same rule.

"They are following us,'' he said, revealing that he had discussed an all-Ireland approach with the Republic's junior health minister Roisin Shortall.

Ms Shortall resigned from her post last September and the plan for minimum pricing in England and Wales was dropped in March this year. In Northern Ireland the issue is still under review. Time for another consultation?

In theory, public consultation seems like an excellent extension of local democracy. In practice, it is a good excuse for doing nothing. In theory, the consultation should produce something close to public consensus. In practice, it just highlights divisions that everyone already knew about.

The first public consultation on the taxis was conducted in 2011 and showed 84% of respondents in favour of the new rules.

The second consultation took place this year and showed a majority against.

So all these consultations proved was that different folk have different views.

Ministers cannot be blamed for the consultation process itself – it is built into the rules for legislating in Northern Ireland.

But even when it is not required, our politicians are hugely fond of consultations, committee hearings and reports, all of which stand between them and the need to make a decision.

Nothing so exposes this weakness as the issue of misbehaving students in Belfast's Holyland.

It has been debated at the Assembly for as long as there has been an Assembly. It has crossed the desks of several ministers who have commissioned reports, established working parties and summoned taskforces.

Reg Empey thought progress was being made in 2007. He was still hopeful in 2010 when he launched a campaign urging students to respect their neighbours.

Arlene Foster had the issue on her agenda in 2008, touring the area like a UN visitor to the scene of some natural disaster. Alex Attwood also promised action, while Alex Maskey, in his role as local MLA, gave support for commissioning a consultants' report and called for "ongoing engagement with key stakeholders'.'

Those naughty students have been given a level of attention more appropriate to the problems of the real Holy Land, with summits, face-to-face encounters, an Inter-Agency Strategy Group and our old friend, the public consultation.

Consultations can come in handy for local government too. In 2010, Belfast City Council called for one on whether the city marathon should be run on a Sunday instead of a Monday.

Now you might think there are only two answers to that question but obviously things aren't that simple, for the council still hasn't decided.

The plan to run a new half-marathon on a Sunday has raised a belief that the switch could be made in 2015. "The council needs to make a decision,'' said Danny O'Connor, chairman of Belfast City Marathon Ltd.

As a last resort, maybe.

But first they may try a bit more consultation.

Belfast Telegraph


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