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Private Member's Bills perform a vital role - they must be protected

If Speaker really wants to streamline Assembly, he should look at how petitions of concern are being misused, writes Alex Kane

Published 27/09/2016

Cutting the number of PMBs is a way of curbing the Opposition, insists Alex Kane
Cutting the number of PMBs is a way of curbing the Opposition, insists Alex Kane

The SDLP's South Down MLA Colin McGrath summed it up well: "Private Member's Bills (PMBs) have been proven to be vital in shaping the Assembly (John McCallister), fighting human trafficking (Lord Morrow), meeting the needs of children (Steven Agnew) and other issues important to the public (Jim Allister). Right now, the SDLP are working Bills to address issues, including equal marriage, gender equality, housing and homelessness, regional economic fairness and even an Irish Language Act. We need to keep all democratic avenues open and so a way to free up PMBs must be found."

He was responding to the news that the Assembly Speaker, Robin Newton, is concerned that there are too many PMBs in the pipeline and that it would be "prudent for our current procedures relating to PMBs to be reviewed and I would ask the committee on procedures to consider taking this forward." If this turns out to be code for making it more difficult to table a PMB, then that will be very bad for democracy - and particularly bad for the new Opposition.

The Speaker confirmed that a total of 19 PMBs are currently in the system - "close to the total of the 25 PMBs across the entire duration of the last Assembly". But he shouldn't be surprised by that. There wasn't an official Opposition in the last Assembly, so there wasn't the same imperative, or incentive, for legislation which wasn't included in the Programme for Government (PfG).

Many PMBs fall at the first hurdle, because they require considerable support for each stage of the legislative process, so it makes sense for the Opposition and smaller parties (the UUP, SDLP, Alliance, TUV, Greens and People Before Profit) not to put all their eggs into one basket.

And it's worth bearing in mind that a PMB can discomfit a government, which is, surely, one of the functions of Opposition.

It's also worth pointing out that most PMBs are not just "vanity projects" aimed at securing profile and publicity for the MLAs promoting them.

The issue will often be of significant personal interest to that MLA and will usually be supported by party colleagues (although Jim Allister, Steven Agnew and John McCallister were, to all intents and purposes, independents).

The issue may be of particular interest to the MLA's constituents. Or, as is more often the case (and it certainly was with Agnew's PMB on Children's Services, Lord Morrow's PMB on human trafficking and Jo-Anne Dobson's PMB on organ donation) it will be an issue of much broader societal interest.

MLAs from the parties of government are usually better placed to bend the ear of a minister in the hope that their concerns and reservations will be reflected in Executive legislation, or departmental policy. Opposition parties do not have that luxury: and that's why it's important that they have other ways to influence government.

The decision by the DUP and Sinn Fein, on June 7, to replace Opposition motions every second week with Opposition days every so often - which may amount to just 10 days between now and June 2017 - means that the new Opposition has already had its wings clipped in terms of "taking the battle" to the Executive.

Now, it seems, their wings are to be further clipped by a curb on the number of PMBs.

It tends to be forgotten that PMBs are also a way for other sections and groups within the electorate to get involved in the legislative process. In many cases, they are able to provide expert research, drafting and legal advice to the MLA, particularly if similar legislation has been passed in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The wider public consultation process which accompanies the drafting and promotion of a PMB enables voices to be heard which wouldn't otherwise be heard.

And, in some cases, the potential importance and impact of a PMB may see its proposals included in legislation already under consideration through the Programme for Government.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein were reasonably well-disposed to John McCallister's PMB on Opposition: they could, had they chosen to do so, have killed it off pretty quickly. But he listened to them, as well as the other parties and independents, and made the changes required to ensure majority support.

My gut instinct is that the DUP/Sinn Fein supported it for two main reasons: they didn't want to look like anti-democracy bullies and, more importantly, they reckoned that, even if there was an official Opposition, the UUP and SDLP would opt for the Executive, rather than potential isolation.

So, after the election, they assumed that Nesbitt, Eastwood and Ford (with Alliance coming in on the Justice by-ball) would green-light Executive participation.

It didn't turn out like that, of course. And for all the talk of "strong government" versus a "weak and divided Opposition" it's pretty clear that Foster and McGuinness are still a little bit spooked by Opposition.

That's why they cut back on the number of Opposition days.

That's why they've appointed David Gordon as their "minder". That's why the Speaker has intervened to prevent questions and discussion on Nama in the wake of the recent BBC NI Spotlight programme and on the appointment of Gordon.

And that's why there's to be a review (by a committee with a DUP/Sinn Fein majority) on the number of PMBs allowed.

I can accept the Speaker's point about the present system not being designed to cope with the potential number of PMBs. But, let's be honest: the present system wasn't designed with an official Opposition in mind, either.

But that Opposition now exists - with DUP and Sinn Fein support - and they are going to have to make the changes required to accommodate the needs and rights of Opposition.

If that means an extra plenary session now and again, then so be it. If that means culling the numbers of Press officers and special advisers, then so be it. If that means the Executive having to accommodate the additional scrutiny and pressure of an Opposition, then so be it.

The Opposition is the most important thing that has happened to the Assembly and Executive since the DUP/Sinn Fein co-governing deal in May 2007. Yes, there will be teething problems and both the Executive and Opposition have lessons to learn. Further down the line, it may be necessary to change and fine-tune these new arrangements and relationships.

But it is thoroughly irresponsible - indeed, downright reckless - to begin this new phase of government by curbing Opposition and the machinery by which it operates.

Let's first see how democracy works - if it's given a chance.

And, if the Speaker wants to do something, then let him look at how the petition of concern has been deployed as a wrecking ball.

Belfast Telegraph

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