Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Westminster could learn from Stormont reform drive

Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg
Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

The Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee is in Belfast this week for evidence sessions at Stormont on the draft Northern Ireland Bill.

The Bill's proposals will already be familiar to many people: ending dual mandates between the Assembly and the Commons, more transparency on party funding and greater security of tenure for the justice minister.

Whitehall is keen to point out the Assembly is now "a settled institutional structure" and the Bill reflects the "maturing relationship" between Westminster and Stormont.

While the Government is making progress reforming the Assembly, the same cannot be said for its plans for Parliament.

Indeed, the constitutional reform agenda, which is the responsibility of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, has failed miserably.

The agreement between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems set out what were, at first glance, radical proposals. But it is important to read the small print.

A referendum on switching the election of MPs from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV) system – a Lib Dem policy – was combined in legislation with the Tory desire to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

The Lib Dems got their referendum, in which AV was defeated and the boundary commissions set to work on reducing the seats in the four parts of the UK.

The Conservatives are keen on change because it would have removed what they argue is a bias towards Labour of around 20 seats. The boundary changes were agreed, but needed one final approval in the Commons.

Next was Lords reform. The coalition agreement did not promise to reform the upper House, but set up a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly, or mainly, elected chamber.

The committee suggested an 80%-elected House and Mr Clegg brought forward a Bill. But without Tory support, he knew it would fail and so he conceded defeat and announced that his MPs would be voting down the boundary changes. Northern Ireland would have lost two of its 18 Westminster seats had plans gone ahead and, as a result, the number of seats in the Assembly would have automatically gone down from 108 to 96.

The draft legislation the Commons committee is in Belfast to discuss left out clauses relating to reducing Assembly seats, but they could be included – if the local parties want them. There is also scope to change the length of Assembly terms and for moving to a system of Government and Opposition. Northern Ireland's politicians now have a chance to show Westminster how to agree a deal.

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