Belfast Telegraph

We need the office of Assembly Speaker to be robustly independent

By John McCallister

"This has been a rather sorry saga and ... the House should not be put in this position. Most of us think that a commitment made is a commitment that should be honoured, and we should try to operate according to sensible standards rather than trying to slip things through by some sort of artifice. It may be the sort of thing that some people think is very clever, but people outside the House expect straightforward dealing, and they are frankly contemptuous - I use the word advisedly - of what is not straight dealing. Let us try to learn from this experience and do better."

That was the John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, last Monday.  It's all very polite - quite a bit removed from the Gregory Campbell school of parliamentary debate.  But, no matter how polite, it was, by the standards of the House of Commons, a very severe and very public dressing down of the Government. When it became clear that the Commons was not going to be allowed to vote on the UK signing up to the European Arrest Warrant, the Speaker forcefully reminded the Government that this was not how business should be conduced in a parliamentary democracy.

UKIP MP Douglas Carswell put it this way: "Speaker Bercow, doing precisely what a Commons speaker ought to do, made it clear that the Commons had been had".  Now Douglas Carswell and I would disagree about quite a bit.  He wants the UK out of Europe, I want the UK to stay in a reformed EU.  He would have voted against the European Arrest Warrant, I am in favour of it as a means of tackling international criminals.  But, he is entirely right to say that the Speaker was doing his job when he gave the Government that dressing down.

This is the historic role of the Speaker - to ensure that the legislature, the elected representatives of the people, have the freedom to question, probe, scrutinise, and hold accountable the Executive power.  It's a hard-won right in British history for the Commons to be able to stand up to the Executive's decisions and say "no, this is wrong: go back and think again".

It's also something that it is hard to imagine happening in the Northern Ireland Assembly.  Now this is not because of the personality of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers - they do a fine job in difficult circumstances.  It is, however, a result of the political stitch-up in which the big party leaders decide amongst themselves who the Speaker should be.  It is, in fact, the very thing it should never be: an Executive appointment.  Contrast this with the House of Commons, where the Speaker is chosen by backbenchers in a free vote, with Government taking care not to interfere in any way.

Part of the reason why the Northern Ireland Assembly is viewed with some contempt by the public is its failure to be a chamber which, without fear or favour, holds the Executive to account - giving Ministers a rough ride, not because it is a political game, but because Minister's decisions effect the daily lives of the public, and spend the hard-earned taxes of the public.  To make sure this can happen, we need the office of Speaker to be robustly independent, free from any sense that this is an Executive appointment.

It's a proposal I have included in my Assembly Reform Bill, which will soon be debated by MLAs.  If we want a truly robust parliamentary system in Northern Ireland, holding the Executive to account and making sure it does its work properly, we need to rethink how the Speaker is appointed.  Maybe then we will have an Assembly which puts the people first, rather the Executive parties.

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