Members of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly

MLAs have three main duties: scrutiny, legislating and representing. MLAs have come under sustained attack for what many perceive to be their failure to carry out the functions assigned to them by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. Careerism, party loyalty, ignorance and incompetence have all been given as reasons for this failure. In examining whether or not this is a justified belief, a good place to start is looking at how MLAs have been unsuccessful in their scrutiny role.

Many feel that they have not been effective in scrutinising the Executive, for a variety of reasons, such as their self-interest. For example, MLAs may fear that if they scrutinise the Executive too much, especially if it is a minister from their own party, then they might lose their position in the party or miss out on the opportunity for promotion. It has been argued that MLAs are too self-interested to properly hold the Executive to account, and the recent expenses scandal would be evidence for this.

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The dominance of the Assembly by the two leading parties has also been cited as a cause of poor scrutiny. This is especially so with the abuse of the Petition of Concern. Some say it is being used as a veto by the top parties to prevent effective scrutiny and debate. All legislation must be passed by OFMdFM and this can lead to legislation getting killed before it is initiated if either of the ‘big two’ do not like it. MLAs have the possibility of raising a Petition of Concern if they believe there is an issue which is a serious concern to their community.

To enact this they have to achieve the support of 30 MLAs. In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, with at least 40% of each community present and voting. It gives each community a veto to prevent decisions or legislation being made which can affect them. It is supposed to be used if legislation is a particular threat to a certain community, but the DUP have used the Petition of Concern to block an investigation into the alleged misconduct of one of their own and to block legislation that would prohibit MLAs from “double jobbing”. The DUP is the only party with enough votes to reject a proposal outright as it has over 30 Assembly seats (38 MLAs). This abuse of the petition of concern prevents MLAs from effectively holding the executive to account.

The MLA’s work in legislating has also been limited and unsatisfactory. MLAs have the power to initiate legislation but have been inactive either individually or as members of committees. It is also worth noting the overall lack of legislation, many argue that power sharing discourages the legislative process. During the full assembly 2007-2011 only 69 bills were passed. This compares to the House of Commons passing 50 bills in one year. The numbers kept falling – only 11 bills between 2011 and 2013. The previous speaker William Hay warned party chiefs about the “death of legislation.” There were only 3 Private Members’ Bills passed 2007-2011 session. When PMBs are proposed they tend to be controversial, such as Paul Givan’s (DUP) Conscience Clause and Jim Allister’s (TUV) SPAD bill. One good one that was rejected was Dawn Purvis’ (PUP) Double Jobbing Bill which was rejected by the larger parties. Furthermore, committee bills have only been used once. Many MLAs complain of little time to initiate legislation.

Committees have a built in ambiguity to advise the Minister and hold them to account at the same time – this isn’t always possible. Committees have been described as being overworked which makes them ineffective in holding the Executive to account. An MLA can be part of up to 3 committees. This dilutes their experience and makes them much less effective. In the 2011-2016 Assembly, 70 MLAs worked in 2 committees or more. This decreases their ability to effectively scrutinise and legislate.

Statutory committees have also been accused of being too partisan, and this decreases an MLA’s ability to hold the executive to account. Statutory committees are made up of the same major parties in the Executive. D’hondt simply allows them to perpetuate their powers in the committees. Multi Party composition does not necessarily inspire cooperation. There have been many times when DUP / SF are not talking. Furthermore, a member of a political party has never challenged another member of their party in the committees. A DUP or SF committee member therefore is highly unlikely to challenge a Minister from their own party. Committees are often engineered to give the Minister ‘protection’, meaning heavy hitters in the party are brought in to support their Minister. This does not lead to good scrutiny.

The alternative view is that this is far too harsh a judgement of MLAs, many of whom have become increasingly active in scrutiny and in participating in the legislative process. A key way that MLA scrutinise the executive is through debates.

Moreover, debates are another way that MLAs have been successful in holding the executive to account. Debates take place during plenary meetings in the Assembly Chamber on Mondays and Tuesdays. MLAs debate Bills, particularly Executive bills, at several stages during the law-making process. At the Second Stage they debate the general principles of the Bill and decide if it is a law that the Assembly thinks it should pass. There are no time limits on legislative debates – all MLAs who wish to speak must be given the opportunity to do so.

There are also opportunities to hold the Executive to account through adjournment debates. An Adjournment debate is possible at the end of each plenary sitting and can last for up to one hour. The purpose of an Adjournment debate is to promote debate on a matter without requiring the Assembly to come to a decision. Any Member may raise a matter for discussion, giving at least eight days notice to the Speaker. Ordinarily the topic for discussion should fall within an area for which a Minister has responsibility; this will ensure that a Minister will respond to the debate and can be held to account. This is a form of scrutiny.

We could also consider how MLAs have been successful in their legislative role. They can do this through Private Members’ Bills. It is possible for MLAs to introduce their own private members’ legislation. This can allow MLAs the chance to make legislation based on the needs and wants of the local community, which ties into their role as a representative. A good example of this is the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill introduced by Lord Morrow (DUP). This was introduced and widely supported by the assembly. It was successful. It is quite innovative legislation and makes paying for sex illegal in Northern Ireland. It took many groups into account when piecing together this legislation including women’s groups, charities and the sex industry.

A further example of the Assembly passing effective legislation is the plastic bag levy by Environment Minister Mark Durkan SDLP. This piece of legislation borrowed on legislation in Wales and the Republic of Ireland. It is introduced to try and reduce the levels of waste in N. Ireland where an estimated 250 million carrier bags were used every year. It is the holy grail of legislation in ways as it can willingly tax the public but with the premise that it benefits the environment.

Furthermore, MLAs have been successful in their representative role. There are six MLAs in each constituency, which usually means that the different communities will have at least one MLA they can contact in their constituencies. This is not to say that an MLA can’t represent someone from a different community. There is no Assembly business in Parliament Buildings on a Friday. This allows MLAs to spend a full day in their constituency. One way in which MLAs carry out their representative role is by holding surgeries in their constituency offices. A good example of a surgery was in 2009 when South Belfast Alliance Anna Lo MLA held a special constituency surgery on to highlight the important role of older people in our community.

It was held in her constituency office and along with representatives from Age Concern, Help the Aged, Engage with Age, the Age Sector Platform and Access 2 Benefits. This surgery was designed to enable older people to voice their views and seek assistance on a wide range of issues. Many older people do not claim all the benefits that they are entitled to, and we hope that by raising awareness we will help alleviate this problem.

Furthermore, MLAs are expected to represent and show interest in their communities when issues arise. For example, East Antrim MLAs have joined forces in actively seeking help to rebuild the Carrickfergus marina that burned down in 2011. More recently, in 2016, MLAs in from both sides of the unionist and nationalist divide in South Belfast visited a Methodist church that was attacked by arsonists and condemned the act.

MLAs can represent their constituents by asking questions related to their needs. There are four types of question: Questions for Oral Answer; Questions for Urgent Oral Answer (to Ministers in the Chamber); Written Questions; and Priority Written Questions.

Ministers must reply to Questions for Oral Answer during a plenary meeting of the Assembly in the Assembly Chamber. This meeting is known as Question Time. It is a very public way for Ministers to explain what they and their Department are doing. Question Time takes place in the Assembly Chamber between 2.00pm and 3.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays. For example, in 2015 Jo-Anne Dobson who is the UUP MLA for Upper Bann asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for his assessment of the impact the Minister of Education’s decision to withdraw the funding for the Early Years Fund will have on the health and well-being of the children in her constituency. However, some would argue that this is only because they are looking for re-election rather than genuinely caring about their constituents.

To conclude, MLAs have generally been successful in carrying out their roles as representatives, legislators and scrutinisers. However, there are still aspects that could be improved, such as the petition of concern. The decision of the UUP and SDLP to go into opposition after the most recent election will change how MLAs are able to carry out these functions and hopefully it will lead to better scrutiny, but only time will tell how effective this will be.

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