Assembly round-up

Slow progress on the Programme for Government is accompanied by a lack of legislation, as the year ends. Several MLAs have backed striking public sector workers but ministers face criticism for agreeing cuts.

October’s business began with a tribute to Tom Elliott’s personal assistant, Norma Coulter, who passed away on 29 September. Danny Kennedy recalled how she was “held in the highest esteem by our entire party, but, more importantly, she was a wonderful human being who made friends easily and was very popular.”

Alliance boycotted a DUP-sponsored debate on controlling weeds on footpaths, held on 4 October, with Stewart Dickson describing it as a “frivolous waste of Assembly time”.

No bills have been debated in the Assembly since 27 June. In contrast, the Scottish Parliament is currently debating four bills: on sectarianism, land law, library administration and alcohol pricing.

The next Bill is likely to be Jim Allister’s proposed bar on ex-paramilitaries becoming special advisers. It may also require the Executive to publish advisers’ salaries, as happens in Whitehall.

A rarely used procedure, the prayer of annulment, was brought forward by Sinn Féin to reject housing benefit regulations. These would cut the benefit in half for 25-35 year old claimants, but the DUP warned that Westminster could force the Executive to pay up.

Martin McGuinness returned to office as deputy First Minister on 31 October, following his presidential run. Sinn Féin, though, has made little north-south progress at Stormont. A call for an all-island job recovery plan was rejected after DUP opposition, on 17 October, and another suggestion for a single telecommunications tariff was cancelled out by an amendment on 15 November.

Assembly and Oireachtas agriculture committees, meanwhile, held an informal meeting at Stormont. Animal health, CAP reform and fisheries were discussed.

The Assembly backed John McCallister’s call to ban smoking in cars with children, without a vote on 14 November. Only one MLA (the independent David McClarty) considered the consequences for civil liberties. McClarty believed that legislation would be difficult to enforce, interfere with parents’ responsibilities and invade privacy.

Peter Robinson’s unprecedented threat to resign over prison emblems was widely dismissed, as the DUP clearly can block any change under the St Andrews Agreement.

Six months on from the May election, the draft Programme for Government was finally released on 17 November. The appointment of a Commissioner for Older People on 1 December, meanwhile, ended a delay which has lasted longer than devolution.

The shadow Assembly agreed to appoint a Commissioner on 19 December 2006, a decision re-announced by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness a year later. The relevant Act was passed in December 2010.

Ministers did make some policy progress despite the programme’s delay e.g.

£40 million for co-ownership housing and £27 million to re-lay the Coleraine-Derry railway line.

As the 30 November strike approached, the SDLP and Sinn Féin refused to cross picket lines while the DUP took a ‘business as usual’ approach. UUP and Alliance members were free to make their own choices.

The Executive is responsible for increasing public pension contributions by 3.2 per cent. That vote was taken at its

22 September meeting (with Alex Attwood dissenting) but was only disclosed when the BBC broke the story on 5 October.

DUP and Sinn Féin ministers defended the decision, as the Treasury had threatened cuts of £4.8 million per month. Stormont is continuing to blame Westminster for cuts but will be held to account for its own decisions.

The House rises for its Christmas recess on 16 December and returns on 9 January.

Major debates
Date Subject Result
3 October Fuel smuggling: tougher sentencing Resolved (no vote)
10 October The Troubles: cross-party talks on the past Resolved (no vote)
10 October Prayer of annulment: Housing Benefit (Amendment No 2) regulation (Northern Ireland) 2011 Negatived (55-34)
17 October Economy: call for all-island job creation strategy Negatived (48-41)
7 November The Troubles: independent inquiry into Pat Finucane murder Negatived (55-37)
15 November Telecoms: abolition of roaming charges before 2015 Resolved (no vote)
22 November  Finance: examination of rates relief for sport clubs Resolved (no vote)


Stormont diary
11 January Finance: Non-domestic Rating Bill briefing
11 January Education: literacy and numeracy
17 January Procedures: Attorney-General inquiry
25 January Education: procurement
16 January First plenary of 2012

Christmas recess from 17 December to 8 January

Secrecy stays for political records

This new year’s public records (covering 1981) will attract strong interest from journalists and historians. The 30-year rule is gradually being cut to 20 years but will stay in place for peace process records. Reform was blocked by the NIO, which holds records on “negotiating positions within and between parties”. When the Assembly briefly discussed the change on 26 September, Jonathan Bell claimed it was important that “information that would impact negatively on the continuing political process” was not disclosed. Ministers will decide whether their departmental records fall into that category. Files can be sought under the Freedom of Information Act and ministerial decisions can be appealed to the Information Commissioner.

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