The serious nature of justice devolution was brought home in September by a debate on human trafficking. MLAs also focused their attention on Northern Ireland Water and prepared for cuts as 20 October approaches.
With the Northern Ireland Water dispute fresh in their minds, the Assembly’s first day back (13 September) saw Conor Murphy report back to MLAs. Murphy explained that an inquiry was taking place into the allegations which questioned the review team’s independence, and led to Paul Priestly’s suspension. He also expected “robust scrutiny” from the Public Accounts Committee.
“The procurement governance failures in NI Water is a serious matter that involved more than 70 contracts worth £28.4 million of public money,” Murphy reminded the House.
David Ford also announced his review of access to justice, which will consider legal aid, alternative ways to resolve civil disputes, and value for money within the existing budget. MLAs, TDs and Irish senators will be holding a conference on a North/South parliamentary forum during October, Martin McGuinness confirmed the next day.
Meanwhile, the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee called on the DHSSPS to invest more money into encouraging sport and exercise. Fewer adults are being active, but more could be done to encourage sports in schools.
“We need to think of ways of creating a habit of a lifetime by encouraging children from a young age to be active,” said Barry McElduff. “This should continue into adulthood with employers playing a key role in encouraging employees to participate in sport and physical activity as part of the work-life balance.”
The Assembly also called for compulsory carbon monoxide alarms in all new homes and a campaign to encourage people to fit alarms in existing dwellings. The Finance and Enterprise Ministers will look at how Adrian McQuillan’s motion could be put into practice.
Human trafficking was the most troubling subject on the Assembly’s agenda. The 22 September debate concluded with a strong condemnation, pointing out that local demand for prostitution and cheap labour was its cause. The motion was brought forward by David McNarry and shows the more serious nature of the Assembly’s responsibilities after justice devolution.
Wednesday, 20 October will go down as one of the most decisive days in the current Assembly’s history but not because of events at Stormont. All attention will be on Parliament for the Comprehensive Spending Review but, from then on, Westminster will fall into the background as the Executive works out its own budget. The cuts are now inevitable so decisions must be made.
For Cameron and Clegg, this is an “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” moment. The Assembly, elected to stand up for the region, will dissent.
However, the cuts may not be as extreme as feared: local public spending is generous by UK standards and has grown continuously over the last decade. And, as Owen Paterson has hinted, cutting too drastically would destabilise the province when it faces a severe terrorist threat.
As the Assembly election approaches next spring, MLAs may be reluctant to make cuts or raise money in new ways but with less money available, they will have no other choice.