agendaNi examines the problems involved in multiple committee membership.
Sitting on more than one committee is “time consuming” and eats into time that could be spent working on constituency matters, two MLAs have told agendaNi.
The Assembly is required to offer every MLA a committee seat. There are 108 MLAs and 191 seats (132 statutory and 59 standing), so some MLAs are sitting on three committees. Two Sinn Féin MLAs sit on four.
Professor Rick Wilford from Queen’s University Belfast believes that being a member of more than one committee creates pressure on an MLA’s time and
has a negative impact because it does not allow them to concentrate on, and become an expert in, the work carried out by a committee.
“Multiple committee membership is not a good idea in principle and it rarely happens in the Scottish Parliament,” he claims, pointing out that it is not compulsory to offer every MSP a committee seat.
Wilford gave three suggestions to the Procedures Committee in December 2007 when it was investigating how committees work:
• the introduction of sub-committees which would carry out field trips on behalf of the parent committees;
• a committee member being appointed as a rapporteur, who would talk to potential witnesses, or other MLAs, and report back to the committee; and
• a substitute system whereby if a member cannot attend a meeting, a named member from their party could attend in their place.
In June 2008 the Procedures Committee released its recommendations for committee membership. It rejected sub- committees, rapporteurs and substitutes but decided to implement joint committees which would enhance the scrutiny of a matter which falls equally to two or more committees. It also agreed to keep the quorum at five but this can be reduced to four under limited circumstances.
Sinn Féin MLA Mickey Brady sits on four committees (Health, Social Development, Standards and Privileges, and Procedures). He finds it “a useful learning curve as a first-time MLA” to sit on two standing committees because he has gained a greater insight into how the Assembly works and what is expected of members.
The workload on the Social Development Committee is “fairly high” but he finds that it matches his background as a welfare rights worker.
Brady worked in the Civil Service for six and a half years and as a volunteer for 27 years dealing with welfare payments. The Newry and Armagh MLA says: “My background is in workers’ rights and fighting for the elderly and that fits in.” The Health Committee “interests me in terms of the elderly and social care,” Brady adds. He has three days in Stormont. His two statutory committees meet on Thursday and Procedures meets on a Tuesday, a plenary day, therefore he has Wednesday and Friday for his constituency work.
DUP MLA Jonathan Craig sits on the Education, Social Development and Audit Committees.
“I think the difficulty with being on so many committees is that you don’t get as much time to spend on constituency work that you would like to do,” he tells agendaNi.
“The Audit Committee is not too busy. It’s a very specific role, we have to ensure the financial security of the Audit Office. The other two are much busier.”
The Social Development Committee has “a very heavy workload” because it is dealing with so much legislation in such a short time. However, the Lagan Valley MLA is “quite content” because he is on two committees that he is “very interested in.”
“I try to give equal attention to all three,” he remarks. “I don’t know if there’s an answer to it. All the parties have difficulty when it comes to sharing out positions and responsibility. It depends on experience and length of time.”
The SDLP’s Tommy Gallagher’s two main committees are Health and Social Development and he also sits on the Audit Committee.
“Both are on Thursdays [and] there’s a lunchtime meeting for the Health Committee too so that makes for a long day,” he explains.
However, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA notes that having the two committees on one day means that he has two days for constituency work. “They are both busy committees, with very busy meetings so there is a lot of catching up to do. It can be time- consuming,” Gallagher says.
As he is health spokesman for the party, the Health Committee his priority. “I think it’s good to have the other one because it widens my focus as an MLA. I don’t mind having a second one from that point of view; that’s how it is.”
Alliance’s Stephen Farry sits on the OFMDFM and Finance Committees and the Audit committee. He relishes the challenge, saying: “The committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly are on paper more powerful relative to the Executive than in any of our neighbouring jurisdictions. Sitting on more than one committee is not unusual here; indeed most of my Alliance colleagues do so. Indeed, this feature is likely to become more common if the size of the Assembly is reduced in years to come.
“My own committee assignments work well. Finance and OFMDFM meet on a Wednesday morning and afternoon respectively. This allows me to commit that one day to committee working, leaving Thursday and Friday free for other meetings and constituency commitments. The Audit Committee only meets once a quarter.”
agendaNi asked each party how it decides on the allocation of committee seats.
Alliance: “Appointments to committees are based on consensus from the MLAs and whether MLAs have specific expertise in certain areas. David Ford is Minister therefore he doesn’t have any other committees.”
DUP: Committee membership is decided on factors such members’ areas of interest, an attempt to have a broad geographical balance within the members of a committee, whether any committee meetings clash with others and the distance to be travelled.
“With the exception of Dr Paisley and our ministerial team, all DUP MLAs sit on at least one committee with the vast majority of members serving on at least two,” a spokesman said.
SDLP: Appointments to committees are made by the party leadership, having general regard to spokesperson responsibilities.
“No SDLP MLA holds membership of more than two standing committees and party leader Margaret Ritchie is the only MLA who is not a member of any standing committee,” a spokesman explained.
Sinn Féin: Membership is decided by the party Business Committee taking account the members’ personal interests, background and expertise.
UUP: “The delegation of Committee seats is at the discretion of the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. The leader will take into consideration members’ backgrounds, skills, expertise, interests in a given area and availability,” the party said.