Director of Parliamentary Services in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Gareth McGrath, discusses the issues that are engaging the Assembly in unprecedented times including a fresh political agreement, Covid-19 and Brexit.
Discussing the resumption of normal business of the Assembly in January 2020, McGrath highlights that all those involved were in the unique position of doing so almost three years into an existing mandate.
The context, he suggests, was also different. The finalisation of the RHI inquiry had triggered a number of recommendations for change to how government works, including the strengthening of the scrutiny role of committees.
Additionally, the signing of New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement by all the main parties meant significant change and the Assembly was facing a perceived backlog of Executive business, now with less than 16 months until the end of the current mandate.
McGrath leads the teams of staff who provide advice and support to the Assembly’s Speaker, the committee chairs and individual MLAs, while also managing meetings of the Assembly in both plenary session and in committees.
Additionally, his team have responsibility for Hansard, the authoritative record of the proceedings of the Assembly and McGrath leads on the Assembly’s communication, education and public engagement services.
Highlighting the changes associated with NDNA, McGrath states that while there is a lot of politics around the agreement and its implementation, his interest lies solely in its impact on the business of the Assembly, rather than the extent to which is has been implemented.
Addressing some of those major changes required and how they are being progressed, McGrath points to a number of proposed reforms to the Petition of Concern (PoC), not least that it should only be used as a last resort. The reforms also suggested a change from the existing requirement of the consent of 30 MLAs to trigger a PoC, to that 30-member threshold having to be met by two or more parties. Additionally, it is proposed that the First Minister, deputy First Minister, speaker and deputy speakers would not sign a PoC and that it wouldn’t be used in relation to a member’s conduct as a minister or an MLA.
While these changes are likely to be implemented in future, McGrath highlights that currently the Assembly are working from the 1999 version of the PoC in the existing standing orders as reform requires primary legislation at Westminster before the Assembly’s standing orders can be amended.
NDNA also outlined a date for a new Programme for Government by April 2020, however, this has not materialised to date and it covers various aspects of rights, language and identity. In respect of the Assembly, it says that Assembly standing orders will be amended to allow any person to conduct their business in the Assembly through Irish or Ulster Scots.
In relation to committees, the agreement made provision for a number of new committees and this has resulted in the establishment of the ad hoc committee to consider the creation of a Bill of Rights, which has now been operational for a number of months.
Finally, it made provision for opposition arrangements, specifically to enable parties to enter official opposition up to two years following the establishment of the Executive. Additional funding would be made available for an opposition and there would be a review of the statement of entitlements, which was previously agreed under the Fresh Start Agreement.
“We’re expecting a very heavy legislative programme and of course, parliamentary time is a scarce resource. There are only a limited number of days in which the Assembly will be sitting between now and the end of March 2022 and that means that an awful lot of business is going to have to be squeezed into a small amount of time, which would place significant pressures on the Assembly’s committee system.”
The resumption of Assembly business, of course, has also been disrupted by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Just two months after NDNA was signed, the full impact of the pandemic was being felt.
“From an Assembly perspective, this had a major impact on Assembly business and Plenary business,” explains McGrath. “Most notably, the number of members who can physically participate in Assembly business at any one time has had to be drastically reduced, with only 22 members able to be in the chamber at any one time.
“It’s also had an impact on committee business and committees have had to work hard to implement new ways of working and utilising new technologies to support hybrid committee meetings.”
Underpinning these changes are a new set of temporary standing orders (due to expire in January 2021) to enable things such as proxy voting, remote attendance and decision-making.
The Assembly also established an ad hoc committee on the Covid-19 response and prior to the summer, the Assembly’s business committee turned its focus to Executive business, meaning fewer Assembly questions and fewer adjournment debates.
The overarching context to the Assembly’s resumption and the impact of Covid-19 on Assembly business is the UK’s exit from the EU, which McGrath explains has been a huge focus of work for the Assembly, particularly in committees, with a significant volume of both primary and secondary legislation in Westminster and the Assembly needing to be processed before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020.
Speaking prior to 31 December, McGrath says: “All of the devolved legislatures and the UK Parliament are starting to focus on the scrutiny of common frameworks, which are the arrangements to ensure that there is policy consistency and UK-wide approaches that are devolved but until now have had consistency through EU legislation.
“These common frameworks are needed to protect the functioning of the UK’s internal market and to insure compliance with international obligations and to allow the UK to enter in to new trade agreements and they will be implemented either through legislation or through agreement to co-operate, for example Memorandum of Understandings [MoUs].”
McGrath outlines his understanding that there could be as many as 41 common frameworks and currently, the focus is on seven priority frameworks, across a broad range of areas including: hazardous substances, nutrition and health claims, the ETS, company law, radioactive substances, recognition of insolvency proceedings, food and feed safety and hygiene law.
As well as the internal workload, the Assembly also facilitates a large volume of research material and continuous updates through its online presence, including its EU Matters portal.
Looking towards the end of the mandate, McGrath says the Assembly is expecting a heavy legislative programme to come forward from the Executive in the last 16 months of the lifetime, something which has been a feature of previous mandates. However, a significant difference this year is the potentially large volume of non-Executive business coming forward as well.
Currently, the Assembly has 29 proposals for Private Members’ Bills in the system, five of which have been subject to consultation and are now in the public domain.
“So, we’re expecting a very heavy legislative programme and of course, parliamentary time is a scarce resource. There are only a limited number of days in which the Assembly will be sitting between now and the end of March 2022 and that means that an awful lot of business is going to have to be squeezed in to a small amount of time, which would place significant pressures on the Assembly’s committee system.”
Additionally, McGrath and his team are focused on building the Assembly’s capacity for the future. Highlighting some ongoing work in this regard, the Director of Parliamentary Services says that his team are putting a lot of time and effort in to building expertise to strengthen the scrutiny capacity to support committees, particularly for research and legislation, while also building the capacity of the Assembly’s research service.
He also highlights a continuing focus on transparency, a key element of the business of the Assembly. The Assembly Information Management System (AIMS), the central database which records and publishes information on MLAs and the procedural business of the Assembly, is key in this regard and McGrath would like to see a greater awareness of the depth and volume of information within this.
Concluding, McGrath also points to work to establish a youth Assembly in 2021. “For many years, a number of MLAs have been advocating for a youth Assembly, as have a wide range of groups representing the youth sector. In July of 2020, the Assembly Commission agreed that a youth-led youth Assembly would be established, and we are working very hard at the moment to establish that early in the new year.”