Dual mandate (council/MLA) bill passes Consideration Stage – but what are party plans for next spring?

Dawn Purvis’ private member’s bill got through its Consideration Stage this evening and now moves on to the next stage of its arduous journey into the statute books. Update - you can now read the Hansard transcript or watch the proceedings through BBC Democracy Live.

In short the NIA Bill 7/09 Local Government (Disqualification) (Amendment) Bill removes the possibility of people holding a dual mandate to serve as an MLA at Stormont and also sit on their local council. It leaves the door open for people to stand as candidates at both council and Assembly elections – hedging their bets when the elections fall on the same day (as they will in Spring 2011 – and candidates can remain a member of one body while seeking election to another until the point that they are successfully elected to the other.

You can read more detail about the bill along with the Committee for the Environment’s detailed report on the NI Assembly website.

Back in September I posted about some of the scenarios that could occur next time Northern Ireland goes to the polls. The new councillor co-option rules combined with many candidates running for both council and the Assembly could mean that the electorate don’t really know who they’re voting for. In particular, I wondered:

What’s to stop a big name politician – perhaps an MP or a high profile MLA – being asked by their party to stand for council, easily winning the seat given their public profile, and then quickly resigning and handing the seat to a lesser-known party colleague?

Same could be true for the Assembly. There’s nothing to stop an MP who is currently double jobbing (for example, Alasdair McDonnell or Sammy Wilson) standing as an MLA, winning a seat, and then “doing the decent thing” and standing down from the Assembly within week, co-opting someone else into their place. Not that either of those examples is likely to stand down …

So I put some questions around dual-candidature across MP/MLA/councillors to all the local parties. As usual, some of the most interesting aspects about their replies are not the policies they explain but the manner and style in which they communicate them.

The Green Party responded first (and funniest).

Do you plan to allow any candidates to run for both Assembly and Council seats?

We will not allow our sitting MLA to stand for both council and the Assembly but we will allow non MLAs to stand for both if selected to do so by their constituency branch. We have also written to the Secretary of State urging him not to hold both elections on the same day, in part to avoid some of the problems … regarding parties abusing the provisions for co-option. We have suggested that the council elections should be held in advance of the Assembly elections.

Do you plan to allow any current MPs from your party to run for Assembly?

I don’t foresee Caroline Lucas MP putting herself forward for the Assembly however if she wished to do so she would have to relinquish her MP seat.

Do you plan to allow any current MPs from your party to run for Council?

It is even more unlikely that Caroline Lucas would want to stand for council in NI but again she would have to relinquish her MP seat if she wished to so.

But the Green’s bottom line is that “any candidate elected to the Assembly would be required to relinquish any other elected positions which they may hold, including council seats.”

The UUP position is pretty straightforward too. The party is “opposed to double jobbing between MPs and MLA” and has no plans to allow any current MPs from to run for council. When it comes to MLA/council dual-mandate, they are looking forward to Dawn Purvis’ private member’s bill coming into force.

In 2011 it is likely that the Council and Assembly Elections will take place on the same day. As a result those who seek to stand for both positions will have to comply with legislation going through the Assembly which will give MLA’s who are also elected to councils 60 days to resign their council positions.

Over the last few months a number of our own councillors who are also MLA’s have been resigning their seats as part of the UUP’s opposition to double jobbing.

Next up the Alliance. They have a more nuanced position. (They also responded with the longest reply.)

Alliance believes it is not practically possible for someone to be both MP and MLA at the same time not least given both roles are full time jobs.

Alliance believes an Executive Minister should not be a Councillor as significant conflicts of interests can arise from this arrangement.

They point to Naomi Long’s resignation from Belfast City council after being elected to Westminster, and to David Ford’s resignation from Antrim Borough Council “days after being appointed Minister for Justice”.

On the one hand, Alliance “is flexible on persons holding office as both an MLA and as a councillor”. They view being a councillor role as a part-time role “with an allowance rather than salary”. But they are “conscious of the public concern around such issues, and believes that the numbers of persons holding dual mandates should decrease over time”.

Given that the Assembly and local government elections will be held on the same day, “it is reasonable for people to apply for a range of jobs at the one time”.

Alliance accepts that it would be farcical if a considerable number of people were elected both to the Assembly and to local authorities and then stood down from the latter with immediate effect. The replacement, without triggering a by-election, of councillors who step down from Councils is sensible in terms of avoiding needless expense; however, if elected councillors stand down immediately after their election, this might quickly discredit the system through which a party’s nominating officer nominates replacement councillors.

There is a real risk that many such immediate resignations might lead the electorate to question the validity of an election in which they put their faith in certain individuals who were then replaced by others who had either not put themselves before the electorate or who had, and had not been elected.

So “Alliance will not be seeking to use the current way of nominating replacement councillors in a cynical and in an undemocratic manner”. However “Alliance members who are elected both to a Council and Assembly would therefore be expected to serve a reasonable time in both posts”.

After being vouched for as “not a bad fella” the DUP sent me through a terse, lower case and punctuation-free reply!

no dup mp permitted to run for council

in relation to sammy wilson, the party leader has asked him to stay on to see through the important budget process he has commenced, but this does not equate to sammy being permitted to hold two mandates indefinitely

longer term plan is for assembly members not to be councillors but will not be possible to implement overnight- important to ensure sufficient level of experience exists within local government- over time that is the objective- speed of change will be influenced by approach we see other parties adopting

Finally the SDLP. In terms of the party’s MPs continuing to sit in the Assembly, the SDLP are

“actively seeking to end the dual mandate at all levels of government. It is our preference that this done at a defined point in the electoral cycle with all-party agreement, which has not be forthcoming from other parties. In this current phase of politics we also believe it is acceptable and reasonable for a party leader to sit in both Westminster and the Assembly. There may well be other circumstances where we deem it permissible but this will be judged on an individual basis.”

In terms of dual-candidacy?

… in circumstances where we will have both Assembly and Local Government elections on the same day we are, on this occasion, permitting individuals to stand for both Assembly and local government. Candidates who are successful in both elections will be required to vacate one seat within a set time frame.

None of the SDLP’s MPs will be running as candidates in the local government elections. And any candidates are successful in both Assembly and local government elections they “will be required to step down from one of the positions within a set time frame”.

Sinn Fein did twice promise a response but it never arrived.

Emails to the TUV press account and Jim Allister’s email address published on his website went unanswered.

Many thanks to the party press and policy officers who did reply.

Mark Devenport explains on his blog how the parties voted tonight.

Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists backed Ms Purvis’s measure. However the DUP and Alliance voiced opposition, preferring political parties to phase their practice out on their own. The DUP accused others of hypocrisy, particularly concentrating on the SDLP whose 3 MPs have yet to relinquish their Stormont roles (even though this bill dealt with council, not Wesminster double jobbing).

The good news is that no party is planning to pull the wool over voter’s eyes. However, if Dawn Purvis’ dual-mandate bill doesn’t succeed, some parties will take quite different approaches to double jobbing.  UTV’s Ken Reid was blogging about it last night. Julia Paul’s report towards the end of last week’s Hearts and Minds programme explained that ten MLAs have been replaced by co-option this year. (All male replacements for mixed gender originals.)

Come next Spring, there will definitely be a lot more co-option at a council level, and lot more party managers drawing up lists of replacements candidates that will either have been “sweepers” who failed to get enough electoral support and transfers in the original election, or may even be completely unknown to the electorate.

If Dawn’s bill does succeed in its salmon-like swim upstream and passes into law, it should be in effect for the council/Assembly elections.

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