Open and accountable government…

The Belfast Telegraph picks up Alliance leader David Ford’s criticism of the four parties currently engaged in the latest Hain Committee, the Programme for Government Committee and its 6 sub committees. The Alliance Party were not invited to participate. As happened initially with the previous Preparation for Government committee Hansard, the verbatim record, is not being published, instead we’re treated to condensed minutes only. We wait to see if someone forces the issue again. The BBC report, somewhat pointedly, also highlights the previously recorded comments on journalism by UUP MLA Alan McFarland.. a story which first appeared here on Slugger [*ahem* – Ed]From the Belfast Telegraph report

Mr Ford, whose party is excluded from the programme committee, said: ” Either they are an Assembly committee or they are not. Assembly committees are supposed to be open and transparent. People are supposed to know what is going on.

“Yet none of the usual rules seem to apply here and none of them have taken a pledge of office. These are people who complain of the lack of openness by the Northern Ireland Office and yet are behaving in exactly the same way.”

The Alliance chief said the predecessor to the Programme for Government Committee, the Preparation for Government Committee, had published its proceedings in full.

But there will be no Hansard for either this committee or its sub-groups and its minutes will only tell us as much as people want to go into them,” he added.[added emphasis]

That will include the sub committee on Policing and Justice.. so we’ll not know whether the conversation travels down the same cul de sac as before..

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  • Dr Snuggles

    There have been two very innaccurate reports on this matter from the BBC and the Belfast Telegraph. In fact – as a quick phone call to the Assembly press office confirmed – meetings of the subgroups that take evidence from witnesses are being covered by Hansard.

    Those reports haven’t been published yet because witnesses are allowed sight of their comments before publication and to suggest corrections etc. Those suggestions are then considered by the editors before final publication.

    This was always the case with Stormont Committees. Only the Committee Stages of Bills and meetings that hear evidence from witnesses are subject to Hansard reporting. The Northern Ireland Assembly website’s guide to Hansard clearly states:

    “Hansard provides a full report of what happens in the Assembly… and those meetings of its Committees that involve legislation or taking evidence.

    The reports are published at 8:30am the day after each Assembly sitting.

    The procedure for covering appropriate Committee meetings is broadly similar, although, as witnesses are also entitled to see how Hansard intends reporting their evidence, reports can take slightly longer to publish.”

    The same broad protocol is followed at Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.

    One would imagine that reporters for the BBC and the Tele are capable of checking facts like these – it took me five minutes. But perhaps “Committees shrouded in top secret mystery” makes for a better story.

    If every word of every Committee meeting were reported by Hansard, they would probably need to double their staffing levels. As there hasn’t been any recruitment to the Assembly since 2002 (suspension), it’s fair to assume that Hansard has lost staff that have not been replaced in the last four years. Contrary to popular belief, the Assembly is staffed by its own secretariat, not the Civil Service (although some staff are secondees from the CS).

    It’s a pity that senior political correspondents don’t seem to have the first clue about how things work up at Stormont when an amateur like me can find out that info so easily.

  • Pete Baker

    Snuggles

    I’m not entirely convinced that the quote you use addresses the actual issue – which is about the committee’s decision not to publish the verbatim reports rather than the condensed versions.

  • Dr Snuggles

    But Hansard will be publishing full transcripts. Hansard does not produce “condensed versions” or minutes. Committee clerks produce minutes, but Hansard is like a little stand-alone publishing house, and it sticks to its own terms of reference for making its reports.

    If a Committee is subject to reporting by Hansard under the conditions I mentioned in my first post, that report will be, as the guide to Hansard on the Assembly website states, under the terms of reference for Hansard laid down in Erskine May’s ‘Parliamentary Practice’ since around 1907, meaning a full report of everything that was said, basically tidied up a bit so it makes sense on a page.

    Those reports haven’t been published yet because, as I pointed out in my first post, witnesses are entitled to see how Hansard intends reporting their evidence, and to suggest changes or corrections, which then have to be considered by the editors.

    Both stories that led to this post are based on either misunderstandings or mischiefs. Hansard reports of committee meetings are produced only under the conditions I described in my first post (legislative stages or evidence sessions), and those reports will never be condensed or censored.

    I would expect the first Hansards of subgroups to start appearing on the Assembly website before Christmas. When they do, I don’t expect the BBC or the Tele to put their hands up and say they were wrong.

    If any confusion has arisen, it’s because Hansard did cover pretty much every meeting of the Preparation for Government Committee before St Andrews, even when it wasn’t hearing evidence from witnesses. However, the Hansard staff hadn’t had much core work for a long time, and Hain had pretty much stopped all plenary sittings in the Chamber at that time.

    With the Transitional Assembly established, and two full days of plenary sittings for Hansard to cover, it’s not at all surprising that the usual rules apply. Especially since the full Programme for Government Committee meets on Mondays – when Hansard are busy producing the plenary report for the next morning.

    I don’t blame you, Pete, for relying on two sources that anyone should expect to be accurate, but I am 100% certain that what I have said is, in fact, correct. Those transcripts should start to appear very soon – I happen to know a witness who has given evidence to one of the subgroups and who has been given sight of his own comments in a draft Hansard report.

  • Pete Baker

    Snuggles

    Strike “condensed versions”. Replace “condensed minutes”.

    I’m not sure that the confusion exists as you describe it, with the exception of David Ford’s comments, perhaps.

    It seems to me that the argument being put forward is that while there may not be an obligation to publish a verbatim record of all of this Committee’s meetings, there should be – a point that acknowledges the conditions you mention.

    Indeed the BBC reports make the point that, despite the initial absence of a publicly available transcript of the Prep for Government Committee, they were released eventually – by a decision of that committee.

    Btw surely a Programme for Government Committee, by definition, could also be said to “involve legislation”.

  • Dr Snuggles

    The term “involve legislation” in this context means the formal legislative Committee Stage of an Assembly Bill, as a scan of past Hansard reports confirms. Obviously, that does not apply at the moment because the Assembly has no legislative power.

    Discussions about future Executive policy have never been reported by Hansard – not for the former NI Executive, not in the Scottish Executive, and not in the UK Cabinet.

    No one should expect hours of transcripts of policy discussion and debate in a Transitional Assembly Committee, when even Select Committees of the House of Commons are not subject to such reports (except for evidence sessions).

    As for minutes, they are, by definition, condensed, being a summary of proceedings, and are the responsibilty of Assembly Clerks, not Hansard.

    The BBC report states:
    “although the Hansard clerks continue to transcribe the debates held in the assembly chamber, the word for word record of committee proceedings no longer exists.”

    This is simply not true. A full Hansard is being produced for evidence sessions (per normal protocol) and will be published.

    It also states:
    “Audio recordings are being made of sessions where witnesses give the committees evidence in order to enable the committee minutes to be compiled.”

    This is also wrong. The audio recording is made so that Hansard has a source for transcription. Minutes are compiled separately by Clerks.

    On the Preparation for Government Committee, I agree that it was unacceptable that Hansard staff were expected to compile a full transcript that was initially not published. The Official Report is supposed to be a publicly available document that is always published on the Assembly website, goes to public libraries, and is available to buy in hard copy. My understanding is that the PfG “used” Hansard staff to produce a transcript that did not initially come under the banner of the Official Report, but later decided to publish it, under, as you rightly say, pressure from the media.

    However, audio recordings are not currently being made of committee proceedings that are not hearing evidence from witnesses, and Hansard reporters are not attending those meetings, so there is no question of a full transcript of Programme for Government Committee meetings becoming available later.

  • Pete Baker

    Snuggles

    Thanks for clarifying your points. Although I’m sure the Alliance Party would point out that this committee is not an Executive.

    No doubt part of the reporting was coloured by Alan McFarland’s criticism of journalists during the summer.

    Some of us, of course, had been taking the time to read those transcripts..