The Slugger Awards 2008: Stormont Committee Chair of the Year

The next award is for all you dedicated Assembly watchers out there – Committee Chair of the year award. Even the most sceptical of the operation of the executive and the Assembly itself, have been known to mutter under their breathes in a begrudging manner, that the committee system has been working well.With a total of 17 (11 statutory and six non-statutory), most of the day-to-day work of the Assembly is done in Committees, with MLAs getting down to the business of shadowing government departments. Interestingly, the Assembly has the largest number of committee places when compared against committees in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Westminster.

Out of 108 MLAs, 94 are eligible to sit on 180 committee places (14 ministerial places are excluded from committee membership). This means that over 75% of MLAs sit on one or more committees whereas approximately only 60% of MPs sit on one committee.

Committee powers are relatively wide-ranging, they:

* Examine, debate and recommend changes to policies and decisions;
* Consider and advise on Departmental budgets and annual plans within the overall budget allocation;
* Approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee stage of relevant primary legislation;
* Scrutinise actions of Minister;
* Can call for persons and papers to advise and assist Ministers in forming policy;
* Consider and advise on matters referred to the Committee by its Minister;
* Initiate enquiries and publish reports; and
* Can introduce a Bill.

So, committees lie at the heart of the legislative process and often act as brokers between civil society and the government, particularly in their inquiry role – where else can our law makers hear from outside experts and practitioners in an open and transparent way, than in a recorded evidence session open to the public?

And that is one of the critical features of the committee system that we should remind ourselves of – a significant part of the business is conducted in open session and we as citizens have the right to sit in the public gallery and listen to the questions and debate – it my not be exciting, let’s face it, who expects the regulation of taxis bill or building regulations, to make great bed time reading, but MLAs should at least be acknowledged for this important work.

While most Committees have been meeting on Wednesdays and Thursdays, we should spare a thought for the unfortunate members of the Education Committee (in more ways than one perhaps?) who have given up a large portion of their constituency days to conduct their meetings on a Friday morning. However, the is light at the end of the tunnel with the recent announcement by new Committee Chair Mervyn Storey that the committee will meet on a Wednesday come the new term.

What we want to know is which committee chair has performed their parliamentary duties without fear or favour, as they say, in the first year of the Assembly?

Is it William McCrea who chairs the agriculture committee which has pushed ahead with their inquiry into renewable energy and alternative land use? Is it Barry McElduff who has managed to keep the culture, arts and leisure committee from spontaneously combusting (well at least some of the time) over the Maze/Long Kesh stadium site? Is it Danny Kennedy whose leadership on the issue of an enquiry in child poverty would not necessarily have reflected the interests of his traditional electoral base? Was John O’Dowd’s time at the helm of the Public Accounts Committee worth rewarding? What about Sammy in Education and Patsy McGlone in Environment?

There is a very clear role to be fulfilled by a committee chair – to ensure the smooth running of committees; facilitating engagement with interested outside parties in an open and constructive manner; holding both the relevant minister and officials to account as well as providing a forum for the development of policy and legislation.

Grandstanding, cheap political point scoring, soap boxing or committee meetings running way over time or away from the issue at hand, does nothing to instil confidence in the political system or enhance the democratic decision making process…so having outlined the rules of the game; the good and the bad, as well as throwing a few names into the ring (look at them as food for thought) it is over to you…..

Usual Slugger Award rules here – negativity gets deleted on sight.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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