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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  • joeCanuck

    Totally support this.
    Those who wish to hold dual mandates either:
    Have an inflated sense of their own indispensibility, or,
    Are greedy bastwiches.

  • Stephen Blacker

    I listened to this debate and it seemed to me the arguments against this Bill by the DUP & Alliance proved that they never understood what the Bill was about. I thought the DUP members were in good form and showed their nasty side. I found Peter Weir quite personal in his comments but that was no surprise!

    Well done to Ms. Purvis for taking her Bill successfully to the next stage and also being the first to get a Bill this far at Stormont!

  • USA

    Typical of the DUP to muddy the waters with inaccurate information. The bill concerns local double jobbing, not
    Britain / Westminster.

  • Granni Trixie

    Well done Alan for putting the parties on the spot, it all adds to pressure on them to be transparent.

    Having said that, you will not be surprised when I say that I agree with their views about the status of local councillors jobs.

    One way and another there have been significant improvements and likely to be even more due to public pressure in an economic context where people want to see evidence of greater fairness. So this makes me question if legislation is the answer to double jobbing? Is it a case of a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Is it a good use of time for debate in Stormont …or is it posturing? Are there not more pressing/important matters requiring a legislative response?.

  • Granni Trixie

    Ooops re second para – was referring to APNIs response.

  • Damian O’Loan

    The Liverpool Uni survey also asked a question on this, with regard to MLAs sitting on Councils, in the Assembly or in the EU Parliament. The question each time (q36) was whether MLAs should be allowed to be members of…, and the results:

    Westminster – No: 47.5%/Yes: 23.4%
    Councils – No: 47.0%/Yes: 23.3%
    Europe – No: 46.2%/Yes: 24.2%

    A massive no then. Excluding the ‘don’t knows’, around 70%.

    Despite that, the Assembly voted not to act until 2015 and Westminster plans to act in 2012.

    I’d expect them to do as little as possible, but the DUP is unusually honest on the subject – “speed of change will be influenced by approach we see other parties adopting.” A fairly open invitation to a deal that seems to be in practice, despite the noisy choreography of giving up a few Council seats.

    Incidentally, if any Party told me my vote would be mysteriously transferred to an unknown in a few days’ time, I wouldn’t vote for it. If, as appears to be the case, they all say so, I wouldn’t vote for any of them. You can’t have election posters with a blank space and ‘Trust Us’ as a slogan.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I find myself in agreement with the Alliance position….even though Ms Purvis is flavour of the month. But essentially her position is populist. And of course she isnt actually in a political party which gives her some kinda sainted higher ground in some quarters.
    Real Politick and Ideal clash here.
    Its not simply a matter of Dual mandate..its multiple mandate. And lets be honest theres a kinda agenda here. The five SF-IRA folks who dont take their seats are the elephants in this particular room.

    If they dont take their seats……..they arent actually MPS (they get no salary but are on expenses) and of course they DO have a mandate.
    You pays yer money and takes yer choice here.
    Either it makes SF choose one or other (best case scenario for them would be to keep the Westminster mandate (and expenses) and stuff the Assembly.

    The problem in Real Politick terms has been eased but not settled by MPs like Long, Durkan and a clutch of DUP people resigning as it gives lesser known people a chance to get known before next Spring when they defend seats. Certainly co-opted MLAs like McDevitt and Jonothan Bell(co-opted in different circumstances) are publicity junkies.
    But there IS a tradition of a strong candidate….Adams, Paisley, Hume, Donaldson leading the card.
    Without the biggest name available to them …those vital last seats will be a problem. Of course it should all balance out anyway.
    Which is part of the reason why I admire Ms Longs stance on this. Its a reasonable expectation that AP will pick up two seats in East Belfast but Id submit its made slightly more difficult if Long isnt leading the ticket. Principle before Party (although Id acknowledge that if dual mandates are actually an issue then Long would suffer if she stood).
    But are dual mandates actually an issue….other than a “populist” touchstone?

    The point is of course that there are different types of dual mandate. And of course defending any one of them might just depend on “special pleading”.
    For example the SF-IRA Westminster/Assembly mandate…will already have sides drawn up. Those that support the SF stance will point up that they dont take seats or salaries…..the opposition (already well rehearsed on Slugger O’Toole in respect of the “oath”) will……surprise surprise have a different view.
    The position of people having a Westminster seat AND an Executive job. That argument has already been one and lost. The DUP was forced to make concessions at a time of turmoil for them.

    But the position of holding an Assembly seat AND a Council seat is less convincing as an abuse.
    First off many MLAs are safe at next election. Some are not. And they are holding on as professional politicians and putting careers on hold….they need every advantage including the fall back position of a council seat OR the stepping stone of a council seat.
    This is particuarly valid for Alliance MLAs. All the current MLAs are without a Party colleague in their constituency. They (with the almost certain exception of East Belfast and maybe North Down) are facing the same prospect in 2011.
    If they are to have any security of tenure (beyond of course the ballot box) they need every advantage.

    The position of Stephen Farry MLA…..sole AP person in North Down will be interesting. As far as I know he is still a Councillor in North Down also…..and indeed was “mayor” AFTER his election to Assembly. No harm in that.
    But with possibly two candidates fighting for possibly just one one seat, surrendering the advantage of a council seat might be costly for a professional politician.
    Buried away as APs “Finance” guy at Stormont is necessarily low profile, not the sorta thing in which you can interest the “Bangor Spectator”.
    On the other hand a monthly Council meeting and “parish pump” politics (conveyed by young cycle riding upwardly mobile ambitious party Councillors with brownie points at Alliance HQ) might be exactly the kinda thing Stephen Farry does not need.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    oops “one and lost” is “won and lost”

  • Granni Trixie

    FJH: wouldn’t dream of trying to read Stephen Farry’s mind concerning a running mate. But I can say that until this week when he was so vocal on economic affairs, I know him as our man who is an expert on policing and justice. Would have thought that this expertise and a man of many parts would be perceived as relevant to ND voters?

  • Granni Trixie

    Sorry, mistake – that should have read “and BEING a man of many parts…”

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Granni Trixie…I fully anticipated your response. “I know Stephen Farry better than you do” and Im sure thats right. But we are talking about someone who was a Mayor of North Down after he was elected to the Assembly and seemingly managed to work as a MLA and a Mayor. Id have thought Mayoral duties were demanding than a mere councillor.
    While Ms Long pulled off the Mayor/MLA thing but feels unable to do the MP/MLA thing……clearly AP have no difficulty with MLA and Council mandates.
    Alas Ms Long has gone on to higher and better things and that could (hopefully) be the case for several more years.
    Mr Farry is not in the same position.
    AP might take two seats in North Down. BUT
    Its quite possible that he could lose his seat to an ambitious, self publicising, cycle riding running mate who is well thought of at Allaince HQ.
    If indeed…..such a person exists.
    But maybe youd know better than me.
    Or maybe not 😉

  • Granni Trixie

    Consensus in Alliance goes against “double jobbing” (abnd there may even be new rules concerning this). There
    is much more debate about what the term means in practice, defintion of the term and of the role and status of ‘Councillor’ in particular. For instance, how is it different to hold down say the job of a teacher and Councillor and an MLA and Councillor. Then too some personalities hate or love parish pump politics. Some are very suited to 2 roles some are not. The question is what degree of flexibility could the public live with?

    Indeed many of the notables you refer to could show
    evidence to back up claims that they can fulfil several roles practically. But equally they see the need to adapt to present conditions and set an example of fairness despite the additional risk to their longer term poltical futures.

    For the record do also note that Naomi Long did not take a salary as Lord Mayor saving a considerable sum (over 38K…anybody know?). I never realised until this year that the Mayor was paid anything but expenses.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Yes I knew that about the Mayors position.
    But I think the problem is that when people make grandiose statements about double jobbing…..they are exempting themselves from the definition.

  • Ed S

    FJH – You may as well just refer to Andrew Muir properly instead of dancing around it.