Local Government Bill back in the Assembly: will MLAs support a new voting method and social media use in meetings?

It may be April Fools Day, but MLAs are back in the Assembly debating 34 amendments (broken into four groups) to the Local Government Bill which reaches its Final Consideration Stage today. (115 amendments were considered over two days in the last round).

NI Assembly logoThe Local Government Bill is the main business in today’s plenary session with a two hour block from 10.30am to 12.30pm and then starting back at 3.30pm and continuing until everything has been debated and voted on. It will be a long day for the Minster of the Environment who also has Question Time at 2pm.

While this time flags are off the agenda and the amendments are mainly tidying up around the edges, there are still some interesting nuances to watch out for.

Watch out for amendment 11 and 29 from Steven Agnew which seek to add in  a “multi-option referendum” method of council decision-making (on top of the existing methods) that would better accommodate issues for which multiple options have been suggested.

Peter Emerson at the de Borda Institute [interview from his book launch on voting methods in 2012] and others have long campaigned for recognition of better voting systems than the too simplistic process of voting yes/no to each option in turn which fails to properly take into account the fact that councillors may be okay with many of the options and may end up needlessly eliminating a potential compromise solution early in the yes/no process despite its potential to garner the consensus of the majority once the more extreme options have been considered and ruled out. It would be a big step forward if MLAs will adopt Amendment 11. However, Steve Agnew will have his work cut out educating MLAs on the floor of the house! Update – no surprise that Amendment 11 failed. However, some of the specious arguments against its inclusion as an option for councils to keep in their decision-making toolbox were quite unbelievable.

At consideration stage, MLAs’ concerns at photographs of councillors being taken out of context (eg, their eyes closed being blinking or sleeping) and disruptive meant that the Alliance amendment to allow photography, audio/video recording/streaming and live reporting of public meetings was rejected. (Unionists should note that this was a rejection of equivalence with councils in England.)

Amendment 14 is a smaller, lightweight compromise amendment by Alliance that will “permit during proceedings the use of social media by councillors, members of the public or journalists, to the extent that its use does not disrupt proceedings”. I suspect Alliance’s amendment will only pass if the DUP’s amendment (15) to it goes ahead. The DUP compromise is to clarify “proceedings” to “proceedings which are open to the public” (so that councillors can’t tweet from confidential sessions). This will be huge progress and turn the tide that has been so far blocked by councils like Castlereagh. Update – the DUP’s amendment to the Alliance’s amendment was successful and the amended motion passed. So tweeting will be allowed from the new councils.

Alliance are also making another attempt to increase transparency. Having got backing for their amendment in the consideration stage for councils to record the audio of their meetings and make it available online for two years, they’re seeking with Amendment 17 to remove the subsection that limited audio recording to full meetings of council and excluded public committee or subcommittee meetings. Prior to the new council structures, Lisburn City Council’s planning committee (note ‘committee’ not ‘full council meeting’) meets once a month. Despite all councillors being members of the committee and attending, this would have been excluded from the recording mandate. Update – Failed to get support of DUP and SF so didn’t pass.

You can follow the plenary online via the NI Assembly website, the Official Report (produced by Hansard, which lags by a couple of hours) or BBC Democracy Live website.

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