Is Stormont’s committee system delivering sufficient punch?

All and any organizations will in the end be run by those who stay awake in committee.

– Worstall’s Law

You don’t often hear people accusing elected officials of working ‘too hard’. Normally, the opposite is alleged, that they are lazy jobsworths that only show up when compelled by whips or to vote on their own pay. The image of an empty chamber on the living wage vote at Westminster, compared with a packed chamber on MP’s pay (since shown to be misleading) is a fairly accurate representation of what an ‘average voter’ thinks of the typical work ethic of an MP, MLA or Councillor.

So it may run counter to that narrative when I suggest that much of the issue actually stems from over-commitment. Most MLAs at least, have extreme demands on their time, and I would argue that this is the reason that much of the scrutiny at Stormont is seen as haphazard or lacklustre.

The main concern I’d like to outline are committees. It has been postulated that the “real” work of the Assembly is done on committees, and that away from the pageantry of the plenary or the press release members from all parties tend to work better.

Wilford and Wilson (2001) noted that committee meetings are ‘generally of a cordial nature’ (certain comments regarding thuggery notwithstanding). Committee inquiries tend to produce useful recommendations, and the committee stages of bills are often the most through in terms of legislative scrutiny.

However, Stormont suffers simply due to the fact that committees are too crowded, too many and meet too rarely. Due to the ‘special’ nature of the assembly, MLAs do not have to have an interest in particular committees nor do they have to fight for a place. Even non-executive parties are by parliamentary tradition, offered a place on a committee.

As a result of having eleven members per committee, with 17 committees it means that there are 180 committee places with only 94 members eligible to take them (taking out the Speaker and Executive Ministers). Most MLAs therefore sit on two committees, but some unlucky members sit on three and some, such as unlucky MLA Sydney Anderson, currently sit on four.

Incredibly Mr Paul Givan MLA, who is not only listed as a member of seven committees, and (at time of writing) chair of justice and the concurrent committee of health and justice.

Compare this to Committees in Westminster or the Scottish Parliament, where MPs and MSPs have to compete for a place. In those parliaments, while committees are far from perfect, they are at last composed of MPs or MSPs who have convinced someone (even if it is just their own party leadership) of their worth to be scrutinising a particular area. In Stormont, it is a matter of D’Hondt mathematics.

The fact of the matter is it is unreasonable to expect MLAs to deliver high quality of work while sitting on so many committees, particularly when they may have no prior experience in those matters. It might be overwhelming to have to dive directly into the Health or Justice committee for example, if your background was as businessman or community organiser. Equally, as a former commercial barrister your background may be of little utility on a committee for Education.

That is not to say MLAs don’t give a decent attempt at it. Committee meetings are aired live, and you can visit most in person (if you manage to find them behind the doors inexplicably marked “staff only” at Stormont) to see this first hand. Nonetheless no matter how valiant an effort one might make the current system is set up to fail. If we ever want to set about reducing the assembly’s size, we would do well to pay attention to the manner in which committees are currently organised.

Do we really need eleven members per committee? Do we really need a committee shadowing every department (The Oireachtas, for example has committees covering several government departments each)? Should MLAs all have a guaranteed spot on a committee?

Regardless of your opinion, I’d suggest everyone with an interest in this visit a public meeting of a committee. It is often enlightening, and sometimes even a little encouraging (as long as you don’t attend OFMDFM committee meetings…)

Formateur is a close observer of Stormont politics.. 

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