34 bills in four and a half years; Example of a “Do Nothing” Executive?

It is now pretty much seen as very likely that our government will fall at some point in the next few months. In this fit of pessimism I thought I would take a look back at the record of this Assembly since it was elected back in May 2011.

I must confess the Irish News political correspondent, John Manley back in March 2013 did take a look at this and found that the Assembly had passed just 11 bills in nearly two years. To put this in context, the Scottish Parliament passes more than that in just one year.

Using the good old Assembly website, I was able to add up all of the pieces of legislation passed by our MLAs and to date they have passed 37 pieces of legislation. When you drill down, you actually find that the bulk of these bills are mostly housekeeping pieces of legislation like the Budget Bill. Probably the most substantive bill of the lot is the 2014 Local Government Bill. What’s even more remarkable that even though our MLA’s have a decent number of powers to bring in private members bills just 3 of the 37 bills passed have been “Non-Executive bills” (most famous one was Civil Service (Special Advisors) Bill)

In comparison, the Scottish Parliament even with the Independence Referendum as a huge focus, has passed 64 bills during the same period. The Welsh Assembly (with less powers in fairness) passed 21 pieces of legislation. 

Another polarized legislature would be the United States Congress, where the most recent 113th session (regarded as more un-productive than the famous “Do nothing” Congress from 1946-48) passed a total of 251 laws. 

No shortage of issues facing us from unemployment, health care, poverty, investment and the environment. Does our Executive lack the will to act or the imagination to come up with solutions? Perhaps this is all a bit harsh, we do have a divided government, but one consequence has been a possible “do nothing” Executive.

UPDATE-During the 2007-2011 Assembly term the house passed 69 pieces of legislation. 64 of which were Executive bills. That means the number of Executive bills has halved from the previous session.

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  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s obvious why a lot of these bills don’t get passed, surely a more fairer metric would be how many pieces of legislation were proposed?

  • chrisjones2

    a combination of the Dead Hand of the Executive and collective intellectual capability?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I agree with Kevin Breslin’s point below.

    It is one thing to talk about the inaction of the Executive, which could (charitably) be blamed upon the difficulty in agreeing Executive bills to pass through it.

    However this is to let a lot of people off the hook. There is nothing to stop individual private member’s bills from being put through the assembly by MLAs acting alone. Jim Allister has shown that this can be done even in the teeth of fierce opposition; he got one bill through and has another in the pipeline. Lord Morrow’s trafficking bill went through as a private member’s bill, and John McCallister’s proposed bill on reforming the government is also a PMB.

    Jim Allister manages, on his standard MLA expenses and salary (with no extras for press officers or party managers) to produce two bills in this session. Yet parties with significantly greater resources to bring to bear accomplish nothing. I don’t think there has been a single Sinn Féin private member’s bill at any point in the assembly’s lifetime. I’m struggling to think of a UUP or SDLP one. Alliance brought in one to deal with hare coursing ..

    Compare with Basil McCrea, who, as his own boss, has a free reign to act as he pleases; yet has never introduced a bill. Unlike his former deputy leader counterpart, he seems to think it more appropriate to give a running commentary on local politics at the Assembly on Periscope rather than using his funding allocation to propose legislation that would actually make a difference to people’s lives. I could say the same about Clare Sugden, although she found herself in the job rather suddenly and unlike others does not have an assembly term under her belt.

    I find it staggering that among 108 MLAs barely a single one can think of any aspect of the law that could be debated and changed. Right off the top of my head, the Assembly could be acting to improve rights for tenants of rented property; reforming our licensing laws; or reforming countryside legislation to make it easier for local authorities and the police to deal with anti-social behaviour problems.

    It’s easier to count out the ones who do not constitute a lazy, good for nothing bunch.

  • Heather Richardson

    David, it would be interesting if you could categorise the bills that were passed according to their ‘real world’ importance: were there any that dealt with pressing issues like employment, education or health? I suppose the Local Government Bill created work for designers and printers, what with all those lovely brochures explaining the new set up to the ratepayers. (By the way, I don’t begrudge designers and printers getting a bit of extra work!)

  • David McCann

    I mentioned the three non-Executive bills. Main reason is like an parliament, the govt control the agenda and will have responsibility for most legislation.

    Will be interesting to see from tomorrow what the UUP propose to do in opposition in this regard.

  • David McCann

    I was going to do that, but importance is in the eye of the beholder. For example, to me living in a city a bill dealing with farming issues isn’t going to be hugely important, but for a reader outside a city it could mean the world.

    From what I can see most of the bills are housekeeping, i.e ensuring departments are funded and things like reducing APD on long haul flights (In our case only impacts one route)

    You can view the bills here, there isn’t that many http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/legislation/primary-legislation-current-bills/2011-2015-mandate-acts/

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Heather –

    The full list is here : link.

    I would not talk about “importance”, as a lot of the routine bills are important. The budget bills, for example, are very important, perhaps more important than anything else, as they authorise the Executive to spend money to run departments – without these the government would not function.

    The issue at hand is that the assembly and Executive are doing the bare minimum required to run the government. Few are lifting a finger to do any more than is necessary. You would think, to look at the bills the assembly has passed so far, that our existing legal and governmental system was perfect and was in no need of change.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    but that isn’t really a reason David. Jim Allister isn’t the government. The Executive didn’t want him to put his bill forward but it was clearly unable to prevent it.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The thing is though 3 of the passed bills are non-Executive … Jim’s Bill, Maurice’s Bill and something else which escapes me now.

  • Darren Litter

    In comparison, the Scottish Parliament even with the Independence Referendum as a huge focus, has passed 64 bills during the same period. The Welsh Assembly (with less powers in fairness) passed 21 pieces of legislation.

    The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are devolved bodies granted, but the Northern Irish Assembly, structurally and in terms of attitude, is really an anomaly as far as British Isle politics – so the comparison ends there. Couple the entrenched constitutional positions stemming from the Troubles (certainly as far as Stormont is concerned) with consociationalism and naturally you are going to have a significantly less efficient legislature. It’s only logical.

    It’s less a case of do nothing, and more a case of being inhibited from doing very much.

  • Brian Walker

    David, I don’t think the Assembly should be judged solely on the number of Bills passed – arguably Westminster pass far too many – but on their quality and what we want them to do.What would be your own legislative programme?

  • David McCann

    I agree, but I am just making the point that a good chunk of the bills passed of that 37 are either house keeping (keep the lights on type stuff) or some minor issues.

    When it’s in sesson, I go to Stormont every week to get the briefing on legislation coming up and being considered. Over the past few months it has been getting thinner and thinner and motions are typically used to keep things ticking over.

    I don’t think the route to salvation leads to a rush of bills, but as Catcher points out our system is more friendly to Private Members Bills and unlike the Trimble/Mallon Executive, we have two much more dominant parties who can make things happen more quickly.

    I am not just having pop, but since today is the last day of our 5 party executive, I just thought i’d highlight something that I have since December 2014 seen get progressively worse.

  • Catcher in the Rye


    Please explain what is inhibiting any of the 108 MLAs from putting forward private member’s bills.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Sorry what do you mean the Executive didn’t want him to put his bill forward? … 5 DUP ministers, 2 Alliance ministers and 1 UUP minister all backed it!

    Clear Executive majority with 8/13

  • Darren Litter

    Why are you asking me to explain something that I haven’t said? This is about the success of legislation, not its introduction.

  • Catcher in the Rye


    Once the bill hit the floor of the assembly the individual members of the executive politically had to back it. That isn’t the same as the Executive wanting it to pass.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Looking at the number of bills is a good rough metric as to how MLAs are performing at their job.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    You said “and more a case of being inhibited from doing very much”

    What is inhibiting MLAs from doing much ?

    And how can we judge the success of legislation when MLAs and the Executive seldom ever introduce any ?

  • Ian James Parsley

    As Brian notes, it’s a matter of quality not quantity. The proliferation of Bills in Scotland is, I’m afraid, to do with a rather authoritarian government which also enjoys change for change’s sake. By no means have all of them worked!

    There is also an issue that individual Ministers can change policies without necessarily changing laws. There’s been relatively little of that too, mind!

  • David

    “No shortage of issues facing us from unemployment, health care, poverty, investment and the environment. Does our Executive lack the will to act or the imagination to come up with solutions?”

    Which of those issues require new legislation?

    As several commenters have suggested, you’re using the wrong metric.

    That said, when the NI Legislative Assembly Speaker isn’t concerned about challenges to his authority, what hope is there for the Legislative Assembly?

  • Steve Larson

    There needs to be more devolution to Stormont. A more comprehensive reach will lead to more bills.

  • David McCann

    Hi Pete,

    First, I think your last point is brilliant and something I hadn’t even considered.

    I am not looking for a rush of bills, it was when I actually looked at the quality of what was being passed that it got me motivated to write something.

    Like I said to Brian, those Monday briefings are just getting thinner and thinner, whilst the number of motions in the chamber seems to be rising. Plus as Catcher has pointed out we have a decent system for private members bills, which just begs the question of why we are not seeing more policy-making on the hill?

    The Detail has an article out today in similar spirit which you might want to take a look at http://www.thedetail.tv/articles/violence-is-only-one-part-of-the-crisis-facing-the-peace-process

  • NotNowJohnny

    I think there may be some confusion here between the Assembly and the Executive. The article begins by referring to the record of the Assembly and finishes by referring to a ‘do nothing’ Executive. It is important to recognise the seperate roles and responsibilities of the Assembly and the Executive and indeed between the Executive Committee and individual Executive Ministers. It is also important to recognise the difference between powers and responsibilities. The Assembly has the power to pass legislation. Executive authority for individual departmental responsibilities lies with individual Executive Ministers. It is therefore Executive Ministers who have responsibility for policy on health, transport, the environment, the economy etc and consequently who have the power to change policy through the introduction of, or amendment to, legislation (subject of course to the approval of the Assembly).

    Counting the number of of bills seems to me to be a pretty meaningless measure for determining the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the assembly. (The Assembly’s duties are much broader than bringing forward bills – if indeed it has a duty to bring forward bills). It may be more meaningful as a measure for determine the effectiveness of individual Executive Ministers (or perhaps individual parties) given that politicians/political parties (usually) go into government to effect change. Perhaps what might be more interesting is to identify the number and nature of the (non housekeeping) bills brought forward by each Executive Minister / Political Party. It may be that that the tragedy of the Assembly is the dearth of effective policy making by certain political parties in government having been tasked with that responsibility by the electorate.

  • Kevin Breslin

    One it hit the floor it was attacked by legal minds on all quarters for being an unviable law because the ECHR would have blocked Jim’s bill in its origional format, for things like having no appeal mechanism and denials of pension rights and other due money.