Council reform bill to be sped through last stage


MLAs have agreed to hasten the passage of the bill which will set the powers and responsibilities of the 11 new councils which from next year will provide local government in the Province.

Yesterday the Assembly had the last opportunity to amend the legislation, with 34 amendments debated and voted upon.

In a late night sitting, MLAs finished voting on the Local Government Bill, ending its further consideration stage, just before 10.30pm.

The final vote was on a proposal by the Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, that the bill should be allowed to return to the Assembly floor next Tuesday.

That contravenes the Assembly’s standing orders, which require a gap of at least five working days between the later stages of legislation,

However, Mr Durkan said that it was necessary to ensure that the legislation was in place prior to May’s council elections and MLAs approved the request without a recorded vote.

However, UUP MLA Tom Elliott said that his party was “not that overly content that we have to rush through the final stage in a matter of a few days”, given that the reform of local government has been in the planning for many years.

Among the amendments passed during yesterday’s mammoth sitting were two by Jim Allister which further tighten the restrictions on ‘double-jobbing’ by politicians.

The amendments from the TUV leader mean that councillors — who are already going to be banned from serving as MPs while councillors — will also be prohibited from sitting in the House of Lords or the legislature of any other country. Those proposals won widespread support around the chamber, with even Sinn Fein indicating its support for the proposal.

However, in an unusual development, the DUP appeared to change its position on the issue during the debate.

South Antrim MLA Pam Cameron indicated that although she had “reservations” about the ban on members of the House of Lords serving as councillors, she would not force a vote on the issue.

However, Lord Morrow — who was a serving councillor while also a peer but is no longer a councillor — later made clear that the party would be voting against the amendment, arguing that it was wrong to bracket peers with MPs and members of other legislatures.

There was much less support for an NI21 proposal that public bodies should “support employees seeking election to the extent that it is reasonably practicable”.

NI21’s Basil McCrea argued that such a move could lead to an increased turnout at elections because candidates would have more time to canvass for votes. But the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said that the proposal would create an unfair playing field for candidates and, if extended to private businesses, would create an onerous burden on employers.

The Assembly also debated a UUP amendment to carry out a review after the new councils have been established to determine whether ratepayers in councils which are joining an area with substantially higher rates require government assistance.

He warned that some ratepayers would be “very dramatically hit” when they realised that in some cases there was a 25 per cent difference in rates between councils which are merging.

However, Mr Wilson said that to agree to the amendment would be the “easy way out” by holding out the prospect of Stormont stepping in at a future date.

Rather, the former environment minister argued, councils should be forced to make cuts to become more efficient and reduce rates bills.

The Assembly also passed an Alliance amendment which will allow members of the public, councillors or journalists to use social media during council meetings as long it does not disrupt proceedings.

Alliance MLA Anna Lo said: “This amendment reflects the changes in how people engage with their politicians.

“It is also important for journalists to be allowed to use social media as a means of reporting council meetings.

“I am very pleased to have proposed this amendment that will further improve the freedom of the press at the new councils. This amendment will increase the openness and transparency of council business.”