OWEN Paterson has appealed for the public to respond to the first proposals for serious reform of the Stormont Assembly since the restoration of devolution in 2007.
The secretary of state yesterday published a consultation document on long-standing promises which Mr Paterson has made to ban ‘double jobbing’ and explore the possibility of a Stormont Opposition.
Although the 21-page document made public yesterday does not contain firm proposals, an accompanying statement from Mr Paterson makes clear that he is intent on banning politicians from sitting as both MLAs and MPs.
That would currently affect three senior Ulster MPs who are also MLAs — SDLP leader and South Belfast representative Alasdair McDonnell, DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson in East Antrim and DUP MP and MLA Gregory Campbell in East Londonderry.
The consultation document also asks for the public’s views on banning MLAs from sitting as peers, something which would impact on DUP Peer Lord Morrow, an MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
The consultation says that the Government is “encouraged by recent statements by party leaders in Northern Ireland favouring an end to multiple mandates”.
However, it adds: “Despite this progress, some parties continue to have members who are both MPs and MLAs.”
The document asks for views on the size of the Assembly, which currently has 108 MLAs — vastly more per head of population than the devolved assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh.
However, the document says that before taking a decision to cut the number of MLAs it would have to be determined whether that move would “disproportionately” hit smaller parties.
Some parties would like to see the Assembly’s current four-year term extended to five years to bring it into line with the Scottish and Welsh devolved assemblies which sit for five-year terms and allow the next Assembly and Westminster elections to coincide.
That would mean that MLAs would not have to face voters again until 2016, rather than in 2015.
However, Mr Paterson said that such a move would be “unusual” and that “we would only feel able to put the suggestion to Parliament if there was a clear demonstration of public benefit and widespread support”.
The consultation document takes an even tougher line on the issue.
It says that “there are serious constitutional implications in extending the term of any elected body after it has been elected. It could be clearly construed as anti-democratic.”
The document deals with the issue of Opposition, something which some in the UUP and SDLP want to see made possible if they decide at some point to leave the Executive and present an alternative to voters.
The paper says that the Government believes that power-sharing is essential in Stormont but adds: “It does not necessarily follow, however, that all the present arrangements are essential and incapable of evolving.
“There are obvious flaws in a system where there is no effective alternative government and it is hard to remove the government by voting... The existence of an effective Opposition is likely to enhance, challenge and provide a spur to innovation.”
The paper says that the Government “would be interested to hear of ways in which the emergence of effective Opposition might come about” but that such a decision could only be made with the agreement of the Stormont parties, something which effectively gives Sinn Fein a veto.
Mr Paterson said: “I am keen to hear views on the future size of the Assembly, the length of its terms and how, in line with the commitments I made at the General Election, we should remove double jobbing once and for all.”