Northern Ireland

Speaker Edwin Poots highlights ‘significant imbalance’ in Stormont legislation

Assembly speaker says there’s an expectation that legislature would deal with more executive-sponsored policy rather than members’ bills

Stormont Speaker Edwin Poots has voiced concerns about how questions are answered
Stormont Speaker Edwin Poots (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Stormont speaker has described the number of private members’ bills compared to executive-sponsored legislation in the last assembly mandate as a “significant imbalance”.

Edwin Poots made the remarks as he unveiled new arrangements aimed at streamlining the amount of would-be policy proposed by individual MLAs.

Private members’ bills are brought by backbench representatives independent of the executive.

Successful legislation initiated independently between 2017-2022 included Kellie Armstrong’s Integrated Education Bill, Clare Bailey’s Climate Change Bill and Pat Catney’s bill introducing the provision of free period products.

Mr Poots has brought forward the new measures because of his concerns “that the number of members’ bills coming forward does not flood the system in a way that undermines the ability of the assembly and committees to conduct effective scrutiny”.

Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong. Picture by Mark Marlow
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong brough forward the Integrated Education Bill during the last mandate. PICTURE: MARK MARLOW

He said one-third of the bills brought to the floor in the last mandate were private members’ bills.

“That is a significant imbalance from what would be expected in any legislature,” the former agriculture minister said.

The speaker said that since devolution’s restoration in February he had reflected on “lessons from the last mandate” and a review carried out in March 2022 by the Committee on Procedures.

Key points agreed by the assembly then included continued support for members’ bills and the allocation of appropriate resources by the Assembly Commission.

MLAs also agreed that the members’ policy proposals should be “sufficiently narrow and specific in focus” and that the final deadline for their submission should be the end of June of the penultimate session of the mandate.

Mr Poots said the members’ bills development unit (MBDU) would support MLAs but that the provision of resources “cannot be a blank cheque”.

MLAs will be expected to comply with a number of requirements to ensure that legislation is well developed, while executive business would take priority, in recognition of the mandate that the electorate had given to parties.

The speaker has requested that all members’ bills are submitted during an eight-week period beginning next Monday, May 13.

Members have been warned that if their proposals are not “narrow, specific and confined to a scale appropriate” then they are unlikely to be provided with assembly resources.

MLAs must also write to the relevant minister, while executive members will also be reminded of their responsibility to engage with the proposer.

“Developing a member’s bill is a good opportunity to address issues in our community, but it is also a considerable time commitment and a significant responsibility,” Mr Poots said.

“Members are no less accountable than a minister for the law they seek to introduce, therefore, the proposal for a members’ bill should not be brought forward lightly.”