Committees

Committees

Plenary meetings in the Assembly Chamber have a high public profile. However the Northern Ireland Assembly does most of its work in smaller Committee Rooms.

Committees are groups of 11 MLAs, from different political parties, appointed to specialise in a particular area of government or to carry out specific functions.

The Assembly has four types of committee:

  • Statutory Committees advise, assist and scrutinise Ministers and their Departments.
  • Standing Committees undertake specific roles, mostly concerned with running the Assembly. For example, the Business Committee decides what business the Assembly will deal with in the Chamber.
  • Joint Committees consider matters of interest to more than one committee.
  • Ad Hoc Committees are set up for a limited time to deal with a particular issue.

Committees usually hold meetings in Parliament Buildings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They can also be held in external venues. Meetings take place weekly and last for about two to three hours. They are mostly open to the public.

Despite the range of views represented by the different political parties in a committee, working relationships are usually harmonious and party political differences seldom emerge during meetings. Members of all political parties work constructively in committees to carry out their legislative and scrutiny roles.

Committee decisions are mostly made on the basis of consensus, without the need for a vote. Agreement between its members reinforces the cohesion and power of a committee.

Powers

The powers of committees come from:

  • the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998;
  • Legislation passed by the UK Parliament, the Northern Ireland Act (1998) in particular, that allowed the Agreement to be implemented; and
  • Standing Orders – the procedural rules governing how the Assembly works.

Committees assist the Assembly in its work as a legislature by examining Bills at Committee Stage. They also have the power to submit their own proposals for new laws or changes to existing laws.

Click here to find out more about the work of the different types of committee: Statutory, Standing and Ad Hoc/Joint.

Find out more about the work of Committees at www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/

Statutory

The Assembly uses Statutory Committees to hold the Executive to account. They scrutinise the work of Ministers and Departments, including their proposals for new laws and how they spend their budgets. Statutory Committees can call Ministers and officials to attend meetings. They hold inquiries into issues that they want Ministers to take action on.

Statutory Committees also advise and assist Ministers to develop policy and plans for their Departments.

The Departments Act 2016 reduced the number of governments from 12 to nine, effective following the 2016 election. There are now nine Statutory Committees, one for each Government Department including the Executive Office (EO), formerly the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM). The Executive Office co-ordinates the work of the Executive.

Membership of these Committees reflects party strength in the Assembly. The Chairs and Deputy Chairs are nominated by parties under the d'Hondt process, ensuring that these positions of power are allocated fairly. The roles given to Statutory Committees under the Agreement and Northern Ireland Act (1998) were deliberately extensive. This was because of the lack of formal party opposition structure in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Up until the end of the 2011-16 mandate, all of the main parties had been in the Executive, or Northern Ireland Government. However, following the May 2016 election, arrangements were put in place to allow a party or parties which are entitled to be in the Executive to opt out and form a formal 'Official Opposition'. Parties which choose to do so will have enhanced resources and right to enable them to 'oppose' the governing parties.

Even with a formal opposition, Statutory Committees will continue to have a central role to play in the scrutiny function of the Assembly. They have the powers to:

  • consider and advise Ministers on new policy for their Department’s budget and plans;
  • consider matters brought to their attention by Ministers;
  • consider secondary legislation and take the Committee Stage of Primary Legislation;
  • introduce legislation;
  • hold inquiries into issues of their choosing; and
  • call for persons to give evidence or supply documents (if the person refuses, they may be guilty of an offence and could be fined or imprisoned for up to three months).

Statutory Committees have a wide remit and are potentially powerful. The House of Commons has Standing Committees that consider legislation and Select Committees that investigate the work of Departments. In the Assembly, Statutory Committees carry out both these roles.

Statutory Committees are keen to foster close working relationships with Ministers and their officials to benefit the public. However, they will not compromise on the role they play in calling Ministers to account.

The advisory and consultative role

In addition to their scrutiny role, Statutory Committees also advise and assist Ministers in the development of policy ideas to improve public services. Therefore Ministers must consult committees about changes in policy or plans for new policies. This gives committees an opportunity to shape policy at an early stage. Committees themselves can suggest a new policy or a change in policy, although the Minister is not required to take the Committee's advice.

The Northern Ireland system of government is a special, 'consociational' model of democracy. This is because of our history and political situation. Assembly Committees are an important part of the checks and balances built in to our system of devolution. Assembly Committees implement power-sharing for the different communities by ensuring that each committee has:

  • a Chairperson and a Deputy Chairperson that are appointed under the d’Hondt system;
  • a Chairperson, or a Deputy Chairperson, from a different political party to that of the Minister;
  • membership that reflects the composition of the parties in the Assembly; and
  • members from at least five of the political parties.

Find out more about the work of individual Statutory Committees at www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/

Standing

Standing Committees are permanent committees of the Assembly set up under the rules of the Assembly called Standing Orders. There are currently six Standing Committees, each with a specific role:

  • The Business Committee arranges the business of plenary meetings.
  • The Audit Committee scrutinises the NI Audit Office’s spending plans and accounts (the NI Audit Office supports the Assembly in holding the Executive to account for spending public money).
  • The Committee on Procedures reviews Standing orders and Assembly Procedures.
  • The Standards and Privileges Committee deals with matters relating to the privileges and conduct of members.
  • The Public Accounts Committee scrutinises the use of resources by Departments and government agencies.
  • The Assembly and Executive Review Committee was established under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 to examine matters relating to the functioning of the Assembly and the Executive Committee.

Like Statutory Committees, Standing Committees have the power to send for persons and papers.

Find out more at www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/

Ad Hoc and Joint

Ad Hoc Committees

Ad Hoc Committees are temporary committees the Assembly sets up to consider specific issues such as legislation on reserved or excepted matters. They usually have about two months to carry out their work and report to the Assembly.

Joint Committees

The Assembly can consider matters that concern more than one committee in one of two ways. It can:

  • establish a joint committee with members from more than one committee; or
  • allow two full committees to sit concurrently.

In September 2010, the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment sat concurrently to consider the relationship between small businesses and the local banking sector.

Find out more at www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/

The power to initiate legislation

This power means that a committee could, if it wished, draft a bill and introduce it in the Assembly. This is how committees can directly achieve the changes they want.

This has not happened often. A committee introduced a bill in the first mandate of the Assembly, but it fell due to suspension. In June 2010, the Assembly agreed to adopt recommendations from a report by the Committee on Standards and Privileges to enforce the Assembly’s Code of Conduct and appointment an Assembly Commissioner for Standards. The Committee introduced the Bill, in partnership with the Assembly Commission and the Assembly passed it in March 2011. This legislation ensures independent, objective investigations into complaints against Members. In the 2011-16 mandate, 2 Committee Bills were passed to create the single post of Public Services Ombudsman to deal with all complaints about public services.