Plenary meetings in the Assembly Chamber have a high public profile. However, the detailed work of the Northern Ireland Assembly is done in Committee Rooms.
Committees are groups of MLAs (usually 9) from different political parties, appointed to specialise in a particular area of government or to carry out specific functions. Membership reflects party strength in the Assembly. Most committees have members from at least 5 parties.
Committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly have significant powers and responsibilities. Chairperson roles are positions of power, allocated to parties using the d'Hondt mechanism. Committee Chairs get paid for carrying out their role.
The Assembly has four main 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 and the Procedure Committee considers proposed changes to Assembly procedures and rules.
- 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 Wednesdays and Thursdays. They can also be held at 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 committee members strengthens a committee's power to persuade the Assembly to support its recommendations.
Committees assist the Assembly in its work as a legislature by examining Bills at Committee Stage. Committees also have power to investigate issues, send for persons and papers, and introduce legislation to the Assembly. Also, Ministers must consult Committees about new policies. These powers come from:
- the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998;
- Legislation passed by the UK Parliament, in particular, the Northern Ireland Act (1998), which implemented the Agreement; and
- Standing Orders – the procedural rules governing how the Assembly work
Statutory Committees have been the Assembly's main method of scrutinising the Executive and, although arrangements are now in place for parties to form an official Opposition in the Assembly, an Opposition may not always be established. Even with an Opposition, the cross-party and evidenced based work of statutory committees mean that they will continue to be to be crucial to the Assembly's success in carrying out its scrutiny function.
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 Committee on Standards and Privileges, in partnership with the Assembly Commission introduced a bill to enforce the Assembly’s Code of Conduct and appoint an Assembly Commissioner for Standards. This was passed by the Assembly in March 2011. The aim of the Bill was to ensure independent, objective investigations into complaints against MLAs. In the 2011-16 mandate, 2 Committee Bills were passed, both about creating the single post of Public Services Ombudsman to deal with all complaints about public services.
Find out more about the work of Committees at www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/
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 to put pressure on Ministers to act on their recommendations.
Statutory Committees also advise and assist Ministers to develop policy and plans for their Departments.
There are currently nine Statutory Committees, one to shadow each government department including the Executive Office (EO) which is headed up by the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) and co-ordinates the work of the Executive.
Membership reflects party strength in the Assembly. Chairs and Deputy Chairs are nominated by parties under the d'Hondt process, to ensure 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, due to the lack of formal party opposition in the original structure. Up until the end of the 2011-16 mandate, all of the main parties had been in the Northern Ireland Government (Executive). 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 have enhanced resources and rights to enable them to 'oppose' the governing parties.
Even with a formal opposition, Statutory Committees will continue to play a central role in the scrutiny function of the Assembly. They have 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).
This is a wide remit and Statutory Committees are potentially powerful. The House of Commons has Standing Committees to consider legislation and Select Committees to 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 are careful not to compromise on the role they play in calling Ministers to account.
In the 2017-2022 mandate, statutory committees were extremely busy considering a large amount of legislation, as well as scrutinising government actions in relation to Covid-19 decisions. All committees had to adapt their working arrangements to abide by Covid-19 restrictions. They used Starleaf, a virtual meeting platform, to facilitate virtual attendance at meetings. They held extra meetings to ensure effective scrutiny. A new consultation tool, called Citizenspace, was introduced to make it easier for stakeholders and the public to give their views (evidence) to Committees on bills and inquiry issues.
The issue of effectiveness of committees in carrying out their Executive scrutiny role came to light as a result of the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry Report. Following recommendations in the report, the Chairpersons’ Liaison Group (Chairs of Assembly Committees) considered how committee scrutiny could be strengthened and recommended significantly increasing the resources available to statutory committees.
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 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. It is chaired by the Speaker. Membership comprises the Whips from the 5 main parties and, since 2016, one member represents smaller parties.
- The Audit Committee scrutinises the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s spending plans and accounts. (The Northern Ireland Audit Office supports the Assembly in holding the Executive to account for spending public money).
- The Committee on Procedures reviews the Assembly's Standing Orders (rules) and 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 examines matters relating to the functioning of the Assembly and the Executive Committee (established under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006)
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 set up by the Assembly for a specific purpose. They usually have about two months to carry out their work and report to the Assembly, after which they are dissolved. Examples include the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights (2020) and Ad Hoc Committee on the Covid-19 Response (2020).
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 (together)
Examples include: the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Mental Capacity Bill (2015-16 session) and Concurrent Committee of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (2013) to consider the contamination of beef products by horse DNA; and the Concurrent Committee of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment to consider the agri-food industry.*
*Please note: following the 2016 election, some changes were made to the names and responsibilities of government departments and therefore of the corresponding Assembly committees. The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is now The Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment is now the Committee for the Economy.
Find out more at www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/