The Ulster Unionist Party is rightly proud of the role it played in delivering the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and through that we contributed much to the political structures which are in place in Northern Ireland today. However, we were always aware that the mandatory coalition system of government which was set up was temporary, albeit necessary, at such a transitional time in Northern Ireland’s history.
Now is the time to look to reform the governmental structures of the Assembly and we brought this issue to the floor of the Assembly at the earliest opportunity through a Private Members Motion in June.
We believe there should be an official opposition in place by 2015. The Ulster Unionist Party set out in our manifesto that we acknowledge the best form of government is one which is held to account by a formal and recognised Opposition. This gives voters the choice between a sitting government and a credible alternative to that government. It is apparent that when this element of choice is not available the public tends to disconnect from the political process. Consideration should obviously be given to opposition days, agenda setting and speaking rights.
An official opposition would lead to positive changes in 3 specific areas:
- Greater delivery – The decision making and legislative processes are slow within the present system and failure to find consensus on a number of important issues was evident over the last mandate. This would be less of an issue if an opposition were in place.
- Increased flexibility – There would be more flexibility for political parties outside of the current coalition restrictions and also increased flexibility for the public to vote for an alternative with an opposition present.
- Improved scrutiny – An official opposition would hold the government to account in a much more robust manner than is currently achieved.
The Ulster Unionist Party also believe that Northern Ireland is vastly over governed with 3 MEPS, 108 MLA’s and 582 councillors as well as commissioners, Quangos and scores of consultants. The Efficiency Review Panel was set up to examine the efficiency and value for money of all aspects of the Strand One institutions under the St Andrews Agreement, however, no consensus was reached on a way forward. The Assembly Executive and Review Committee have been equally as unsuccessful.
Due to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 the number of MP’s will decrease from 650 to 600. The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland announced in March 2011 that this drive for more equal constituencies across the UK will lead to the loss of two constituencies in Northern Ireland (from 18 to 16). Indeed the Boundary Commission’s proposals are now out for consultation. The knock on effect to this would be a reduction in the number of MLA’s from 108 to 96. Alongside that, given the population of Northern Ireland and the potentially increased role of councils in light of RPA recommendations, it is apparent that we should be considering carefully the reduction of the number of MLA’s.
The Ulster Unionist Party believes that the number of arm’s length bodies is an issue which needs to be addressed promptly. We have far too many of these bodies in Northern Ireland and this creates a number of problems related to inefficiency and lack of accountability. The same problems existed in England and Wales with the Coalition Government moving to cut back the number of Quangos. The Ulster Unionist Party wants to see a restructuring of these bodies and we are committed to reducing them by a third by 2014/15.
Good governance also goes beyond structure and should also relates to process. That is why, under the current system, the Ulster Unionist Party was committed to settling agreement amongst the relevant Parties on a Programme for Government (PfG) before D’hondt was run. It is also our belief that a PfG should be brought alongside the Budget and an Investment Strategy. These are elements of good practice which are fundamental in the creation of an overarching and cross departmental approach to legislative and policy formation.