I read with interest Danny Kennedy’s opinion piece in the News Letter, “Time to empower Stormont”, where he argues that Northern Ireland Assembly committees could better spend their time scrutinising legislation and bringing forward their owns bills for new or amended laws.
I don’t know if there is anything currently prohibiting an Assembly Committee from presenting a bill to the Assembly floor, but it’s always been possible for individual MLAs to present a Private Member’s Bill (PMB).
During my employment as Policy Officer for the Alliance Policy, I was grateful for the financial assistance provided by the Northern Ireland Assembly to facilitate this (PMBs aren’t cheap!). While some MLAs had some dubious PMBs drafted, I worked hard on one for Marine Wildlife Protection, for David Ford MLA. Cruelly, on 14 October 2002, the Assembly was suspended just days (hours!) before this bill was due to presented to the Assembly.
Some parties may discourage their backbenchers from pursuing PMBs, to prevent planned bills from their own party’s Executive ministers. Here, Private Members’ Motions are easily tolerated by party masters because of their non-binding and impotent nature.
But I argue that Private Member’s Bills are there for the courageous. Indeed, PMBs (or Committee Bills) could liven up the otherwise lathargic legislative programme witnessed so far.