Opposition: what does it mean?12 May 2016 - by Connor Daly
With the UUP announcing that they are set to form a formal opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly, we take a look at what the practicalities are for them as set out in the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016.
Purpose of the Act
As stated by the legislation, the purpose of the Act is “provide for the formation of an Assembly Opposition; to provide for the passing of an Assembly and Executive Transfer of Responsibilities Motion; and to reform the Assembly and the Executive.”
Put simply, the Act seeks to:
1) Provide for the formation of an Assembly Opposition to scrutinise the work of the Executive, Ministers and departments and hold them to account;
2) Confer the Opposition certain rights and benefits within the Assembly;
3) Promote constitutional change to facilitate the development and enhancement of the role of the Opposition;
4) Reform the Executive by enhancing collective decision-making.
Who can form the official Opposition in the Assembly?
The Opposition can be formed by one or more qualifying parties in the Assembly. A qualifying party, essentially, is a party which has chosen not to hold a Ministerial office despite being entitled to do so under Assembly rules. A qualifying party may also be a party whose members comprise 8 per cent or more of the total number of seats in the Assembly (108), and does not contain a member who is a Minister.
When might the Opposition be formed?
Once a Programme for Government is agreed, the Executive may be formed. The formation of an Opposition, then, follows the formation of the Executive. It can be formed when a qualifying party leaves the Executive or by one or more qualifying parties before 30 June 2016.
If the Executive collapses, so too does the Opposition
If the Executive falls, and all Ministers cease to hold office, then there is nothing to oppose. As a result, the Opposition is also dissolved at this time. If the Executive is re-formed then the Opposition can be re-formed.
Who can lead the Opposition?
If one party chooses to form the Opposition then that party may nominate a Leader of the Non-Executive Party.
Where the Opposition is formed by two or more qualifying parties, then the nominating officer of the largest party must nominate a person to be the Leader of the Largest Non-Executive Party. The nominating office of the second largest party in this Opposition must nominate a person to be the Leader of the Second-Largest Non-Executive Party.
Stand orders in the Assembly may provide for alternative names for the offices in leadership of the Opposition.
Topical Assembly questions from the Leadership of the Opposition
Standing orders in the Assembly must ensure that the first and second questions put to the First and deputy First Minister during topical questions come from the leadership of the Opposition.
What speaking rights will the Opposition have in the Assembly?
Standing orders must make provision that speaking rights in the Assembly are allocated on the basis of party strength.
The Opposition will have “enhanced speaking rights”
The Opposition is entitled to “enhanced speaking rights”. This more speaking rights in the Assembly than a member of the Opposition would otherwise be entitled to simply on the basis of numerical party size or share of seats in the Assembly.
This includes a minimum of 10 days per year set aside for Opposition business in the Assembly.
The Opposition has the right to chair the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee
The Opposition is given the right to chair any Assembly committee established to consider accounts and reports on accounts laid before the Assembly.
The chairperson of the committee is to be nominated by the Leader of the Non-Executive Party of Leader of the largest Non-Executive Party.
The deputy chairperson of the committee is to be nominated by the Deputy Leader of the Non-Executive Party or Leader of the Second-Largest Non-Executive Party.
The Opposition is entitled to representation on the Assembly’s Business Committee
The Opposition is entitled to be represented on the Assembly’s Business Committee, the group which considers the business to go forward to the floor of the Assembly.
What financial assistance exists for Opposition parties?
As is standard, all political parties represented in the Assembly are entitled to payments under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000.
With this new legislation, if there is an Assembly Opposition (within the meaning of this Act) the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000 shall provide for additional payments to be made to political parties in the Opposition.
The legislation in full can be found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/nia/2016/10