Assembly: Adjournment Debates

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 5th October 1998.

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Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir UUP 4:45 pm, 5th October 1998

On a point of order, which may guide us for future events.

I understand that for a balloted Adjournment debate the ballot is conducted on a Friday. It would be helpful for Members to know that they had been unsuccessful in the ballot. Some Members arrived here not knowing whether they would be called in the Adjournment debate although they had prepared for it. It would also be useful if the names and subjects that are to be debated in the Adjournment debate were known by Friday lunchtime by means of an amended Order Paper or a circulated list of the speakers and subjects that are to be raised on the Adjournment.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer 5:00 pm, 5th October 1998

This matter is resolved on a Thursday evening. There were some 24 applications for this first occasion, and I expect a much larger number in future. The amount of time required to contact everyone on a Friday in order to let them know the outcome will be considerable and if we were to continue in this manner, we would require some additional staff. The information that should have been given was that those Members who were to be called would be contacted on Friday, and if they were not, it was because they would not be there. We could, of course, adopt the mechanism that Mr Weir suggests, but that would have practical implications in terms of contacting everyone, particularly in view of the fact that not everyone is able to be contacted.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir UUP

I am not suggesting that we go to great expense or hire additional staff, but if the outcome is known on a Thursday evening, a letter could be sent out to members by first-class post on Friday morning, and they would receive it on Saturday morning. That would not cause too much trouble. Alternatively, on Thursday evening could a circular be put in the pigeon-holes of those who have been selected? That would resolve the situation without inordinate expense.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

It is probably unwise for us to use our time here to discuss administrative matters, save to say that the practicalities of the apparently simple processes have proved to be quite difficult — Members have not been here, they have not been available to collect papers from their pigeon-holes and sometimes they have even been out of the country. However, I take the point; we will look into it. As I said earlier, if there is something unsatisfactory, I would like to hear about it, and I will take it seriously. Please bear with us as we try to be responsive.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

A number of Members are disappointed that they were not drawn in today’s ballot, and I accept that not everybody could have been drawn out. Can you confirm, Mr Initial Presiding Officer, that those who have been drawn out will not be able to enter the next ballot?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

Yes. Whatever goes into the ballot is destroyed at the end of that ballot. If a Member wishes to re-enter a matter, then he needs to do so. He must contact us, give us the signed slip of paper, and it will then be re-entered.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

I would like further clarification. I am referring to those who will speak today. Can they be included in the next ballot?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

They can. The usual channels have indicated to me that they hope that those who have had less chance to speak might be more fortunate in the ballot. This is a very difficult matter to deal with, as I am sure Members will understand.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

One thing worries me. Is this ballot run the way the Speaker of the House of Commons runs hers? Or is it a pure ballot — if there is such a thing as a pure ballot?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I was somewhat surprised at your terminology of a pure ballot. I have spent some time with the Speaker of the House of Commons discussing some of these matters and have been educated significantly by her in them, but I would not for a moment suggest that there was anything impure about the way she conducts matters in the House of Commons.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

The mockery of a ballot is not something which appeals to me or to my party. Surely there is a better way of ensuring a degree of parity in the opportunities for the Members from the various parties to speak. One accepts immediately that the larger parties should have more opportunity — there is no quarrel with that — but a system which allows, as in this case, one Member from the Ulster Unionist Party, which is the largest party, two from the Social Democratic and Labour Party, two from the Democratic Unionist Party, one from the Alliance Party and none from the other parties to speak is not something that we should recommend.

This is supposed to be an Assembly where reason, equality and fairness prevail, and that certainly cannot be achieved by a common lottery. There are better methods. We are not tied to the House of Commons in this; it may have established a ballot for all sorts of other reasons. In any case, this Assembly is not operating on the same basis as the House of Commons, with a Government and a major opposition party. This is supposed to be a consensual Assembly, and that ought to be reflected by something other than a lottery.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

It is true that Members are from parties of differing sizes, but the size of the parties bears no relation to the number of applications to speak. There are some parties with many Members and almost no applications, and other parties with fewer Members but with a considerable interest in the matter. That is one of the reasons for the apparent skew that you describe, and that has to be taken into account.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

My understanding was that those who were selected today would not be selected the next time. Secondly, Sinn Fein is not happy with the allocation today or with the method that has been used. As Mr McCartney has said, we must approach this in a way that will ensure representation from all the parties.

Some parties may have made a number of applications judging that in a ballot they would have a better chance of getting some out, but we put forward two on the basis that we had two Members who wanted to speak. We might have been better putting in 20 applications — that would have increased our chances of getting two out, but that would just tarnish the system. We must look again at this method of balloting and find some means of getting representation from across the Chamber.

Photo of Mr Maurice Morrow Mr Maurice Morrow DUP

Mr McCartney may or may not be aware that he will not be included in the ballot by virtue of the fact that he is the Leader of a party. It will not be a ballot in the true sense of the word, because not every Member will have a chance to take part.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

What Mr Morrow says has no relevance whatsoever to the arguments that I made. In my party we have other Members, such as Mr Hutchinson, whom we heard today, who are quite capable of delivering a relevant and powerful speech. It has nothing to do with whether my name is in the ballot or not.

It is to do with each party having proper representation and a proper pro rata opportunity. After all, if we have imported the d’Hondt system to ensure equality in the selection of Ministers and in the selection of Chairmen and Vice-Chairmen, surely we can devise a better system than a lottery for allowing Members, other than party Leaders, to represent the views of their party.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

Members must understand that if we do start to operate this on the entirely proportionate basis that is being referred to, Members from quite a number of the parties will not get an opportunity to speak at all in some of the debates. In the debate this afternoon the parties are not being represented on the basis of their size. All parties will get a chance to speak and then subsequently we will try to parcel out the time on a proportionate basis. That means that the smaller parties will get an opportunity to speak at a much earlier stage and more regularly than would otherwise be the case.

I am entirely the servant of the Assembly and will accept whatever system the House chooses. However, it is important to understand that if one chooses another system it may not have precisely the outcome one wants. Let us not forget that this is the very first day we have used this mechanism, which your representatives decided to use on this occasion, and these things usually work out more reasonably when taken over a period of a few months. Taken over only one day, clearly there will be a skew. If we change it so that in all debates an entirely proportionate basis is used, then it will be rather difficult for me — and part of my responsibility is to try to make sure that smaller parties, independents and dissidents get a chance to speak — to ensure that this happens.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP

I am tempted to say that since everything else about this process has been well and truly rigged, it would not be too hard to rig the ballot to suit particular outcomes. The underlying principle should be that everybody gets his fair share and his fair say.

With regard to this fundamental issue about the rights of speakers and how often parties should be represented in Adjournment debates, and also with regard to the point that Mr Weir made about communication with Members, those are matters which should be considered by the Standing Orders Committee. It can look at all these issues and try to come up with a system that is fair to everybody and has a degree of consensus across the parties. This is the best way of handling this issue rather than entering into a long involved debate which will end with the result that a lot of people who have asked to speak will not get to speak. I have no vested interest in this.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I appeal to Members to take heed of what Mr Dodds has said. I do feel it is incumbent upon us to ensure that those who are expecting to speak, get a chance to speak, even if that means going a shade over six o’clock.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

This suggestion from the Chair that if you have a lottery it may in some way balance out over time is akin to the argument that if a monkey were let loose on a typewriter and given infinity it would produce all the plays of Shakespeare. The idea that we should be committed to a lottery is something which I find fundamentally offensive. Nor need the rules in relation to Adjournment debates be those that govern the manner in which we deal with general debates, where the practice of giving one Member from each of the parties an opportunity to speak before introducing any proportional methods for the rest of the speakers is working and is generally accepted to be fine. I still make the point that we ought as rational beings to be able to produce a fairer system than that which is produced by random lottery.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I want to bring this debate to a close. It has had a fair degree of airing. It should not be assumed that the system which we have had up until now whereby all of the parties have a first bit of the cherry before consideration is given to other Members is universally accepted and welcomed. Such an assumption would be unwise.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

Maybe some of us should get out of the Assembly in those circumstances, if we are not going to be heard, Mr Initial Presiding Officer.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

It is not a question of people not being heard. I am simply trying to ensure that everyone is fully informed of the reality, which is that it is not entirely accepted all round.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

Item six on the Order Paper is described as an Adjournment debate. Of course it is not an Adjournment debate as that term is understood in other places. However, we are structuring it in this way, particularly in the absence of Ministers. Twenty-four Members submitted applications to speak and were included in the ballot. Six Members have been selected and will speak for up to ten minutes on a subject of their choice.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [The Initial Presiding Officer]