Operations of the Assembly

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 8th March 1999.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 3:15 pm, 8th March 1999

Thank you for that ruling, Mr Initial Presiding Officer.

The first amendment in my name in this group relates to the issue of the quorum, and refers to the loss of a quorum during a debate and the possible adjournment of the Assembly. I leave myself open to advice from the joint Chairmen or any members of the Committee, but as I understand it, a Member could wait for some time to bring a matter that is important at least to him, to the Assembly only to find that it is not of the same importance to others who leave the Member almost alone in the Chamber. The quorum is lost, and Members are not interested in returning to the Chamber. Is the business lost or can the Member have his day when the Assembly resumes?

I suspect that a quorum will not be a problem for the four major parties as each of them is capable of providing a quorum, and can do so when they have an interest in the business. It will be more difficult for smaller parties that could not provide a quorum and could be denied the opportunity to deal with an issue. A similar principle is dealt with in a later amendment to Standing Order 16, which is a delaying motion when a motion is made for the adjournment of a debate. In that case the adjournment is caused not by the loss of a quorum, but through the Question being put. That would be a mechanism that a party or parties could use to avoid a vote during the life of the Assembly.

People who bring a motion or subject to the Assembly have the right to have it decided, irrespective of whether it is decided in their favour. They have a right to a determination, and it is necessary for us to ensure that the Standing Orders clearly provide the right of Members to have a vote and to have the time to make their case. The aim of those two amendments is to ensure that if the House is adjourned for one reason or another, its first business at its next sitting is the business that was adjourned. That might make less likely the use of procedure as a device to curtail debate.

The next amendment deals with public business, and I am again open to advice from the members of the Committee. I assume that we attach some importance to the role of statutory committees. We would consider their reports to be of such significance that they would be included in public business along with stages of Bills and notices of motion. That is a simple, tidying amendment to include statutory committee reports.

Members may consider that the reports from other Committees should also be included. I have not considered that, but the Standing Orders Committee may wish to consider it at a later stage.

The next amendment affects Standing Order 15(4). I suggest simply taking out the last two words, which indicate that one can only withdraw an amendment during debate. An amendment is usually withdrawn at the end of a debate, and my proposed amendment would simply have the effect of allowing a Member to withdraw an amendment before a Division was called.

My amendment to Standing Order 16(2) takes away the right of the Speaker to make proposals. The Speaker simply puts a Question; he does not propose it. I was pleased to hear that you, Sir, when explaining the various amendments, encouraged everyone to support Standing Order 26. I think his exact remarks were "you can only approve of 26 once", and I hope that Members follow his advice. So my amendment to 16(2) would have the effect of replacing "propose" with "put", and that part of the Standing Order would then read "decline to put the Question". There is a similar drafting amendment to be found later on.

The next amendment deals with statements. The Committee spent some time considering the amount of time to be allowed for questions on statements. As it stands, the Speaker must allow questions on a statement for up to one hour if there are Members still wanting to ask questions.

The Speaker must be given some discretion in this matter. My amendments would introduce two changes. The first amendment would have the effect of allowing questions to last for no more than one hour, and the second would allow the Speaker discretion to curtail the amount of time subject to the content of the statement. If it were a statement of substance, the Speaker would determine that it was a matter on which questions should last for as much of an hour as Members needed for the matters to be elucidated. The Speaker might determine that a statement was not a matter of such importance as to warrant the full hour.

At the moment there are proposals for 10 Departments as well as the central Department. Each of the Ministers could decide, over his cornflakes, to make a statement that day, and we could therefore have ten statements being made in any one day. Do Members really want to have ten hours of questions? No is the answer to that. There must be some discretion on the part of the Speaker to deal with that matter in a way that would reflect the wishes of the House and the importance of the statements being made. I expect that the Executive Committee will organise its business so that we do not have ten statements on one day, but if the Assembly is only going to have two sitting days in the one week, we could still have, on a very frequent basis, a number of statements on any one day.

The next amendment relates to Standing Order 18(5). I have decided, in Churchillian fashion, that this is something up with which I shall not put. As the Standing Order ends with a preposition, I am suggesting a change to correct the grammar.

There are only two amendments that I have not touched on. The Standing Orders do not put any requirement upon a Minister to respond to an Adjournment debate. There is a general view in the Assembly that if a Member takes the trouble to bring forward an issue of importance to him, and perhaps to others, the relevant Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive should have an allocated time slot in which to respond. I suggest 10 minutes, but I am not hard and fast on that. That amendment is put forward on the basis that a Minister should have the right to respond to issues concerning his or her departmental responsibilities.

Finally, and very briefly, I will touch on the matter of questions being placed. As the Standing Orders stand, questions will be taken in the order in which they are put down. This practice did not serve us well in another place because Government Ministers ensured that all their Back-Benchers placed questions down immediately, leaving them with a friendly set of questions. Were questions to be decided by ballot, held by the Clerk or the Speaker, that would be fair to every Member.

The following amendments stood on the Order Paper in the name of the First Minister (Designate):

No 1A: In Standing Order 10(2), line 3, leave out "10.30 am to 6.00 pm" and insert "2.00 pm to 8.00 pm".

No 1B:

No 2A:

No 2B: