Operations of the Assembly

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:45 pm on 8th March 1999.

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Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble First Minister of Northern Ireland, Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party 3:45 pm, 8th March 1999

While we have not completely settled our mind, and consultations are continuing, we are favourably disposed to most of the amendments that Mr Peter Robinson has dealt with.

By way of contrast, the amendments in my name were put down to enable me to make some points about the times at which we should be sitting. I do not intend to press any of them to a Division. They were tabled in the spirit, as is often the case on these occasions, of running a flag up the pole to see who salutes it. Very few people saluted these four amendments and that was the case even among my friends around me.

I do, however, have an important couple of points to make which I wish to press on Members. With regard to the sitting times in the House, I believe that a serious mistake is being made, and I expect that in a few months’ time we will have to come back to this issue and look at it again.

It may be thought superficially attractive to have sitting hours that correspond to working hours, but that does not work. It is not practical. Members need to consider that if the Chamber is sitting from 10.30 am to 6.00 pm and that if there is serious business in the Chamber between those times, the likelihood is that they will be engaged for some or most of that time in the Chamber. If they are so engaged, when are they going to do their work? And there is work to be done outside the Chamber.

That work involves constituency work, research, reading and thinking. Some of it can be done in the evenings, but how much? Research work and preparation requires access to materials and that material may not always be available in the evening at home. It may be that Members will need time for that other than in the evening.

Then there are those who will have other responsibilities, whether as Committee chairman, vice-chairman or Ministers — when are they going to work if the Chamber is sitting from 10.30 am to 6.00 pm? They cannot administer their offices during the evening unless Civil Service hours are changed radically, and that might involve a fair amount of overtime.

So there is a serious point here because while the affairs of the Chamber are extremely important, they are only a part of the work that a Member has to do. It is for this reason that almost all deliberative and legislative bodies sit in the afternoon and evening, not the morning. Mornings are required for work, and if Members do not have the mornings for work, there is a problem.

Even the larger parties have problems, particularly in relation to group meetings: if they had to begin before 10.30 am, that would obviously limit the numbers able to attend. This is not a problem for small parties; nor is it a problem for those parties that run on the Führerprinzip, where everybody does what the Leader says, irrespective of circumstances. But not all parties are like that. There is a serious point there too.

There is a not-so-serious point but, equally, it is not an insubstantial one. One of the consequences of an Assembly, legislative body or parliament’s sitting in the evening is the growth of a degree of esprit de corps among its members that would not happen were the sittings to be limited to daytime.

I know the objection that will be made to the argument I am putting forward, and I have been told that it was made in the Standing Orders Committee. Members have said that they want family-friendly sitting hours. That argument is also wrong. It is the mornings and afternoons that are needed for those with young children, not the evenings. When Members use the expression "family friendly" they really mean that they want their evenings free for their own social lives, not for families and children. People who enter public life must realise that they do so at the sacrifice of their social life.