Operations of the Assembly

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 8th March 1999.

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Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir UUP 4:00 pm, 8th March 1999

Loth as I am to speak against the wishes of the First Minister (Designate), I am minded to agree with the remarks made by the hon Member for East Belfast and also by my Colleagues from North Down. It may well be that in reviewing these arrangements in the future we may find that there is a better way forward and that there are hours which would suit us better. For the moment I am very much persuaded by the views which have been put forward already with regard to timing.

There is a degree of flexibility in the hours we have agreed. Ministers will have full days at work during the days, two of which will be Committee days, when plenary sessions are not taking place. I assume, and Members may correct me, that Ministers will not sit on Committees. Not only will they not chair Committees, or be Deputy Chairmen, they will not be sitting on them either. Thus Government Ministers’ time will be freed up during that period.

With regard to the timings of plenary sittings, it has been suggested that one of the days might run from 2.00 pm to 8.00 pm. As has been indicated by Members, there is a great deal of pressure on them to attend meetings in their constituencies in the evenings if they are to service their constituents in a proper fashion.

Groups of constituents are not usually available during the day. Some people are able to meet Members during the day, but quite often the most convenient time for a group to meet you in connection with a planning issue or an education or housing matter is in the evening. If we are in the Assembly until 8.00 pm it will be very difficult for Members to attend such meetings, and particularly difficult for those whose constituencies are a long way from Belfast. Members who face a one-and-a-half-hour drive, or in some cases a two-hour drive to the most far-flung parts of the Province, will not reach their constituencies until 9.30 pm or 10.00 pm. It would be almost impossible for them to attend any meetings during the evenings of those days.

A six o’clock close would allow people, including those who live a long way from Stormont, to get home and attend those meetings. The proposal for the times to be 11.30 am to 7.30 pm would afford some opportunity for group meetings, but there is a danger that whenever a group was not in session, and things were only starting at 11.30 am that that would be, to some extent, a waste of the morning. It would be difficult for ordinary Members to get much work done. There is clearly a point in the suggestion that it would enable Ministers to perform their functions, but there is enough flexibility in that.

When the Assembly goes ‘live’, about 90% of its Members will not be Ministers. We have to think of the work to be done by the Back-Benchers, not just the Ministers — and I speak as someone who is likely to remain a Back-Bencher for the foreseeable future. [Laughter]

The hours that have been put forward are sensible; they are, at least, worth trying, although I note the concerns of the First Minister (Designate) who obviously has a lot more parliamentary experience than the majority of us. [Laughter]

Obviously some have not been persuaded by my argument.

I am glad to see that the matter is not being pressed to the vote. As someone who was on the Standing Orders Committee and agreed these hours, I think they represent a sensible and flexible way forward. This is probably true of a number of rules, but if we find, six months down the line, that this system is not working, that it would be better to have more evening meetings, the procedures can be reviewed.

Unlike some of the other Standing Orders, where there would, arguably, be some contention between individual parties, this is something which, I think, is non-political in that sense. If we find that the system is not working for the benefit of constituents and in the best interests of the Assembly, it can be reviewed very easily and adjustments made. But as it is, the proposals contained in the current Standing Orders are adequate and flexible enough, and I am glad that the amendment will not be —