Operations of the Assembly

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 8th March 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP 4:15 pm, 8th March 1999

I want to deal first with amendment No 27. This is a sensible amendment, in keeping with the thoughts of the members of the Standing Orders Committee. It was the Committee’s view that if Adjournment debates were to be worthwhile, a response from a Minister was essential.

One of the difficulties we currently have is that while we have provision for an Adjournment debate, it is very much a case of speaking into the ether. No one takes any notice of what the Member is saying, because there is nobody of any authority to answer the points being made, although as Mr Wells pointed out earlier the relevant local newspaper will, no doubt, get a copy of his speech within a very short time. It is sensible, and it certainly accords with the view of the Standing Orders Committee that a Ministerial response should be required at the end of the Adjournment debate. I do not know why the Standing Orders did not reflect that.

This is a very sensible amendment, and it should not be left to a Minister’s discretion to decide if he wishes to reply to such a debate — the relevant Minister should be required to do so. I also want to deal with amendments 31 and 32, which relate to ministerial statements, as raised by Mr P Robinson, about the time that could be used up if a large number of Ministerial statements were to be put forward for the same sitting.

This was also the subject of debate in the Standing Orders Committee. Indeed, one of the initial drafts suggested that a Ministerial statement would be followed by a debate, but it was, quite rightly, thought that would be improper because many Members would only have received notice of the statement when the Minister stood up or a short time before that. The Committee debated the question of how much time should be devoted to follow-up from the ministerial statement.

In the case of some statements, you would certainly want to use up a full hour, but for others you might not wish to do so. It may be that, out of courtesy, the Minister will wish to draw something to Members’ attention, but it would not be sensible to use up a full hour’s business. The Member should be given discretion, and it should be made clear that he has no more than one hour. As it stands at the moment, it is normally one hour.

In relation to amendment 34, we have provision dealing with the adjournment of the Assembly in the Standing Orders, and it is clear under draft Standing Order 10 that an adjournment of the Assembly shall mean an adjournment until the next sitting day unless the Assembly, on a motion made by a Member of the Executive, after notice, has ordered an adjournment to some other definite date.

The point we are dealing with is to do with the adjournment of a debate. It would be wrong and an infringement of Members’ rights if that debate could be adjourned and adjourned for some time. We have built-in provisions which deal with the adjournment of the Assembly. Clearly, if it is adjourned then it will resume at the point at which it left off when it next sits. But if a motion has been tabled, and there is a debate on it, the Standing Orders should make it clear that that simply cannot be done away with by some tactic.

Regarding the amendment standing in the name of the First Minister (Designate) — and I welcome the fact, like the Member who spoke earlier that these are not going to be pressed to a vote — the Standing Orders Committee considered this issue a number of times. When it first came up, most parties agreed that we should at least aim for this sort of timescale, starting in the morning and ending early in the evening. It was brought to the attention of the Standing Orders Committee that the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party wanted to have the sort of hours that have been shown in these amendments in the name of the First Minister (Designate). There was no support for that from any quarter in the Standing Orders Committee.

I am somewhat surprised that they even appear on the Order Paper. I have some sympathy with some of the initial arguments advanced by the First Minister (Designate) with regard to how we manage our business and how the work might progress. If we see that there is a need to change because of the requirements of the Assembly then certainly the matter can be placed before the Committee on Procedures which will continue to consider and review the procedures and Standing Orders.

The First Minister (Designate) was on altogether more dicey ground when he started into the whole question of family time. He seemed to be suggesting that after 6.30 pm Members go off to socialise or advocating that we spend more time at home in the mornings and afternoons, which was either an argument for people not going out to work at all or an argument for keeping your kids off school. His arguments did not seem to stack up. We should, in the interests of this House and the management of the work of this House, keep that subject matter under review.

We should try, if at all possible, to make the suggested hours work. It is in the interests of most Members with families to try to stick to them. Mr Wilson’s points in relation to the workload of Members was a case in point. Bearing in mind these points, most of the amendments that are going to be moved on the Floor are ones that many of us who are members of the Standing Orders Committee would have no difficulty with.