Standards and Privilege

Part of Assembly Standing Orders – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:00 pm on 9th March 1999.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP 6:00 pm, 9th March 1999

There is an opportunity for consistent language to be put in at a later stage by the legal draftsmen. However, we are not debating a legal document in the sense of a Bill. If Members clearly understand what is meant, they will know whether they are breaching the rule. The term is commonly understood, and I think that it is understood by Members. If the Committee wants to add an interpretative section at some later stage, that would not need to be passed by the Assembly now. An interpretation added to the Standing Orders might be useful.

I spoke about the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the three days’ notice. It is likely that if some substantial issue is raised, Members will not wait three days before giving voice to it in the Assembly. In a ragged situation one Member may play ball and take the matter to the Speaker. The Speaker will consider it for three days before the matter is dealt with by the Assembly, and somebody else may raise the issue here. There is a contradiction in the Standing Order. Clearly, 62(1) requires three days’ notice, but the final sentence of 62(3) talks about

"a matter of privilege is raised of which the Speaker had not received due notice".

If there is a requirement for three days’ notice, he would have received due notice. I am not sure which element of the Standing Order I should be addressing. That is why I have tabbed two amendments, one of which seeks to change the wording to "sufficient notice", which would allow the Speaker to make a judgement. If he has not had sufficient time to consider the matter, he can say so when it is raised in the Assembly. At a later date he can rule as to whether there is a prima facie case.

This is precisely what happens in the House of Commons, and I have some experience of it. I went to the Speaker one morning; and the matter was raised in the House that afternoon. She asked for time to consider it, and three or four days later she responded. That seems perfectly satisfactory. The Member gets the matter off his chest and places it with the Speaker. That results in all the legal advice that is required.

The key element of this set of amendments is the proposal to move away from having a vote in the Assembly to determine whether the matter goes to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The worst possible scenario is where it is alleged that a Member has done something he should not have done. When the matter is brought to the Assembly the Speaker determines that there is a prima facie case, but it can be voted down in the Assembly by a party of sufficient size applying the petition of concern, thus preventing the matter from going forward. That would be a most unsatisfactory situation. It would be better by far for every prima facie case to go to a committee in which each Member can argue his case. That consequentially requires the deletion of sub-paragraph (4) by my amendment No 66.