Points of Order

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 31st January 2000.

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Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 4:00 pm, 31st January 2000

I shall respond to one or two issues, which arose in points of order.

Mr Kennedy raised a question, and I took it upon me to assume that it was to do with the fact that during Question Time the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety responded in both English and Irish. Whether I made that judgement as a psychiatrist or as a result of the ambience in the Chamber, I will leave to him to decide. Unfortunately he is not in his place, but I will take the issue up.

Mrs Iris Robinson raised some questions in respect of Members’ interests with regard to Mr Benson. I have made some preliminary checks but have more checks to make before I will be able to respond to her.

Dr Paisley had a point of order that I did not permit him to make earlier. I wish to emphasise that I have decided to take points of order at the end of ministerial questions; if we were to take them during Question Time, the time we are allowed under Standing Orders would be cut.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

I understand that, but when Barbara Brown — the English for de Brún — was addressing the House, it seemed to me that she was showing contempt for the House. As you are very well aware, a Member trying to impede the progress of the House by using language and repetition and by acting in a way that wastes time is contempt of the House. Today the Minister took a very long time even to respond, and she seemed to have some difficulty in standing. When she did stand at the Box, she had difficulty finding the relevant file. Then, when she came to read the file in Irish, she seemed to stumble over the pronunciations and hesitate for quite a considerable time — even when she was speaking Irish. On one occasion, when she was speaking in English, she stopped altogether and seemed to be lost for words.

Instead of the Member concerned knowing the answer, there was nothing but confusion. If we are to have another Question Time like the one we have had this afternoon, some of us will not tolerate it. Such behaviour is contempt of the House and does not show that she is carrying out her vow to take forward the business of the House. Our business has definitely been hindered today.

I know, Mr Speaker, that your attitude is that if Members are aware of parliamentary procedure they should be harshly dealt with — and you deal with me harshly. It would be totally unfair for the House to have another performance similar to the one we have had today. It is absolutely intolerable.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

The Member has raised issues which are specific problems that we must address. The language question is such an issue, and if we espouse the means for dealing with it as decided on 1 July 1998 for questions, we clearly have a problem. I accept that, and it is my belief that that is what Mr Danny Kennedy was addressing. In order not to use up any more time I said that I would address the issue, and I will do so.

It is not only here that Members take some time to respond to questions, as the Member will be well aware. It was taken to extremes in the Dáil, and the Ceann Chomhairle had to introduce very strict regulations which require that, if a Minister extends his answer beyond a certain length of time, the remainder of the answer is not given orally but in writing in Hansard. However, the incident which led to that was substantially in excess of anything that has happened here today.

Last week, at Westminster, a Minister took 11 minutes to give a response. The House did not regard that as a proper response, and the Speaker dealt with the matter. I suspected that the Member would ask this question, and I have already checked the figures. We had responses to 10 questions on health, seven questions on education and six questions on finance. More questions were answered, therefore, on health.

The Member has stated that there was contempt of the House. I advised the House before we began that there would be a suspension because the Minister had fallen ill. I had no reason to suspect that that was not the case, and the Member might consider that some of the hesitation and delay to which he referred was not so much a matter of the Minister’s not being prepared to be courteous and respect the House but rather that the Minister was doing her best to give answers to the House while not feeling well.

We now move on to another question of health, and we should do so promptly, otherwise the remaining time will be shortened.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it your intention to have advance notice from Ministers that they intend to group questions together and to have such groupings highlighted on the annunciator or otherwise communicated directly to Members? It can be confusing if Ministers unilaterally declare that they intend to group questions together.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Shortly before the Assembly meets I am given suggestions for the grouping together of questions so that I can check whether such groupings are reasonable. If they appear reasonable, I permit them. So far as I know, it is not the practice in other places to announce in advance the grouping together of questions.

I believe that the Member is suggesting this for the convenience of Members who would choose to be absent from the Chamber, even when their questions have been tabled. I am not saying that this is the case with the Member himself.

However, this is not an unreasonable suggestion, because there were some Members whom I invited to ask supplementary questions who were not here, even though their questions were being responded to. I do not believe that this suggestion can be implemented, but I will consider the matter.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have told the House that in another place questions are not listed. They are indeed now listed on the monitor in the House of Commons. It is also stated whether they are to be taken together.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

It may well be that that is now the case. It certainly was not the case at one time. I am a less frequent visitor to that end of the building, just as the Member is a less frequent visitor to the other end. Thus it is hard for us to keep up to speed with each other.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Further to the earlier point of order which I raised, may I congratulate you for accurately predicting my concern. However, that concern has not yet been addressed. I find it most unsatisfactory that any Minister can come to answer questions and waste time giving an answer in one language, only to give what is presumably the same answer in English. This is clearly unsatisfactory, and I suggest —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

This is quite out order, as I have already said that I am taking the matter up. The point of order cannot be answered immediately since there are various ways in which it could be responded to which would have financial and other implications. I cannot take that matter any further at the moment.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

With regard to the way in which the Minister grouped the questions, I would like you to consider carefully how she selected seven of the 10 questions which she answered. May I draw to your attention that seven of those questions were drawn from Members of either her party or her side of the House? It was a quite deliberate attempt to shelter herself from proper probing by this Assembly. If she is unfit —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

The Member speaks more out of suspicion than from knowledge of how the system works. The choice of questions and the order in which they are dealt with are decided by ballot. It is a random matter, and not one decided by me. The grouping is done on the basis of reasonable subject matter. That is how the question is addressed.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

When you consider these issues the key matter which should be in your mind is this: while a Member who speaks in two languages during a debate is using up his own time, if he speaks in two languages while answering questions he is using up our time.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

The Member is absolutely correct. It will clearly have to be part of the consideration, which I cannot promise will be completed by next week when the next Question Time is scheduled. It will, however, be dealt with as soon as possible. The reason for that is quite clear. As soon as one is dealing with more than one language, one enters into the question of simultaneous translation, which cannot necessarily be "magicked up" overnight. Bringing it into commission may not be quite as difficult as decommissioning weapons, but it nonetheless takes a little time.

We really must move on to the debate. It would be quite unfair to those involved if we shorten the time available. I shall take one last point of order from Mr Dodds.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP

I should like to correct something you said earlier and put it on the record accurately. You said that the Minister of Health had answered 10 questions and that the Minister of Finance had answered six. This is somewhat unfair, for he dealt with six separate questions. The only reason you can say that the Minister of Health answered 10 is that seven of them were grouped together. In terms of separate subjects, she actually dealt with only three.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

That is not a point of order at all. The Member knows very well that there is a range of issues to do with supplementary questions that are asked by Members whose questions are taken together, and so on.

We shall now proceed to the debate.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

I should like to make a point of order about the debate which is about to take place. If I do not make it now I will not be able to make it at all.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I shall take the point of order on this debate.

Photo of Robert McCartney Robert McCartney UKUP

I am grateful. In view of the fact that the time for this debate has been shortened — and presumably you had a list of those wishing to speak — can you now say for how long individual Members will be able to speak?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Thank you for bringing that matter to our attention. The Business Committee agreed with me that the Member moving the motion would have 10 minutes and that all other Members would have five minutes. There is the possibility, if the Minister were present, of her winding up for about five minutes before the end. The proposer would also have a chance to wind up: Since that agreement, a competent amendment has been put down, so the individual who moves the amendment will have five minutes for that and five minutes to wind up before we move to the vote.