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Assembly Business

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 26th January 2009.

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Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I would be grateful for the attention of Members for a few minutes. Last Tuesday evening, I drew the attention of the House to the fact that numerous points of order had been raised during that day’s sitting. I indicated that I would return to those points of order that were legitimate in due course. Before I come to those matters, I will address the general issue of points of order that are raised in the House.

I shall repeat what I said last week: too often, issues are raised as points of order that would be better dealt with outside the Chamber. It is regrettable that time is spent having to deal with such issues in the Chamber; however, I am even more concerned about the tendency toward points of order being used to challenge the authority of the Chair. I cannot put it more plainly than to state that that simply will not be tolerated.

For the avoidance of doubt, Members should note that I will not take any points of order on any of the matters on which I am ruling today. If Members wish to consult me about any matter that is not clear, they should do so outside the Chamber.

I will move on to matters that were raised last week. On reading the Official Report, it appeared to me that there was some confusion in Members’ minds about the difference between questions following a ministerial statement, and debates. I remind the House that although questions are provided for in Standing Orders, they are not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed.

There are some Members of this House who seem to want to turn ministerial statements into take-note debates. In fact, last week, several Members indicated that the statement by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Mr Nigel Dodds, was important to the House. Every ministerial statement is important to the House, yet those Members felt the need to make long introductions to their questions. Let me make it absolutely clear that that will not be allowed.

Members may want to make very short introductions to their questions, but they should then come to their questions. The convention in this House has always been that after a ministerial statement is delivered, the Chairperson of the appropriate Committee is called, and of course the Chairperson, because he is called as Chairperson, is allowed some latitude in introducing his question. However, it stops at that. From then on, it should be questions on that ministerial statement, and questions only. Members here who are Members of another place will tell you that that would not be allowed anywhere else.

There seems to be some confusion on this issue. There should not be. I direct Members to Standing Order 18, which sets out clearly the role of a ministerial statement to the House. This issue has been raised several times in points of order, over a long period. From here on in, I will not be taking any points of order on an issue concerning a ministerial statement, and neither will my deputies. Ministerial statements give Members the opportunity to ask questions about those statements; that is what they do. They are also opportunities for the House to hold Ministers and the Executive to account. I cannot be any clearer on the issue.

I now turn to related matters, concerning the role of the Chair during Question Time and questions on ministerial statements. The Chair has always resisted making judgements on the extent to which Ministers have answered Members’ questions. Whether the Minister has given a satisfactory answer is for the Member asking the question, and other Members, to judge. If a Member is not satisfied with an answer, he or she may pursue it by way of a supplementary question, through a question for written answer, by going through the Committee, or by tabling a motion for debate.

Once again, some Members continually get up on that particular point of order, and want me as Speaker, or my Deputy Speakers, to sit in judgement on whether a Minister has answered a question to the Members’ satisfaction. Members will know that that would be a total and absolute minefield for me as Speaker or for my deputies. That is something that we are not going to do. There are a number of avenues open to Members in how they might address an issue if they feel that they are not getting a genuine answer from a Minister. Once again, I make it absolutely clear that neither I nor my deputies will take any points of order on that issue again.

Last Tuesday, 18 points of order were made in the House, almost all in one debate. That must be a record for this House. Some of the Members who raised issues concerning Question Time or questions on ministerial statements sit on the Procedures Committee. My understanding is that the Procedures Committee has been looking at a number of issues in and around questions. That is where the arguments should be made, not in this House. There is a unique opportunity within the Procedures Committee for members of that Committee to bring forward points about Question Time or ministerial statements on which they feel they can agree. They should not be raised as points of order in this House when Members sit on a Committee that is currently examining those issues.

Once again, let us be absolutely clear where we stand in this House on issues concerning whatever it may be. Most of the points of order that are raised are spurious, and Members know that they are spurious and do not relate to the business of the House that is being discussed at that time. A point of order should be absolutely clear; it should relate to the issue that is being discussed in the House at that time. Unfortunately, Members will raise a point of order and talk about almost anything. All of that needs to finish, because my job as Speaker is to protect the integrity of the House and protect the business that goes through this House. That is my role.

I will now move on to a further issue, which I touched on briefly last Tuesday: the First Minister’s reference to the Clerk at Table. I remind Members again that Assembly staff should not be referred to at any time. Adverse references to staff cannot be tolerated. The House should be clear that the Chair is entirely responsible for the conduct of the business. The Deputy Speakers and I are grateful for the advice and assistance that we receive from the Clerks, but we have no doubt where the responsibility lies. I have said to some Members with whom I was discussing these issues this morning that you would almost need the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon to try to resolve some of these issues.

Finally, I remind the House that I will take no points of order on any of the issues to which I refer today.

I will now turn to the serious matter of expressions that were used in the Chamber last week. The First Minister indicated that, in his opinion, Mr Declan O’Loan accused him of deceit. I have reflected on the comments that were made by Mr O’Loan, and consider that although he alleged deceit, he did not allege it against any particular Member, or name any particular Member. That being the case, I am content that his comments were not unparliamentary.

Later in that debate, the First Minister made certain references to Mr Elliott, and used the expression:

“attempt to mislead and con people” — [Official Report, Vol 36, No 7, Part 1, p335, col 2].

Although I have ruled before on allegations of misleading, I have not done so on allegations of attempting to mislead. Therefore, I will not rule its use as unparliamentary on this occasion. However, on the basis of the guiding principles that apply to parliamentary language here and in another House, Members should, in future, avoid any language that questions the honesty or integrity of another Member. If a Member has a genuine concern about such matters, advice should be sought from the Business Office on whether any procedural approaches are available to that Member.

I will now turn to Mr Durkan’s accusation that the First Minister was misleading the House. To accuse another Member of misleading the House is, clearly, unparliamentary, and as I indicated last Tuesday, I will call the Member to withdraw the remark.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was asked by the Deputy Speaker to address the offending term, so I did. I am being asked by the Speaker to withdraw the offending term, so I will. If, in my challenge to the First Minister, I used a handful of words that were procedurally incorrect, I withdraw the handful of words that are procedurally incorrect. However, my challenge to the First Minister remains a challenge that he invited after he made statements that misrepresented a ministerial colleague. I believe that the accuracy and the veracity of those statements can clearly be questioned —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to come to a close very quickly.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

Can be questioned when set against available facts, including previous statements in this House by the Minister for Social Development. So, as I withdraw my words, which were procedurally incorrect, I ask the First Minister to withdraw his words, which were factually incorrect.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. Those are two completely different issues, and I will not allow any Member to rise on a point of order or to widen this debate. The House is grateful to the Member for withdrawing the remark. There are different avenues that the Member can pursue in how he might deal with this issue, but certainly not this morning, and not this afternoon, through this House, and I say that to all sides of the House. There are different avenues that Members and Ministers can go down for examining issues if they have a genuine concern about allegations that are made against Members or Ministers in this House.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Let me make it absolutely clear: I said at the very start that I will not take any points of order on what I have ruled on this morning, or on what Members may say in relation to that. That would open up the entire debate, and I do not think that that would be helpful to the House. I am extremely happy to talk to Members outside the Chamber if they are dissatisfied with what has been said in the Chamber.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

On a new point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for a Member to indicate that the facts were misleading when that Member is not in possession of the facts, and, by his own admission, was relying on a leak from a dishonourable and –

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. I would ask the Member to take his seat. Once again, I made it absolutely clear that I will take no points of order on the rulings that I have made this morning. I very much hear what the First Minister has said, and I am, as I said, happy enough to talk to any Member outside the Chamber about what avenues are available to Members with regard to what has been said or done.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley DUP

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, which is not about this matter in particular. However, when a Member is told that he or she must withdraw a remark, must the Member not withdraw it unconditionally? He or she cannot say –

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Order. Let me make it absolutely clear: Members in this House will know that when the word “misleading” is directed generally at a Member and that Member is named, I have allowed some latitude. I have allowed Members some latitude to make a short introduction and then to say what they want to say. That has been the convention in the Assembly. This afternoon, I have done the same. Yes, I could have made a strong ruling and insisted that the Member withdraw his remarks and say nothing else. However, the convention in the House has been to allow the Member to make a brief introduction and then to let he or she decide what action to take. I am on record as ruling in that way.

I shall finish by saying that, sometimes, I approach these matters with a heavy heart. It gives me no pleasure to make the rulings that I have made this afternoon. However, I always say that the guiding principles of adherence to Standing Orders and good business of the House are very much policed by Members. Do not be mistaken in thinking that because some latitude is given, there is some weakness. Let me make it absolutely clear: if any Member oversteps the line in the House — and Members are aware when they do so — I will deal with that, irrespective of who the Member is.

As Speaker, I have given Members from all sides of the House quite a bit of latitude during Question Time, debates on ministerial statements, and so on. However, some Members continue to abuse that latitude. I wish to be absolutely clear that when Members cross the line, they must face up to that, and such matters will be dealt with. We will now move on.