The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I inform Members that I have been advised by officials that a valid petition of concern has been presented today in relation to the motion of no confidence in the Speaker. Under Standing Order 28, the vote cannot take place until at least one day past. The vote will therefore be taken at the beginning of business tomorrow morning, Tuesday 17 January. I remind Members that the vote will be on a cross-community basis. I ask the Clerk to read the motion.
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
That this Assembly has no confidence in the Speaker of the Assembly; believes that his position is untenable as he has compromised the independence and integrity of the office of Speaker; and calls for his immediate resignation.
On a point of order, Mr acting Speaker. Would the acting Speaker confirm that, irrespective of whether or not there is a petition of concern, the Speaker will have the confidence of the Assembly if the Members indicate that they have it or he will not have it if the Members indicate that he does not have it?
Would the acting Speaker confirm that, whether or not there is a valid petition of concern, that will not determine whether or not the Speaker has the confidence of the Members of the Assembly and no petition of concern will change that outcome? It will be done by the votes of the Members of the Assembly.
Thank you, Mr acting Speaker. I read carefully the letter that the Speaker sent to all MLAs recently explaining his course of action and decision-making in relation to the pre-Christmas sitting. It is quite clear. I accept that the Assembly was recalled on the basis of instruction from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and that, similarly, he required both Ministers to instruct not to recall the Assembly. I do not think that anyone has an issue with the fact that the Speaker did not have the authority to countermand the order to recall the Assembly. However, it was made very clear to him publicly and privately to the Speaker's Office that the statement that was to be made and the purpose of the recall of the Assembly was not, in fact, then being made on behalf of the Executive Office, because the deputy First Minister had withdrawn his authority for that statement to be made. That meant that the statement that the then First Minister came forward with was clearly a personal statement on her own behalf and not for the purpose for which the House had been recalled. Bear it in mind that other business had been tabled for that day and it was not the sole purpose for which the House had been recalled. Clearly, the original intended purpose was gone. The Speaker should not have allowed the First Minister to make a statement claiming it to be on behalf of the Executive Office when, clearly, it was not and she did not have the authority of that office to do so.
Following that decision, it was clear — the actions on the day reaffirmed it — not only that the Speaker was challenged very vigorously on the Standing Orders on which he was conducting his business — most of us were bemused by some of his explanations — but also that he had, with the exception of his party colleagues, lost the confidence of virtually every MLA in the House. I suggest that he still does not have the confidence, with the exception of his party Members, of virtually every MLA in the House.
We come today to debate confidence in the Speaker, which is a normal motion, given the circumstances that we found ourselves in in that sitting before Christmas and the behaviour that led to the First Minister making a statement on behalf of that office when she clearly did not have the authority to do so, yet we find ourselves hamstrung by a petition of concern. The DUP has deployed petitions of concern over 80 times in the Assembly — 82 of those as a party on its own. The irony is that the petition of concern was built into the Good Friday Agreement to protect the rights of minorities and to protect citizens from larger parties trampling over their rights and entitlements, yet the DUP, as the largest party in the Assembly, has used it 82 times without support from any other MLA. On a number of those occasions, it has used it to protect its Members from censure in the Assembly. It does so again on this occasion.
Mr Weir might find that amusing, but the DUP has yet to learn that there is public outcry not just about this scheme and the Speaker's handling of some of the issues but about the DUP's absolute refusal to recognise the damage that it is doing to public confidence in the institutions. It continued to do that to this very moment when it deployed the petition of concern. The use of petitions of concern to protect the interests of its Members is a corruption of what the petition of concern was intended to do.
No, I will finish what I have to say. Thank you very much.
The use of the petition of concern is a corruption of the institutions, and corruption is something that the DUP would do well to look to to see how they deal with it. As a consequence, we are now to have a debate in this institution about an important matter — confidence in the Speaker — with the outcome already decided. The outcome has been frustrated, regardless of the vote of every other MLA, with the exception of DUP Members, to express their lack of confidence in the Speaker. That outcome will be overturned by the use of a petition of concern, which was put in the Good Friday Agreement to protect minorities but has been used in a corrupt fashion by the DUP to protect their own.
On those grounds, I will not move the motion. I do not believe that there is any purpose in keeping people here for a debate when the outcome is predetermined, and I think that the corruption of this institution in the eyes of the public has to stop. I hope that the DUP reflects on this in the run-up to the election and that we get a different DUP returning here on the other side of the election.
Motion not moved.
On a point of order, Mr acting Speaker, the convention in the House, particularly on motions such as this, is that the proposer of the motion does not necessarily say, "I move". Given that Mr Murphy started speaking and, indeed, was allowed to make his speech, by implication he moved the motion. Therefore, the only grounds on which the business cannot proceed is through a request by leave of the House that the motion be withdrawn. Mr Murphy made a number of points on his view on the issue, and those have been read into the record. He took that opportunity and perhaps abused the procedure of the House in doing so. No other Members are to be afforded the opportunity to give their perspective or to counter the points made by Mr Murphy. I maintain that, by the fact that Mr Murphy started speaking rather than by saying, "I move" or "I do not move the motion" at the start of his speech, he moved the motion by implication. As such, the debate in the House should continue. It should proceed to the amendment and then other Members should be called.
On a point of order, Mr acting Speaker. Further to my colleague Dr Farry's comments, this, again, goes back to correct wording and the somewhat lax language in the Chamber. When Members or Ministers, as we have seen or heard in the past, withdraw various things for technical reasons, it is done "by leave of the House". No leave was sought from the House; Mr Murphy made those comments well into the middle of his speech, judging by the time I spotted on the clock. I do not believe that he has the authority to withdraw it. We have an absolute right to the debate.
Mr Dickson, I am long enough about the House — I suspect that others are also — to know that there was a similar motion here in, I think, 2001, and there was a debate, but the motion was not moved. If it had been done in that way, there would be more validity in what you are saying. Again, I am not unsympathetic to what you are saying, but I have to make a ruling on it as the acting Speaker. That is my ruling.
Members, it is my intention not to take any more points of order on this particular matter —
Hold on. Mr Allister, I am asking you to sit down. Thank you.
I am not taking any more points of order on this particular matter. If Members want to come to this issue at another time, that is entirely a matter for them. I ask the House to take its ease.
The House took its ease.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair at 6.46 pm)
I have been in consultation with the Speaker's Office and some of the senior clerks. I am going to suspend the Assembly because of the absolute mess we have arrived at to take some advice on the best way forward. There are a lot of issues and questions to be dealt with in a serious manner without the tomfoolery that has been happening here.
I cannot take any points of order, Mr Allister. Please bear with me. You will know that I am saying that with the best possible wish; I am not seeking to in any way curtail debate. I have been asked within the last two or three minutes to take this position, and I want to make sure that the advice that is given is appropriate and in the best interests of the Assembly. So, by your leave, I am asking for a suspension of the Assembly until such times as we get back in here and have worked our way around this.
Order, Members. I have taken the opportunity to consider the recording of Mr Murphy's contribution in the debate, and it is clear that it was only at a very late stage that he indicated that he would not move the motion. Speaker's ruling 4.2g. makes it clear that, by convention, when a Member no longer wishes to put a motion before the Assembly, he should say "not moved", giving a short explanation to the House. It is very regrettable that Mr Murphy did not observe the substance of that convention this evening when he was called to move the motion. However, the temporary Speaker ruled that the motion was not moved. He has made his ruling, and it is not in order to challenge it. Standing Order 1(2) states:
"The Speaker’s ruling shall be final on all questions of procedure and order."
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Whilst accepting the ruling that you have just given, the very fact that you had to give the ruling in the way that you gave it is a clear indication of an inadequacy in the Standing Orders of this House or, indeed, in the observation of conventions, whether or not they are covered by Standing Orders. Will you please agree to raise it with the Speaker in the hope that this matter may be referred to officials, who can give us some better advice should this House be reconvened after 2 March?
I thank the Member for his point of order. I have listened and noted it carefully. It may well be that a future, or the next, Assembly will consider these procedural matters in some detail. I will also undertake to draw it to the attention of the Speaker, but that is somewhat invidious given that the motion before the House was a motion of confidence about the Speaker.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Thank you for your ruling. I understand the rationale behind it. I believe that the Speaker at the time cited precedent from the first Assembly. However, it is clear that poor precedent should never outweigh what is seen as good practice. So, would it be possible to compare the poor precedent from what I believe was the first Assembly, which met in this Chamber, with the intention of the ruling under 'Erskine May', which is that no one should be able to make a statement to the House without other Members having the opportunity to respond to it?
I thank the Member for her point of order. However, the Member well knows that, as I have indicated, Standing Order 1(2) states:
"The Speaker’s ruling shall be final on all questions of procedure and order."
It is on that restriction that I make the judgement that I make. The Member has put on the record suggestions that may or may not be considered by this Assembly or, indeed, any future Assembly.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Your ruling is very clear, and I thank you for it. However, in essence, what you have set out is that an error was made in the initial ruling. Also at that stage, a number of Members sought to make points of order because of their concern about the potential that that ruling would have for the debate at that time. Can I therefore seek reassurance that, given that a ruling was made by an acting Speaker — so we have a difficult context — in no way will that ruling therefore become a precedent for future business of this House, given, as my colleague said, the wider guidance as provided by 'Erskine May' in such circumstances?
I thank the Member for his point of order. I have been very clear in expressing my regret that Mr Murphy did not observe the substance of the conventions of the House this evening, but I am bound by Standing Order 1(2), which states that the Speaker's ruling shall be final. That includes Speaker, Deputy Speaker and temporary Speaker.
Thank you for that point of order, Mr Nesbitt. Unhappily, perhaps unlike you, I was not in the Chamber at the time. It is clear, however, that Standing Order 1(2) covers the actions and gives the full weight of authority to the Speaker, Deputy Speakers and temporary Speakers.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You have said just now that whatever the Speaker's, Deputy Speaker's or acting Speaker's decision is, it is final. Reason cries out against that idea. It cannot be true. It cannot be the situation, because the implication of that is that, no matter what the Speaker, Deputy Speaker or acting Speaker does, we simply must accept it. The reason that, sir, you did not answer the question on the Standing Order under which you are making this determination is simple: there is no such Standing Order. What we have had here is someone simply pulling the plug on the debate. Whether that was because it suited him personally or his party, I do not know, but it was absolutely improper. The situation that we are now in is the result of a petition of concern from the DUP and the fact that there was a walkout by Sinn Féin. Put the two together and what that means is that the minimal powers of scrutiny of the matter that we might have had are taken away from us. This is not just a matter of procedure —
I will resume my seat in a minute, but I will tell you what: you are wrong, Maurice was wrong and what we ought to do is get on with the business of discussing the renewable heat initiative.
Disgraceful. It makes a mockery of the House. What is the point of our being here?
What is the point of being here if we cannot discuss a matter —
Order. The simple fact is that Standing Orders, I accept, are silent on certain matters, but where they are clear, Mr McCann, is that Standing Order 1(2) states:
"The Speaker's ruling shall be final on all questions of procedure and order."
On that basis, the ruling applies to the Speaker, the Principal Deputy Speaker, the Deputy Speakers and any temporary Speaker. You may not like that rule, and there may be opportunities in the future for the House to review that rule, but those are the rules as they are currently constructed.
That is not a matter on which I can comment. I think that the Member well knows that. I am not in a position to comment on that or even to speculate on it. I am not sure that it is terribly helpful that the Member does so.
Mr Weir has been patient.
Further to that point of order, that was not actually the issue that I raised. Mr McCann questioned the integrity of the decision made by the Chair — that it might be personally motivated. I seek clarification of whether it is appropriate for a Member to challenge the integrity of the Chair's motivation in making a decision.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Standing Order 65 is very clear about order in the Assembly. In the previous debate, which Lord Morrow was chairing, Mr McCann was very clear, and he said, "I am directly challenging your authority." He has also, I believe, acted now in a way that has brought the Assembly into disrepute by the way in which he has conducted himself. He has shown complete disregard for the Chair —
Order. I ask the Member to resume his seat. I strongly advise the Member to leave the chairing of proceedings to those who are appointed to do it. I am not sure that your advice is any more helpful or useful than some of the other contributions. You have had the opportunity to put your comments on the record.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm that the reason why the situation has developed is that a Member from Sinn Féin rose to his feet, gave a speech and then indicated at the end that he was not moving the motion and that the direction issued by the acting Chair, Lord Morrow, would have been the same regardless of who occupied the Chair?
That matter will need further due consideration. I am not sure that I am in a position to answer that this evening. What is abundantly clear and what I have made absolutely clear is that it is regrettable that Mr Murphy did not observe the conventions of the House when he was called to move the motion. Whether or not that affords protection is a more legal matter than I am able to answer at this point.