Standards of Debate

Assembly Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 29 April 2024.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 12:00, 29 April 2024

Last Monday, 22 April, a number of issues were raised with me about comments made during the debate on relationships and sexuality education. As is normal practice for my office, I have now reviewed the Official Report of the entire debate. Members may recall that, on 8 April 2024, I made a ruling on a different exchange at that time. I made two points that are relevant here.

First, Members have a legal right to freedom of expression, which means that they may sometimes choose to express their views forcefully and points may be made that other Members will not agree with, sometimes in terms that other Members would not use themselves.

However, secondly, Members are expected to exercise that freedom of expression within the Assembly's standards of debate. That requires exchanges between Members to demonstrate courtesy, good temper, moderation and respect. The motion last Monday was on an issue on which there were strongly held opposing views. In such circumstances, it is likely that there will be passionate and robust debate. There is nothing wrong with that in itself. However, there were occasions when the behaviour of Members in different parts of the House, in speeches and from a sedentary position, fell short of showing courtesy, good temper, moderation or respect towards other Members or their views. For instance, comments that were made that linked parties to the far right or that associated Members with figures such as Hitler and Mussolini and organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the National Front were entirely inappropriate.

Similarly, extrapolating a party's position on previous legislation on human trafficking and prostitution to associating Members with standing with pimps and those who traffic people into the country was also inappropriate. None of those comments could be considered to have demonstrated courtesy, good temper, moderation and respect. That was a good example of where one or two exchanges can lead to the tone of the remainder of a debate spiralling downwards.

As a number of Members could have been perceived to be involved in the exchanges and behaviour that breach the expected standards of debate, I am not going to take action on this occasion, but I will be writing to a number of Members to clarify some issues that have been raised. However, for the future, I return to the point that there is a balance between having a full and frank debate that can legitimately be challenged and having civility in exchanges that avoid personal attacks. Therefore, I remind all Members that they should exercise care in the language that they use and be mindful of the need for courtesy, good temper, moderation and respect.