Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo
Session 2008/2009
Third Report

Committee on Procedures

Inquiry into
Assembly Questions

TOGETHER WITH MINUTES OF PROCEEDINGS, MINUTES OF EVIDENCE AND
WRITTEN SUBMISSIONS RELATING TO THE REPORT

Ordered by The Committee on Procedures to be printed 3 March 2009
Report: 24/08/09R (Committee on Procedures)

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Committee on Procedures
Membership and Powers

Powers

The Committee on Procedures is a Standing Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly established in accordance with paragraph 10 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order 54. The Committee has 11 Members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.

The Committee has the power to:

Membership

The Committee first met on 16 May 2007.

The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 9 May 2007 has been as follows:

* Mr Mickey Brady replaced Mr Willie Clarke as of 20 May 2008.

Table of Contents

Report

Executive Summary
Summary of Recommendations
Introduction
Consideration of Key Issues

Appendix 1

Minutes of Proceedings Relating to the Report

Appendix 2

Minutes of Evidence

Appendix 3

Written Submissions

Appendix 4

Northern Ireland Assembly Research Papers

Appendix 5

Other Papers

Executive Summary

1. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly may ask questions in two ways – by use of oral or written questions. MLAs view the right to ask questions as a vital way in which to hold Ministers to account, challenge policy decisions and to obtain information.

2. MLAs ask oral questions at Question Time each Monday there is a sitting. Three Ministers come before the Assembly between 2.30pm and 4.00pm for half an hour each every four weeks. The First Minister and deputy First Minister attend for half an hour every two weeks. The Assembly Commission answers questions every 12 weeks.

3. For each Question Time, an MLA may table one question per Minister and a maximum of 20 questions for each of the three Ministers is selected in a random shuffle and listed in the Question Paper.

4. During the inquiry, the Committee worked very closely with the Speaker and acknowledges the specific remit he has in relation to Assembly Questions and particularly Question Time.

5. Before examining how Assembly questions could be improved the Committee first considered what these should be about. MLAs were clear that Ministerial accountability was only one aspect. Question Time in particular was seen as an important opportunity to highlight issues of public importance, represent constituency interests, underscore party political positions and views and raise the profile of back benchers.

6. The evidence gathered from various witnesses and from comparative research on procedures and working practices in other parliaments indicated a number of areas where improvements could be made particularly around increasing vibrancy and liveliness in the Chamber during Question Time, more opportunity for topical questions and reducing the frustration of MLAs in not having oral questions answered in the 30 minute period.

7. It became apparent to the Committee that one immediate issue to be addressed was around how few questions were being answered in Question Time. A statistical analysis showed that on average, each Minister answered five to six questions in the 30 minute period and so the Committee agreed a reduction in the number of questions listed to a more realistic target of 15.

8. The report also agreed to change the current way in which questions are chosen to be asked of a Minister. Under the new system MLAs would enter their name into a draw and there would be one draw per Minister. Fifteen MLAs would be chosen at random to submit a question. The 15 questions chosen would then be reshuffled randomly for listing on the Question Paper. The new system would reduce the time that Ministers have to prepare answers but this would be balanced by the reduction in the numbers of questions. This will reduce the nugatory work undertaken by MLAs whose questions never came out of the shuffle and create opportunity and potential for topical questions.

9. It was agreed that there was merit for a question period on both Monday (two Ministers) and Tuesday (one Minister) because it not only widened the opportunities available to the public and visitors to the Assembly to see Question Time but also had the potential for increased media coverage. Increasing viewing figures on any aspect of parliamentary life and proceedings is to be encouraged. Dividing Question Time into two sessions will also address the intensive nature of the procedure. One and half hour of questions and answers can be heavy and cumbersome. It can actually reduce interest from the public, media and MLAs.

10. The Committee noted the very close relationship between the number of supplementaries allowed and the number of questions answered by the Minister but is not recommending the introduction of time limits for answers. Nevertheless it hopes to send a clear message to Ministers that long winded replies are not helpful.

11. The Committee considered and agreed a proposal that the First Minister and deputy First Minister should be allowed to refer specific questions to junior Ministers during Question Time.

12. The report provides at page 249 information on the range of responsibilities of the First Minister and deputy First Minister as it appeared that MLAs were focussing questions on a very limited number of areas of responsibility. It is hoped that this, plus encouraging MLAs to avail of the assistance and training on offer from the Business Office, may be useful in widening the types of questions and help members to focus on more pertinent questions for the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

13. Another finding focuses on the fact that departmental performances in answering written questions on time varied immensely. Practically all departments had a poor record in this area particularly with priority written questions. While the Committee was reassured to note that this issue was being addressed by departments, it will keep performance in this area under periodic review. The Committee also agreed to introduce two new criteria for priority written questions.

14. It was also noted that some departments refused to answer questions on the basis of cost but failed to provide any evidence of how the costs were identified. The Committee found it astonishing that departments could refuse to answer a question on the basis of cost when there was no indication of how much the answer would cost and has recommended that a system for identifying the costs for answering questions is put into place as soon as possible.

15. This report represents the outcome of the Committee’s consideration of the inquiry into Assembly Questions. Problem areas had been identified by those inside and outside of the Assembly before the inquiry began and these were highlighted within the oral and written submissions. Further key areas came to the fore during the inquiry which had to be addressed. In all, the report contains 10 recommendations covering all aspects of questions in the Assembly. It is hoped that adoption of the proposals will reinvigorate the weekly Question Time with Ministers, drive departments towards delivery of an improved and sustained service in responding to written questions and provide clearer, more focussed guidance for everyone concerned.

Summary of Recommendations

Recommendation 1

The Committee recommends that the number of questions listed to be asked of each Minister during Question Time be reduced to 15.

Recommendation 2

The Committee recommends that a member enters his or her name against the Minister he or she wishes to ask an oral question of by 1.00pm on the Monday two weeks before the Question Time. Fifteen names will then be randomly selected to submit a question on the penultimate Thursday or seven working days in advance of the Question Time. The 15 questions will then be subject to a random shuffle to decide the order of listing. The list will be published on the penultimate Friday or six working days before the Question Time.

Recommendation 3

The Committee recommends that the first question listed should not be from a member of the same party as the Minister.

Recommendation 4

The Committee recommends that there should be no change to the rota for the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Recommendation 5

The Committee recommends that the First Minister and deputy First Minister be able, during Question Time, to call on the junior Ministers to answer oral questions for those areas that they have specific responsibility for as outlined by the First Minister to the Assembly on 11 June 2007. The Committee further recommends that the junior Ministers are not allowed to answer oral questions in the absence of either the First Minister or deputy First Minister.

Recommendation 6

The Committee recommends that there should be a Question Time to two Ministers on a Monday from 2.30pm – 3.30pm and to one Minister on a Tuesday from 3.00pm – 3.30pm.

Recommendation 7

It is recommended that the Committee on Procedures periodically reviews departmental performance in answering written questions.

Recommendation 8

The Committee recommends that only one of the five written questions per day can be used as a priority written question.

Recommendation 9

The Committee recommends that priority written questions are not used to ask for large amounts of statistical information or historic data.

Recommendation 10

The Committee recommends that departments develop as a matter of urgency, a system to calculate the costs of answering written questions and applies this.

Introduction

1. The Committee on Procedures formally agreed on 28 May 2008 to undertake an inquiry into oral and written questions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The inquiry was to focus on evaluating the effectiveness of current procedures and making recommendations for improvements.

2. The following terms of reference were agreed at a Committee meeting on 11 June 2008.

Oral Questions

Written Questions

Priority Written Questions

Private Notice Questions

Standing Orders

3. The Committee agreed that the methodology for the inquiry should include:

4. At its meeting on 27 June 2008 the Committee agreed a Press Release to invite written submissions and agreed on potential witnesses. In all, the Committee received eleven written submissions from the following:

5. In addition to the above, the Committee obtained written submissions from each statutory department on their procedures for handling Assembly questions.

6. The Committee took oral evidence from the following:

7. The Committee also had an informal discussion with the Speaker.

8. The Committee commissioned Assembly Research and Library Services to inform its initial considerations. This included a survey on the attitudes and opinions of the members of the NI Assembly, members of the general public and a group of AS level politics students.

9. The Committee weighed up the issues arising from the evidence received from witnesses and carefully examined the procedures and practices in relation to Assembly Questions in this and other legislatures. The Committee’s consideration of each issue is covered separately in the report.

10. At its meeting on 3 March 2009, the Committee on Procedures agreed its report on Assembly Questions and agreed that it would be printed.

Consideration of Key Issues

11. The right to ask for information from and to hold Ministers to account is an essential and historic entitlement of parliaments the world over, including the Northern Ireland Assembly. As in other parliaments, one way in which MLAs exercise this right is through Assembly Questions which place a duty on Ministers to explain and defend the work, policy decisions and actions of their departments.

12. MLAs may ask questions in two ways – by use of oral and written questions. In a survey of members, conducted as part of this inquiry, MLAs indicated that Assembly questions provided opportunities to challenge and hold Ministers to account, highlight issues of public importance, underscore party political views, represent constituency interests as well as obtain information. Oral questions in particular are often seen as an opportunity for back benchers to raise their profile.

Oral Questions

13. Assembly oral questions have been a part of Assembly procedures and parliamentary life since the Assembly was established on 19 November 1999 and are more commonly know as Question Time. Standing Orders specify that Question Time takes place on every Monday the Assembly sits at between 2.30pm and 4.00pm.

14. A rota allows for three Ministers to appear each Question Time for a half hour each every four weeks. The First Minister and deputy First Minister appear at Question Time every two weeks. The Assembly Commission answers questions every 12 weeks.

15. MLAs who wish to ask an oral question of a Minister do so by tabling a question in the Business Office. MLAs have a period of five working days to table questions to the relevant Minister. For example, for Question Time on Monday 23 March a member must table a question between 1.00pm on Tuesday 3 March and 1.00pm on Tuesday 10 March. Each MLA can table one question per Minister. Before a question is accepted it must satisfy the rules of admissibility as set down in Standing Orders.

16. A maximum of 20 questions for each of the three Ministers is selected in a random shuffle from all admissible questions tabled. Questions not selected fall and there is no requirement on the Minister to provide an answer. Questions selected or listed for answer are published by 9.00am each Wednesday i.e. in the example above, the questions selected are published on Wednesday 11 March for answer by the Minister on Monday 23 March.

Table One – Dates for Oral Questions

Date Event
1.00pm on Tuesday 3 March to 1.00pm on Tuesday 10 March Table questions
4.30pm to 5.30pm on Tuesday 10 March Selection of 20 questions per Minister
9.00am Wednesday 11 March Publication of 20 questions by three Ministers
2.30pm to 4.00pm on Monday 23 March Question Time

17. The questions are listed and answered in the order they come out of the random shuffle. During Question Time, a MLA whose question has been selected will rise and call out the number of the question rather than reading the question out. The Minister will answer, at which point the MLA may follow up with a supplementary question. At the discretion of the Speaker, up to two additional supplementary questions may be asked by other MLAs. The full text of each question and supplementaries and the Ministers’ responses will appear in the Official Report (Hansard) for that day.

18. Questions listed for oral answer which, due to time constraints, are not answered on the day, will receive a written response.

Private Notice Questions

19. A private notice question (PNQ) is a question that is of an urgent nature and relates to matters of public importance. MLAs may table a PNQ by 10.30am on any day on which there is a sitting. It is then subject to the same admissibility criteria as other questions and if it is deemed admissible, it will be passed to the Speaker.

20. If the Speaker is satisfied that the PNQ is of an urgent nature, relates to a matter of public importance and that the correct notice has been given to the Minister (as defined in the Standing Order), it will be accepted.

21. Normally the PNQ will be allocated 20 minutes for discussion in plenary and will be taken just before the adjournment debate. The MLA, who has tabled the PNQ, will be able to ask a supplementary followed by the chairperson or deputy chairperson of the relevant committee.

Written Questions

22. When more detailed information is required than would be available by use of an oral question or information is sought which is not suitable for an oral question i.e. large amount of statistical information, MLAs make use of the written question procedure.

23. MLAs can table up to five written questions per day and expect an answer within 10 clear working days. Written questions must follow the same admissibility rules as for oral questions. An answer to a question may be refused by the Minister if the information sought is not readily available and may only be obtained at disproportionate cost. The present limit for Assembly written questions is £700.

24. If the information sought by a MLA is urgent, a priority written question can be submitted where the MLA requests the answer within two, three, four or five clear working days.

25. Further detailed information on the operational practice for oral and written questions is available in the “Northern Ireland Assembly Guidance for Members" and “Procedures for Handling Written Assembly Questions" issued to officials in Northern Ireland Departments. (Appendix 3: Written Submissions).

Issues with Assembly Questions

26. Question Time allows an opportunity to hold Ministers to account and subject to the scrutiny of the Assembly in a very public manner. In most parliaments Question Time is the centrepiece of parliamentary life with high levels of public interest and a large number of visitors attending to watch. In fact, in some parliaments demand for the public gallery during Question Time is so high that a ticket system or first come first served system operates. This is not the position in the NI Assembly. Question Time also tends to be the “big hitter" for media coverage and attracts much higher interest compared to other debates or parliamentary events.

27. Professor Wilford provided evidence to the Committee which summed up the position –

“It is undeniable that Oral Question Time, however it is styled, is a centrepiece of each sitting of the relevant House. Whilst it takes up a relatively small proportion of a House’s time—in NI’s case approximately 12% of the weekly plenary sessions are dedicated to Ministerial Question Time—it tends to attract a disproportionate amount of media and public attention. “

28. The Committee observed that there was a perception amongst MLAs that Question Time in the Assembly had sometimes been less exciting than it should be and lacked spontaneity. The survey of MLAs reinforced this perception with a majority of responses making reference to the fact that Question Time was only partially fulfilling its role.

29. Before examining how Question Time could be improved the Committee considered what Question Time should be about. It was agreed that it extended beyond the simple aim of holding Ministers to account but allowed opportunities, such as those listed below –

30. In agreeing the above role and remit of Question Time, the Committee noted information provided by Professor Wilford on a survey of back benchers in the House of Commons which indicated a similar situation –

“… as far as Back-Benchers were concerned, questions were most effective in publicising MPs’ concerns, taking up constituency interests, evaluating their own performance and that of others, including Ministers, and securing information on policy. However, questions were least effective in influencing Government policy and getting hold of hard-to-obtain information.

(and)

...found questions to be least effective in holding Ministers to account..."

31. Additionally, the Committee agreed that the “theatre" element of Question Time, which is very evident in other parliaments, was missing to a large extent in the Assembly. The Committee also agreed that an element of “theatre" did create interest and appeal to the general public and media and was a tool to be used for engaging with difficult to reach groups such as young people. However, it was agreed that the “theatre" element needed to be finely balanced and managed so that it did not take over Question Time to the extent that accountability and scrutiny became secondary considerations.

32. The evidence gathered from various witnesses and from comparative research on procedures and working practice in other parliaments indicated a number of areas where improvements could be made including introduction of some element of topicality in the questions; MLAs not reading out long multi part supplementary questions; Ministers giving clear concise answers; increasing the number of questions answered during Question Time etc. These areas and others are explored in further detail below.

Role of the Speaker

33. During the inquiry, the Committee worked very closely with the Speaker and acknowledged the specific remit he has in relation to Assembly Questions and particularly Question Time. The written submissions from the Speaker were very helpful as was the discussion between the Speaker and the Committee on 19 November 2008.

34. At that meeting the Speaker outlined his consultations with the party whips on some changes to practices during Question Time. As a result of these, he would –

The selection of questions

35. Paragraphs 13 – 18 explain how questions are selected for inclusion on the Order Paper. The Committee examined this process in some detail including an examination of the number of questions tabled by MLAs, a statistical analysis of the number of questions tabled by each party to each Minister, and the number of questions answered on the day.

36. The comparative research outlined the difference between the Assembly and other parliaments. Table One at paragraph 16 shows that, in general, MLAs must submit questions at least ten working days in advance and that the Ministers received notification of the questions eight to nine working days in advance of the actual Question Time. This was in direct contrast to the situation in the other parliaments where the questions were made know to the Minister between three and five working days.

Table Two – Timescale for listing questions in other Parliaments

Parliament Timescale
Dáil Éireann Four working days in advance of the Question Time
House of Commons Three working days in advance of the Question Time
Scottish Parliament Five working days in advance of the Question Time
The Storting Parliament Three working days in advance of the Question Time

37. The Committee heard from a number of witnesses who indicated that the length of the period in which questions were known to Ministers was a contributing factor to the staidness that some associated with the Assembly’s Question Time.

“There is an opportunity to make Question Time here more topical. Members submit their questions for oral answer 10 days in advance of Question Time. That is an extraordinary length of time compared to practice in other Chambers, where questions for oral answer can be submitted two to four days in advance. If questions for oral answer could be submitted later — all other things being equal — Question Time would be much more topical.

(Oral Evidence, Professor Wilford)

38. The committee recognised that Question Time is about more than topicality. Nevertheless, questions which are topical do allow an opportunity for MLAs to demonstrate that they are aware of and dealing with current issues. Questions which have had to be tabled ten working days in advance have little or no chance of being topical or addressing the “burning issue" of the day. The lack of a procedure to allow the “question of the day" can, according to oral evidence from the Stormont Correspondents Association, be perceived by the public that the Assembly is “out of touch".

“As Mark said, questions are being asked in the House that were put down two weeks ago. Give me a break. Where are we living? This is the twenty-first century. This place will make itself irrelevant if you guys do not sort yourselves out collectively."

(Mr. Eamon Mallie),

39. The aspect of topicality was also explored in the survey of MLAs. The survey indicated that the majority of MLAs agreed that the level of topicality during Question Time may be increased if the time frame for tabling and listing of questions was shortened.

40. The Committee explored an analysis of the number of questions tabled against the numbers listed and answered for the period May 2007 to September 2008. The Committee was very surprised to discover that during that period just over 51% of tabled questions were listed but only 16.5% answered. The Committee considered that this represented a large element of nugatory work by MLAs.

Table Three. Oral Questions (May 2007 - end Sept 2008) by Department

No. Tabled No. Listed No. Answered % Listed % Answered
OFMDFM 753 400 119 53.1 15.8
DARD 328 200 75 61.0 22.9
DCAL 360 198 86 55.0 23.9
DE 408 200 52 49.0 12.7
DETI 398 200 60 50.3 15.1
DOE 403 200 69 49.6 17.1
DFP 413 200 62 48.4 15.0
DHSSPS 414 180 56 43.5 13.5
DEL 309 194 57 62.8 18.4
DRD 384 180 60 46.9 15.6
DSD 409 180 53 44.0 13.0
Commission 16 16 11 100.0 68.8
All Depts. 4595 2348 760 51.1 16.5

41. In examining the reasons for this pattern, the Committee considered whether more MLAs tabled questions when a Minister from their party was up for Question Time. A number of MLAs interviewed for the survey indicated that such a practice of parties loading the shuffle with questions when their Ministers were up did happen. The possibility of partisanship or “friendly fire" was explored with the Stormont Correspondents Association and Professor Wilford.

“Considering the matter slightly tangentially, sometimes Ministers and their party colleagues put the short-term victory of conducting a neutered exchange ahead of the long-term purpose of connecting with the public. A Member might think that he or she is being a clever politician by not saying very much, answering a safe question, and having a scripted exchange, but that is a bit like the old chestnut: if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, how does one know whether it ever actually fell? Unless exchanges are genuinely spontaneous, involving real debate, the public will not connect, and the Assembly will be on the road to irrelevancy; you may as well not have Question Time in the first place."

(Mark Devenport)

42. What also became apparent to the Committee from its exploration of Table Three was how few questions were being answered in Question Time. Each Minister has 30 minutes and 20 questions are listed giving an unrealistic one and half minutes per question (each question is answered by the Minister, has one lead supplementary and up to two further supplementaries). And while some Ministers may group similar questions and therefore get through a larger number, a statistical analysis of the questions answered from September to December 2008, showed that on average, each Minister answered 5 – 6 questions in the 30 minute period. This aspect of Question Time was also commented on by the junior Ministers who noted that between September 2008 and Christmas recess 120 questions were selected for oral answer but only 33 were answered.

43. Questions not answered by the Minister do receive a written response; however, the Committee recognised that this is not the primary aim of oral questions. The Committee also acknowledged that Ministers and departmental staff put in considerable work in preparing responses to oral questions and possible supplementaries. The Committee therefore decided to explore the possibility of reducing the number of questions on the Order Paper.

44. Written evidence from the Speaker confirmed the Committee thinking on this aspect when the Speaker noted that

“There have been very few occasions when a Minister has managed to get through all 20 questions in a 30 minute session…(and) The suggestion of considering a reduction from 20 to 15 therefore seems worthy of consideration …".

45. In the survey of members, the Committee tested the reaction to a reduction in questions listed and noted that over half the interviewees agreed the list should be reduced to 12 or 15. Some comments from the MLAs interviewed are included below –

“The number of questions could be reduced to twelve or fifteen because realistically we wouldn’t reach any more. Twenty questions gives Members false hope their question will be reached."

“If the number of questions selected was reduced, this would reduce the cost i.e. there would be less resources spent on those questions which more than likely will not be not answered in the chamber anyway."

46. The Committee acknowledged that a reduction in the number of questions listed was unlikely to increase the numbers being answered and would not have a dramatic effect on the flow or theatre of Question Time. Nevertheless, it provided a more realistic target for Ministers and an opportunity to save resources for departmental staff.

The Committee recommends that the number of questions listed to be asked of each Minister during Question Time be reduced to 15.

47. The Committee also considered the current shuffle system noting evidence that indicated that reducing the time between the question being listed and answered would allow the opportunity for more topical questions. The Committee considered changes to the system that would reduce the level of nugatory work undertaken by MLAs and staff and agreed the deadlines as demonstrated in table four. While these deadlines reduce the time provided to Ministers to prepare an answer, this is balanced by the reduction in number of questions from 20 to 15.

Table Four. Revised Timetable for submission of Questions

Event Date
Deadline for submission of names to shuffle 1pm, Monday 9 March
Question submitted by 1pm, Thursday 12 March
Shuffle undertaken 4pm, Thursday 12 March
Questions published 9am, Friday 13 March
Question Time Monday 23 March

The Committee recommends that a member enters his or her name against the Minister he or she wishes to ask an oral question of by 1.00pm on the Monday two weeks before the Question Time. Fifteen names will then be randomly selected to submit a question on the penultimate Thursday or seven working days in advance of the Question Time. The 15 questions will then be subject to a random shuffle to decide the order of listing. The list will be published on the penultimate Friday or six working days before the Question Time.

48. The Committee also considered other changes to the shuffle which may allow for increased topicality and theatre. In its consideration of the comparative research of other legislatures, the Committee had noted that it was common practice elsewhere to allow the opposition to ask the first question. This direct interaction between government and opposition allowed for the opposition to challenge government and test policy decisions. This ability to challenge is a primary reason for the excitement and theatre of Question Time elsewhere.

49. Many of the members of the Committee made reference to Prime Minister Question Time in Westminster, which as well as being informative and holding the Prime Minister to account, was considered by the MPs, media and the public as entertaining. The Committee considered that the entertainment or theatre element of Question Time should not be undervalued as it clearly encouraged public interest and anything which encouraged the public to take an interest in politics was to be welcomed.

50. The situation in the Northern Ireland Assembly is very different. The government or Executive is formed by a voluntary coalition of the four largest parties. This unique formation means that it is not always possible to recreate the Question Time atmosphere associated with government / opposition in other legislatures.

“The unique character of the NI Executive—a four party ‘government’ which together holds 97 of the 108 seats—creates a very different dynamic than is the case of a single party or two-party administration faced by a major (and formal) Opposition party or parties. There is, in effect, no alternative government-in-waiting ready willing and perhaps able to throw the ‘rascals’ out—if rascals they be."

(Written Submission, Professor Wilford)

51. The evidence from Professor Wilford confirms that the structure of the Executive does not readily lend itself to government / opposition structure and that there may be merit in allowing the relevant committee chairperson to ask the first question. This question could potentially be asked with little or no notice thus allowing for topical questions. Such a question may also have an element of challenge that could introduce increased accountability and entertainment.

52. The Committee discussed this in some depth and recognised that the proposition does have some merit. However, the chairperson, as the representative of the committee, could only ask the first question if that question had been agreed by the committee. As the Minister would undoubtedly be informed by his or her party members on the committee, the element of topicality and challenge would be greatly reduced. The Committee also noted that the Speaker already gives a preference to the chairperson or deputy chairperson of the relevant statutory committee in being selected for supplementaries. Chairpersons or deputy chairpersons do make use of this preference asking supplementary questions without the prior agreement of their committees. The Committee therefore decided against recommending the introduction of new procedure whereby the first question would be reserved for the chairperson or deputy chairperson of the relevant statutory committee.

53. The Committee did however note that, on occasions, the shuffle despite its randomness, or indeed because of it, does produce a list where the first one or two questions are from members of the same party as the Minister. It was recognised by all members that such “friendly fire" at the start of a Question Time session was not desirable. The Committee considered whether the Speaker should be allowed to ensure that questions one, two or three are not from a member of the same party as the Minister. However, as noted earlier, on average only five to six questions are asked and to allow the random order of the listing of questions to be altered by any more than one question would be unfair. The Committee agreed therefore that the Speaker should be allowed to readjust the order of questions produced by the shuffle to ensure that the first question is not from a member of the same party as the Minister.

The Committee recommends that the first question listed should not be from a member of the same party as the Minister.

The rota for Ministers at Question Time.

54. The research commissioned by the Committee showed that it is normal practice for questions to be put to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, the First Minister in the Scottish Parliament and the Taoiseach in the Dáil on a weekly basis.

55. In the Assembly, the First Minister and deputy First Minister appear before the Assembly to answer questions every two weeks. Other Ministers appear on a four week cycle. The Assembly Commission answers questions every 12 weeks.

First Minister and deputy First Minister

56. The Committee considered the two-weekly appearance of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and sought the opinion of MLAs in the survey carried out by Assembly Research Service. The Committee wanted to know if there was any desire to see an increase in the appearance of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The majority of those interviewed in the survey were of the opinion that the appearance every two weeks was adequate.

57. The Committee also took account of evidence from Professor Wilford which suggested that there is a case for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to appear weekly – “Their equivalents elsewhere do, and I see no reason why they should not follow suit."

58. The Committee considered a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister which reflected the Executive’s views on this and other issues. The letter noted that First Minister and deputy First Minister answer questions which focus primarily on their departmental business and not on issues which are the responsibility of other Ministers. The letter noted –

“The scheduling of fortnightly questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which originated during the previous Assembly, appears to reflect an assumption that they would perform a wider representative role as joint chairs of the Executive and therefore be in a position to address issues beyond their departmental remit."

“On this basis, the Executive believes there is therefore no obvious rationale for fortnightly questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister and, conversely, a strong practical argument for oral questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to be monthly, as for other Ministers."

59. These views, and others, were explored with junior Minister Donaldson and junior Minister Kelly when they appeared before the Committee to present the Executive’s views on the Inquiry into Assembly Questions.

60. The Committee gave consideration to information from the junior Ministers that between September 2008 and the Christmas Recess, half of the questions listed for oral answer covered only five broad areas. The junior Ministers presented a case which was based on a proposal that “to reduce the frequency with which OFMDFM attends Question Time should improve the quality of the questions….A slightly longer gap would mean that questions would be more focused and more pertinent to the issues of the day"

61. The Committee raised a number of issues with the junior Ministers including the level of work and range of remit of the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister; the likely negative public perception if First Minister and deputy First Minister were to appear less often; the possibility that the very special role of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Assembly could be undervalued; and the need by the First Minister and deputy First Minister to be seen to be accountable.

The Committee recommends that there should be no change to the rota for the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

62. The Committee also took account of the evidence provided by the junior Ministers that between September 2008 and Christmas Recess 2008, half of the questions listed for answer by First Minister and deputy First Minister covered five broad areas of the credit crunch, children and young people, the number of executive meetings, the investment strategy and military sites.

63. Junior Minister Donaldson, in response to a query from the Committee on the range of questions that could be asked of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, noted that “…members rarely play the field to its full extent."

64. The Committee requested further information on the range of responsibilities of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Appendix 5). It would encourage all members to submit a wider range of questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Committee also took account of a suggestion from the junior Ministers that training may be useful in widening the types of questions and helping members to focus on more pertinent questions. The Committee noted that the staff from the Assembly Business Office were already very helpful in this regard and did offer training to members.

Junior Ministers

65. The Committee also considered a proposal that First Minister and deputy First Minister be allowed to refer certain oral questions to the junior Ministers at Question Time. The questions to be referred would be those for which the junior Ministers had specific responsibility. The Committee noted that in response to an oral question on 11 June 2007, the First Minister outlined the specific responsibilities of the junior Ministers as –

“The junior Ministers are assisting the Deputy First Minister and me in dealing with the enormous workload associated with all those functions. In addition, they have particular responsibility for liaising with the Assembly on Executive business, for co-ordination of policy for young people and children’s issues, and for older people’s issues. In order to discharge those responsibilities, they need to attend Executive meetings and to participate in them as appropriate. They are not members of the Executive, so they cannot vote on any issue for which a vote is required in Executive meetings."

66. The Committee considered the request noting that between the period of September 2008 and Christmas recess 2008, OFMDFM were up to answer questions 6 times and answered 33 questions of which 4 would have fallen within the area of junior Ministers responsibility.

67. The Committee noted that in accordance with the Northern Ireland Act, the junior Ministers are not members of the Executive Committee although they attend in an advisory and observational capacity and it is not therefore the junior Ministers who are accountable for these issues, either to the public or to the Executive. However, as the junior Ministers have the in depth knowledge and are fully au fait with the policy and developments in the specified areas, it was considered by a majority of the Committee, after detailed and lengthy discussion, appropriate that the First Minister and deputy First Minister be able, during Question Time, to ask a junior Minister to answer a question specific to their role. However, so as not to see an erosion of the role of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, junior Ministers would not be allowed to answer during Question Time in the absence of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The Committee recommends that the First Minister and deputy First Minister be able, during Question Time, to call on the junior Ministers to answer oral questions for those areas that they have specific responsibility as outlined by the First Minister to the Assembly on 11 June 2007. The Committee further recommends that the junior Ministers are not allowed to answer oral questions in the absence of either the First Minister or deputy First Minister.

Ministers

68. The Committee examined the rota for other Ministers and was broadly content that each Minister should appear for Question Time every four weeks. The Committee noted the possibility of a new department at some stage in the future dealing with policing and justice matters and that this would have an impact on the four week rota. However, the Committee was content to defer consideration of the impact of this to the appropriate time.

The time bands allocated for Question Time

69. Question Time occurs every Monday there is a sitting at between 2.30pm and 4.00pm. Recognising that Question Time is the centrepiece of the parliamentary week, the Committee acknowledged that it received a disproportionate large amount of media coverage and public interest. The Committee gave consideration to whether the time bands and length of time currently allocated for Question Time were the best for MLAs, for engagement with the public and the media. In gathering evidence on this issue, the Committee commissioned a survey of visitors to the public gallery during Question Time and a survey of a visiting school – 33 AS politics pupils from Glenlola Collegiate, Bangor.

70. Question Time is covered by the BBC’s “Stormont Live" which occupies a slot between 2.30pm – 3.45pm on a Monday and Tuesday and has an audience ranging between 10,000 – 19,000. For example, on Monday 6 October 2008, 17,000 people or 9% of the viewing audience watched Stormont Live.

71. While acknowledging that this is a relatively small figure compared to the evening news programme or popular entertainment programmes, it is a considerable audience for a Monday afternoon and it is hoped that this can be built on following the introduction of revised procedures.

72. The Committee heard that Stormont Live regularly broadcasts live segments of the questions for the first two Ministers but because of the time slot, the third Minister is rarely covered.

73. The Committee noted that the rota for Question Time means that the same Minister is always in the third slot. For example, for the period January to March 2009, the Ministers for Enterprise Trade and Development, Finance and Personnel, Culture Arts and Leisure and Social Development have the third time slot and are likely therefore to get little coverage on Stormont Live.

74. In answer to a question from the Committee on whether a Question Time slot on a Tuesday would generate coverage, the BBC representative, Mark Devenport, replied –

“In general, the ‘Stormont Live’ team would welcome that, as questions to a third Minister on Monday can get rather lost; therefore, having it on Tuesday would provide us with something in the Chamber of interest to our viewers."

75. The Committee also heard that Question Time to the First Minister and deputy First Minister is covered by the BBC Parliament Channel on the Saturday after it takes place and this can have an audience of up to 76,000.

76. The Committee noted that in its survey of MLAs, there was support from some for Question Time to be split over a Monday and a Tuesday.

77. The Committee agreed that there was merit for a question period on both Monday (two Ministers) and Tuesday (one Minister) because it not only increased media coverage but also widened the opportunities available to the public and visitors to the Assembly to see Question Time. The Committee also agreed with many of the MLAs interviewed in the survey that one and half hours of Question Time was too long and that interest waned during the last half hour slot.

The Committee recommends that there should be a Question Time to two Ministers on a Monday from 2.30pm – 3.30pm and to one Minister on a Tuesday from 3.00pm – 3.30pm.

78. The Committee deliberated on increasing the length of Question Time to 35 or 40 minutes per Minister. This would have the advantage of allowing more questions on the Question Paper to be answered. The Committee agreed that it would be preferable to assess the impact of the other recommendations in this report before making a decision on this aspect.

The length of Ministerial responses

79. Individual members of the Committee, during the inquiry, indicated their dissatisfaction with the length and the content of some responses from some Ministers. This was reinforced by comments from MLAs interviewed in the survey where around one third of respondents felt that a time limit should be imposed because of lengthy responses. Comments from those interviewed who favoured a time limit include –

“Ministerial responses should be under a time limit so Ministers cannot give very long answers that take up a lot of time which could be spent on getting through the questions on the Order Paper."

“Sometimes it’s the answers to questions which are the problem. A time limit on Ministerial responses would be a good idea. Every Minister does it from time to time but it is very frustrating for Members not getting to ask their question."

80. Practically all those interviewed also commented on the disappointing content of some Ministerial responses. It was perceived by many that Ministerial responses often did not adequately address the issue raised in the lead question and that even after posing a supplementary, many felt the issue was still not sufficiently addressed. MLAs commented that Ministers sometimes came with pre-prepared replies to both question and possible supplementaries and this was read out no matter what the supplementary asked.

81. This was also noted by Mr Graham, Stormont Correspondents Association in his evidence to the Committee –

“I mean no harm to civil servants, but they provide documentation for Ministers that seems — whether by mind reading or by computer implant — to anticipate the answers to supplementary questions, which means that Ministers are not fully tested. That can weigh down Question Time."

82. There were suggestions that the Speaker should intervene when a Minister did not adequately answer a question. However, as the Committee noted, members raise issues arising out of their specialist work on committees or as party spokesperson or on a constituency issue. Unlike the member asking the question, the Speaker is not familiar with the issues being raised and can not therefore rely on his judgement to assess whether a question has been adequately replied to. The Committee also noted that if a member is not satisfied with a reply, he or she has remedy in being able to submit a written question or table a motion for a private members debate (although getting such a motion onto the Order paper is at the discretion of the Business Committee).

83. In a written submission to the Committee the Speaker noted –

“There have been occasions when Ministers have read out replies verbatim from their briefs…"

And

“It would appear that the only way of avoiding very lengthy and detailed responses may be a consideration of time restriction..."

84. The Speaker did suggest that two minutes should be allowed for the Minister’s initial response, that a member be allowed up to 30 seconds for posing a supplementary and that the Minister is allowed up to one minute to reply to that. Given that a lead supplementary question is followed by up to two further supplementaries, this would give a maximum possible total of six and half minutes per question and only four to five questions per 30 minute period.

85. The Committee considered the time limits imposed in other legislatures namely the Dáil and the Ontario Parliament.

Table Five. Time Limits in Other Legislatures

Time Limits The Dáil The Ontario Parliament.
Ministers Initial Response 2 minutes 1 minute
Lead supplementary 1 minute 1 minute
Ministers Response 1 minute 1 minute
Second supplementary 1 minute 1 minute
Ministers Response 1 minute 1 minute

86. The Committee noted the very close relationship between the number of supplementaries allowed and the number of questions answered by the Minister. While supplementaries allow for probing, a balance must be struck which allows a Minister to move to the next question. The Committee observed a ruling from the Speaker of 11 March 2002 regarding allowing up to two supplementaries –

“I do that to ensure that members who take the trouble to table questions are not excessively disadvantaged by other members who request to ask a supplementary question"

87. The Committee deliberated on the introduction of time limits for Ministers’ responses and for members in posing a supplementary question and agreed that the main advantage is the clear message being sent to Ministers that long winded, pre-prepared replies would not be tolerated. The Committee agreed that some members posed long winded multi part supplementary questions and noted a comment from the Stormont Correspondents Association that if a member has to read a supplementary it is too long.

88. The Committee examined various possible time limits as outlined below in table six and noted than none of the limits provided for an increase in the number of questions actually answered. It would appear to the Committee that it would take both the imposition of very strict time limits and a reduction in the number of supplementaries to achieve an increase in the number of questions answered. The Committee was concerned that a reduction in the number of supplementaries would be at the expense of probing and accountability and are therefore making no recommendations in this area.

Table Six. Various Possible Time Limits

Event Time limits (1)
(Speaker’s suggestion)
Time limits (2) Time limits (3)
Ministers response lead question Up to 2 minutes Up to 1 min 30 sec Up to 1 min 30 sec
Lead supplementary Up to 30 seconds Up to 30 seconds Up to 30 seconds
Minister response lead supplementary Up to one minute Up to one minute Up to one minute
Pose second supplementary Up to 30 seconds Up to 30 seconds Up to 30 seconds
Minister response second supplementary Up to one minute Up to one minute Up to 45 seconds
Pose third supplementary Up to 30 seconds Up to 30 seconds Up to 30 seconds
Minister response third supplementary Up to one minute Up to one minute Up to 45 seconds
TOTAL per question Maximum 6min 30sec Maximum 6 minutes Maximum 5mins 30 sec
Number of questions per 30 minutes 30 ÷ 6½mins = 4.6
or 4 to 5 questions
30 ÷ 6mins = 5 questions 30 ÷ 5½mins = 5.45
or 5 to 6 questions

The impact of removing one supplementary question is as follows -

Supplementary questions and responses

89. As the above paragraphs indicate, the importance of supplementary questions cannot be underestimated. They allow MLAs to probe the Minister and to test the initial response. During the inquiry the Speaker indicated to the Committee that he selected members to ask supplementary questions based on a number of criteria including –

90. The Committee noted a variety of opinions in the survey of members including that from a number that the lead questioner should be allowed two supplementary questions on occasions. The Committee has taken no strong position on this other than to comment that allowing the lead questioner two supplementaries could only be done at the expense of another member wishing to ask a supplementary on that question.

91. The Committee briefly discussed but took no position on only allowing the lead supplementary and one other. Such a situation, while allowing more questions to be answered, may be at the expense of probing and accountability.

Written Questions

Tabling of written questions

92. The Committee considered the processes in place for the tabling of written and priority written questions. The Committee took account of the systems in place in other legislatures –

93. The Committee was aware of the diversity in the number of questions tabled by members and parties as demonstrated by the tables below. In the 2007/08 session, 8619 written questions had been tabled of which 2763 were tabled by 10 members i.e. 32% of questions were tabled by 9% of members. In a written submission to the Committee, the Speaker noted that the number of written questions tabled had increased in volume compared to the last mandate.

Table Seven. Number of Written Questions submitted by parties, session 2007 - 2008

Party Written Questions Submitted
Alliance Party 461
Democratic Unionist Party 3708
Green Party 88
Independent 17
Independent Health Coalition 2
Progressive Unionist Party 5
Sinn Fein 1682
Social Democratic and Labour Party 1406
Ulster Unionist Party 1250
Total 8619

Table Eight. Number of Questions submitted to each department for Written Answer, session 2007 - 2008

Department Number of Written Questions
The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister 546
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development 587
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure 483
The Minister of Education 1290
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment 573
The Minister of the Environment 807
The Minister of Finance and Personnel 459
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety 1455
The Minister for Employment and Learning 411
The Minister for Regional Development 1027
The Minister for Social Development 896
The Assembly Commission 85
Total 8619

94. The Committee noted that the findings in the survey of members indicated that the majority were satisfied with the current procedures for written questions. It also noted evidence from the Executive that it was content with the current tabling limit for written questions. The Committee explored whether five written questions per day per member should be increased or decreased and agreed that no change was required.

Departmental referencing to research or websites

95. The Committee deliberated on whether some MLAs do not use written questions in the manner they were intended and that some members overused the facility. In discussing these concerns the Committee commented that MLAs could potentially look to research and websites before placing the question or, indeed, directly contact the government office. The Committee considered a proposal to address this but noted that in the guidance issued to departments on answering written questions, Ministers did have the facility to refer the member to research or a website where the information sought could be found.

96. The Committee asked every government department for information on whether this facility was regularly used. Out of the ten departments which responded, seven stated they would use this facility.

97. The Committee considered that it was content that this facility was available to Ministers and there was no need for it to be strengthened.

Extent to which Ministers achieved the target for answering written questions.

98. The Committee had been informed through a number of sources that there were concerns around the extent to which Ministers achieved the target for answering written questions. It was known that members interviewed in the survey had indicated discontent in this area; the Speaker had also informed the Committee that he had received a series of complaints about late replies. The Committee collected statistical information to assist its assessment of the problem and noted significant differences between departments.

99. The Committee took evidence from the department with the best record (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) and worst record (Department of Education). The Committee explored the systems in place to ensure written questions were answered on time and was reassured to learn that processes had been revised to ensure an improved performance. The Committee agreed that it would be useful to periodically review the performance tables and to call departments with a poor record to account.

It is recommended that the Committee on Procedures periodically reviews departmental performance in answering written questions.

Costs and resources associated with answering written questions

100. The Committee noted that guidance issued to departments to assist in answering written questions contained a section on “Disproportionate cost" which stated –

“Although, with certain exceptions, a Member can expect a reply to any Question, an answer may be refused if that information is not readily available and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost. For information, the present limit for Written Questions is £700."

And

“It should be borne in mind that despite a disproportionate cost, Ministers may direct that the Question should be answered."

101. The Committee, broadly sympathetic to the concept of disproportionate cost, explored this issue by asking all departments how they measured cost and how many written questions had been refused on the basis of cost. The Committee was concerned to discover that departments kept no record of or attempted to assess the cost of answering a written question yet some departments were able to refuse to answer questions on the basis of cost. The Committee considered that this is a contradiction.

102. To explore this aspect further, the Committee asked the two departments which provided oral evidence to it to carry out a limited exercise on cost by analysing a sample of ten recently answered questions. The cost for the Department of Education was £299 per answer and for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was £156 per answer. The cost for the Department of Education was higher only in part due to the translation of the answer from English into Irish (the Department provided information to indicate that the translation cost of 26 questions by external translators cost £141.90; that translations service had now been brought in house and the estimated cost of in house translation of the same 26 answers would have been £70.35).

103. Because the Committee has no factual evidence, it is unable to assess whether the £700 disproportionate cost is reasonable or not. In fact, the Committee was unable to discover how this figure was arrived at and suspected that it was a straight “lift" from a similar procedure in Westminster.

104. The Committee noted that departments are used to keeping records of costs arising out of Freedom of Information requests. It sees no reason why a similar or comparative system could not be developed for written questions.

The Committee recommends that departments develop as a matter of urgency, a system to calculate the costs of answering written questions and applies this.

Priority Written Questions

105. The Committee noted anecdotal evidence that poor departmental performance in answering written questions had some impact on the increase in numbers of priority written questions tabled. It considered a request from the Executive that “criteria should be introduced to ensure that their usage more closely aligns with the priority or urgency of the subject matter" and that there should be, within the daily quota, a limit on the number of priority written questions that a member can table. The request, made in the letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister, noted that priority written questions should not be used to ask for large amounts of statistical or other historic information.

106. The Committee considered this request drawing on their own experience of tabling priority written questions and that expressed by members in the survey.

107. Many interviewed in the members’ survey discussed how they perceived priority written questions as often being used incorrectly and, at times, they perceived this as an abuse of the system. A number of individuals voiced their concerns and confusion over what constituted a priority question and reiterated that priority questions should be used only in extreme circumstances. Some of the comments included –

“Questions can go through the priority system which are not priority questions. Often questions are about on going issues and are not urgent matters. Members should have to justify a question for priority."

“I can’t see the difference between Priority Written Questions and ordinary Written Questions. I would prefer a smaller number of questions which genuinely get priority and are used sparingly."

“I have a concern with the system of Priority Written Questions. Some questions which Members put in as Priority should be ordinary written questions."

“Priority Written Questions should be used only in extreme circumstances."

108. The Committee, in its consideration, took into account the pressure that priority written questions put on departments and the considerable staff and time resources that are needed to answer such requests. The Committee believes that an improvement in the performance of departments in replying to written questions on time, will lead to a decrease in the number of priority written questions submitted. However, the Committee does believe that there is a strong case for some additional admissibility criteria in this area.

The Committee recommends that only one of the five written questions per day can be used as a priority written question.

The Committee recommends that priority written questions are not used to ask for large amounts of statistical information or historic data.

Private Notice Questions

109. The procedures for private notice questions (PNQs) are set out in Standing Order 20. A letter from the Speaker of 15 September 2008 noted that in the previous session, six PNQ’s were accepted and 8 rejected and that –

“Most of those turned down were on grounds that they were non urgent and could have received a reply via a two day priority written question"

110. The Committee noted a request from the Executive that “it would be helpful if the time criterion for admissibility could be revised from 4 hours to 6 hours to permit more time for Ministers to prepare full and comprehensive answers." It conversely noted a comment from Professor Wilford that the time should be reduced from four to two hours.

111. The relevant section of Standing Order 20 states –

“Notice of a proposed private notice question shall be given to the clerk and to the member of the Executive Committee concerned not less than four hours before the start of Question time (i.e. normally by 10.30 am on a Monday)…"

112. All PNQ’s must be tabled in the Business Office by 10.30am on any day on which there is a sitting (i.e. normally Monday or Tuesday) and PNQ’s tabled on a Monday will be scheduled for answer as soon as possible after Question Time, i.e. after 4.00pm. PNQ’s tabled on a Tuesday will be taken immediately before the Adjournment Debate, but not before 2.30pm. The Committee noted that in practice, it is likely that the period of notice available to a Minister to answer a PNQ will be in excess of the minimum period of 4 hours, and will probably be more in the region of 5 to 6 hours.

113. The Committee considered this request and decided that as neither MLAs or the Speaker had raised the time limit as a problem, and as so few PNQ’s requests currently met the criteria, there was no need therefore to amend the Standing Order. Ministers had only been called on to respond to a PNQ on 6 occasions in the last session and this could not be considered to be an overly onerous duty.

114. The Committee also agreed that the title of the Standing Order should be changed from Private Notice Questions to Urgent Questions to better reflect the nature and content of the procedure.

Minutes of Proceedings

Wednesday, 11th June 2008
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Wendy Young (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)

Apologies: Lord Morrow
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr Mickey Brady

The meeting opened at 2.02pm in public session.

6. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Agreed: The Committee considered and agreed the terms of reference for the inquiry into Assembly Questions.

Agreed: The Committee considered and agreed the potential witnesses and advice and for the Committee staff to begin to make arrangements.

Agreed: The Committee considered and agreed the sources and methods of gathering evidence and information.

Agreed: The Committee agreed for a press release to be drawn up for release prior to summer Recess.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures.

Wednesday, 25th June 2008
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Wendy Young (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)

Apologies: Mr Sean Neeson

Mr Francie Brolly

The meeting opened at 2.00pm in public session.

8. Any Other Business

The Committee noted the press release on the inquiry into Assembly Questions tabled at the meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed the press release for the inquiry into Assembly Questions.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures.

Wednesday, 8th October 2008
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Vivien Ireland (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Mary Carroll (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Raymond McCartney

The meeting opened at 2.02 pm in public session

7. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

The Committee was briefed by the following representatives from the Stormont Correspondents Association: Mr Mark Devenport, Mr Eamon Mallie and Mr Billy Graham. The session was recorded by Hansard.

Agreed: Members agreed that Mr Devenport will provide the Committee with viewing information from the Welsh Assembly.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Wednesday, 22nd October 2008
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Vivien Ireland (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Claire Cassidy (Assembly Research)

Apologies: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr David McClarty
Mr Ken Robinson

The meeting opened at 2.03 pm in public session.

4. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Assembly Research provided follow up information to the Committee on the following issues: topical questions in the House of Commons; advisory cost limit of parliamentary questions and government departments referring members of the Dáil to departmental websites for information.

2.13 pm Mr Adrian McQuillan joined the meeting.

The Committee took evidence from Professor Rick Wilford, Queens University regarding his work on procedures relating to ‘Parliamentary Questions’ in a number of legislatures. The session was recorded by Hansard.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to send Professor Rick Wilford the Stormont live viewing figures which were obtained from Mark Devenport, British Broadcasting Corporation.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to request information on what protocols are in place for Ministers to answer Assembly Questions.

Members raised the following issues to be noted for the inquiry report: freedom of information requests being complementary to written questions; welcoming informality and cutting down on the number of questions tabled by members; examining the timing issues involved with a question asked by a member and the answer given by a Minister along with splitting Question Time over two days instead of one.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to invite officials from the Business Office to explain to members the process of how Assembly Questions are selected.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to invite the Speaker and Deputy Speakers to explain their role in Question Time to members.

The Committee was advised by the clerk that it was envisaged that the junior Ministers would attend the next evidence session on Assembly Questions scheduled for 5th November however this will be subject to the agreement of the Executive at its next meeting.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that it will examine statistics provided by the Business Office on Departmental performance in answering written Assembly Questions at its next meeting on 5th November. It also agreed that it will subsequently invite officials from Departments to discuss their relevant performance in this area.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Wednesday, 5th November 2008
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Ms Vivien Ireland (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)
Dr Robert Barry (Assembly Research)

Apologies: Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Ken Robinson

The meeting opened at 2.00 pm in public session.

4. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

The Committee was briefed by Assembly Research on information held in the Assembly’s database in respect of oral Assembly Questions for the period from May 2007 to the end of September 2008.

Members were briefed by the clerk on statistical information collected from the Business Office on ordinary written and priority written Assembly Questions.

Agreed: The Committee agreed to invite officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Education to discuss their performance when answering Assembly Questions for the period from 1 April 2008 to 31 July 2008.

Members were advised that the evidence session with the junior Ministers cannot be confirmed until a meeting of the Executive takes place.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Wednesday, 19 November 2008
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Jim Beatty (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)
Ms Claire Cassidy (Assembly Research)

Apologies: Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Sean Neeson

The meeting opened at 2.01 pm in public session.

4. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

The Speaker, William Hay MLA, accompanied by John Stewart, Director of Clerking and Reporting and Mairead Mageean, Assembly Business Clerk, joined the meeting at 2.06pm, made a presentation on Question Time and responded to queries from members.

Mr McCartney joined the meeting at 2.07pm.

The Speaker left the meeting at 2.35pm.

Joe Cassells, Paul Mills and John McManus, officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, joined the meeting at 2.40pm and provided evidence on the processes within the Department for handling Assembly Questions. They then answered questions from the members.

The officials left the meeting at 3.00pm.

Robson Davison, John Leonard, Graeme McFarland and David Savage, officials from the Department of Education, joined the meeting at 3.01pm and provided evidence on the processes within the Department for handling Assembly Questions. They then answered questions from the members.

Mr McClarty left the meeting at 3.11pm.

The officials left the meeting at 3.35pm.

The Committee was briefed by Assembly Research on the results of the surveys on Assembly Questions.

Agreed: The Committee agreed that, based on the evidence to date, the Clerk should prepare an issues paper for discussion at the meeting on 3 December 2008.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Room 152, Parliament Buildings

Present: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Jim Beatty (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr Diarmaid Elder (Clerical Officer)
Mr Kevin Shiels (Assembly Business Office)

Apologies: Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Sean Neeson

The meeting opened at 2.00 pm in public session.

8. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

The Committee considered an issues paper prepared by the clerk.

Mr McCartney left the meeting at 3.03pm.

Mr McClarty left the meeting at 3.39pm.

Mr O’Loan left the meeting at 3.54pm.

Agreed: Members agreed to consult their parties on the issues and to report back to the Committee at the next meeting. It was also agreed that the clerk would write to the Party Whips with a background to the issues.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Tuesday, 6 January 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Jim Beatty (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr Diarmaid Elder (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan

The meeting opened at 2.34 pm in closed session.

1. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Members reported back on their discussions with party colleagues on the key issues discussed at the meeting on 3 December 2008.

Agreed: The Committee agreed the way forward on the majority of the key issues. Outstanding issues will be discussed at the meeting on 3 February 2009.

The meeting moved into open session at 3.01pm.

5. Evidence from Junior Ministers (1)

Junior Minister Donaldson and Junior Minister Kelly, accompanied by Alan Rogers and Neil Jackson, OFMDFM, joined the meeting at 3.02pm.

After making a short presentation on various issues, including attendance of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Assembly Question Time, the Junior Ministers answered questions from the members.

The Junior Ministers and officials left the meeting at 3.53pm.

(Discussion on the issues that arose from the evidence session was deferred until after the next item.)

7. Evidence Session with Junior Ministers (2)

Members discussed the issues that arose from the earlier evidence session with the Junior Ministers.

Agreed: It was agreed that the Clerk should ask:-

(a) the Assembly Business Office about the assistance and training available to members on tabling Assembly Questions and the remit of the FM and DFM, and

(b) OFMDFM for a detailed list of its responsibilities.

It was also agreed that members would consult with their party on outstanding issues arising from the Junior Ministers’ attendance.

8. Costs of Written Answers

The Committee considered departmental responses to its queries on processes and costs. Outstanding responses will be brought before the Committee at the meeting in February 2009.

Agreed: It was agreed to ask if a template was available for departments to use to assess the costs of preparing responses, similar to any used for costing FoI responses.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Jim Beatty (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Noelle Bourke (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr Diarmaid Elder (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: None

The meeting opened at 2.05pm in closed session.

1. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Members noted further evidence in relation to the inquiry.

The Committee considered a draft report for its inquiry.

Executive Summary

Paragraph 1 - amended and agreed.

Paragraphs 2 – 7 - agreed

Paragraph 8 - to be reconsidered at the next meeting.

Paragraphs 9 – 10 - agreed.

Paragraph 11 – to be reconsidered at the next meeting.

Paragraphs 12 – 15 - agreed.

Summary of Recommendations

To be considered at the next meeting

Main Report

Paragraphs 1 – 46 – agreed

Paragraph 47 – the Committee agreed a revised shuffle system

Paragraphs 48 – 52 – agreed

Paragraph 53 – the Committee agreed a condition on the revised shuffle system

Paragraphs 54 – 65 – agreed

Paragraphs 66 - to be reconsidered at the next meeting

The Chairperson proposed that the Committee should agree Paragraph 67, subject to the presence of either the FMdFM. Those in favour of the motion – Lord Morrow, Mr Storey, Lord Browne, Mr McQuillan, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly and Mr McCartney. Those against the motion – Mr O’Loan and Mr Robinson. The motion was agreed.

Paragraphs 68 – 76 – agreed

Paragraph 77 – the Committee agreed that Question Time on a Tuesday should be from 3.00pm – 3.30pm

Paragraph 78 – 87 - agreed

Paragraph 88 – the Committee agreed that no time limits would be applied

Paragraphs 89 – 103 - agreed

Paragraph 104 – amended and agreed

Paragraphs 105 – 107 – agreed

Paragraph 108 – the Committee agreed two new recommendations on Priority Written Answers

Paragraphs 109 – 114 – agreed

Agreed: It was agreed that a final draft report would be considered at the next meeting.

The meeting moved into open session at3.15 pm.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 4.38pm

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Tuesday, 3 March 2009
Room 144, Parliament Buildings

Present: Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Wallace Browne
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Ken Robinson

In Attendance: Ms Stella McArdle (Assembly Clerk)
Mr Jim Beatty (Assistant Assembly Clerk)
Ms Linda Hare (Clerical Supervisor)
Mr Diarmaid Elder (Clerical Officer)

Apologies: None

The meeting opened at 2.03pm in closed session.

1. Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Members noted further evidence in relation to the inquiry.

The Committee reconsidered a draft report for its inquiry.

Front Cover – agreed

Membership and Powers – agreed

Table of Contents – agreed

Executive Summary - agreed

Summary of Recommendations

Amended and agreed

Main Report

Paragraph 47, Table 4 – agreed

Paragraph 53 – amended and agreed

Paragraphs 65 – 67 - agreed

Paragraph 77 – agreed

Paragraph 88 - agreed

Paragraph 108 – agreed

Minutes of Proceedings

Pages 27 – 37 – agreed

Minutes of Evidence

Pages 41 – 77 – agreed

Written Submissions

Pages 81 – 166 – agreed

Research Papers

Pages 169 – 244 – agreed

Agreed: The Committee ordered the report to be printed today and agreed for two copies to be lodged with the Business Office.

Agreed: Committee members will receive a copy of the report when it is printed.

Agreed: The report will be embargoed until commencement of the debate on the report in Plenary.

Agreed: MLAs will receive a copy of the report the week before the report is due to be debated.

Agreed: A copy will be sent to Assembly Liaison Section, OFMDFM, after MLAs have received their copies.

Agreed: To seek to debate the report in Plenary on Monday, 30 March 2009.

The clerk briefed the Committee on some issues relating to the implementation of the recommendations in the report.

Agreed: If necessary, the Committee will meet outside the agreed schedule to consider changes to Standing Orders on Questions.

Agreed: The Committee agreed further procedures in relation to issues raised by the Business Office relating to Recommendation 3 in that the first question should not be from the DUP when the First Minister is answering or from Sinn Fein when the deputy First Minister is answering. The Committee also agreed that in the event that all members selected to ask a question are from the same party, this should be allowed to happen.

The Committee considered a draft Press Release for the launch of its report.

Agreed: Subject to the Chairperson’s agreement on a minor issue, the Committee agreed the Press Release.

Agreed: The Stormont Correspondents Association and BBC Parliament will be provided with copies of the report a few days before the report is debated in Plenary.

The Committee considered a draft motion for debate of the report in Plenary.

Agreed: The Committee agreed the draft motion.

The meeting moved into open session at 2.31 pm.

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures

Appendix 2

Minutes of Evidence

8 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Lord Browne
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

Witnesses:

Mr Mark Devenport

British Broadcasting Corporation

Mr Billy Graham

The Irish News

Mr Eamon Mallie

1. The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Storey): I welcome the gentlemen of the press to give evidence on the Committee’s inquiry into Question Time.

2. Mr Mark Devenport (British Broadcasting Corporation): I will begin, as I am the chairman of the Stormont Correspondents’ Association (SCA). Before discussing our views of Question Time, I will say a few brief words. The Stormont Correspondents’ Association was formed when Eileen Bell was Speaker. It is a fairly loose organisation, mainly concerned with housekeeping issues, such as access to, and within, the Building. We do not have a shared editorial view; we are individuals and can speak for ourselves. However, on the issue at hand, I emailed a few of my thoughts to people, and none of them particularly demurred on them.

3. Of course, I wear another hat as BBC Northern Ireland’s political editor; no doubt members are aware of what that means and the kind of job that I do. In that guise, I will say a little about the formats in which Question Time becomes part of the BBC’s output. There may be a clip on Radio Ulster’s news bulletins; for example, a recent exchange between the Health Minister and West Tyrone MLAs about the siting of the locally enhanced hospital in Omagh made it on to those bulletins. Sometimes Question Time can make it on to ‘Evening Extra’, or, if it is particularly newsworthy, can warrant a report on ‘BBC Newsline’ at 6.30 pm. Question Time is also likely to find its way onto the BBC’s airwaves in ‘Today at the Assembly’ — which is Conor Bradford’s wrap on the day — which is broadcast on sitting days after the news at 10 o’clock; it is broadcast again on ‘Good Morning Ulster’ between 6.30 am and 7.30 am. Sometimes Conor is asked to make a contribution to ‘Yesterday in Parliament’, which is broadcast on Radio 4 at about 6.30 am on FM and on medium wave at about 8.45 am.

4. Not everyone knows this, but the BBC Parliament Channel, which is broadcast on satellite and digital TV, always broadcasts questions to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the Saturday after it takes place. Like most digital TV channels, it does not reach huge audiences, but I discovered online that it has a weekly reach of 76,000 people. People are watching around the UK. On the internet, Question Time can lead to stories on the main BBC news website, or even, if it is particularly interesting, I might feature it on my blog, ‘The Devenport Diaries’.

5. Last, but definitely not least, is ‘Stormont Live’, the BBC’s very own version of ‘The Little and Large Show’, in which I normally sit alongside Jim Fitzpatrick. ‘Stormont Live’ occupies a slot between 2.30 pm and 3.45 pm on BBC2 on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, and it is the only programme that regularly broadcasts live proceedings in the Chamber. I see Committee members who have been regular contributors to ‘Stormont Live’, so you probably know the format. For those who have not followed it, we play segments of what is happening live in the Chamber, intermixed with recorded segments of debates that might have happened earlier in the day. We also have a mixture of MLAs and other interested parties in the studio or on the line commenting on what is going on. Sometimes we try to add value to a debate by commissioning a special film about a topic. For instance, yesterday we spoke to David Simpson about his motion on the need for extra provision for special-needs school leavers, but we prefaced it with a striking short film about a mother in Craigavon whose special-needs son was just turning 19, in which she explained her personal point of view on the issue.

6. Question Time is particularly important for the Monday programme. We try to broadcast live segments of the questions for the first two Ministers; however, because of the show’s time slot we rarely broadcast many of the questions to the third Minister. Sometimes, we have endeavoured to make up for that by showing an extract from questions to the third Minister in the Tuesday programme; however, that depends on the day’s agenda. If there is not much going on, that is a good option; but if there is a fast-moving news development, questions to the third Minister can fall by the wayside.

7. During an initial chat with your officials, some mention was made of the possibility of splitting Question Time, whereby two Ministers would answer questions on Mondays and another two on Tuesdays. In general, the ‘Stormont Live’ team would welcome that, as questions to a third Minister on Monday can get rather lost; therefore, having it on Tuesday would provide us with something in the Chamber of interest to our viewers.

8. The viewing figures for ‘Stormont Live’ will never rival those for ‘Match of the Day’. However, the programme is an important part of our contact with people in Northern Ireland and a fulfilment of our public-service obligations. Members who have been in the studio will know that, apart from Jim Fitzpatrick and me, there are cameramen and producers who help to make the programme. In the Gallery, there are producers and technicians who transmit the feed to Broadcasting House. That requires a great deal of input.

9. It is worth mentioning viewing figures. ‘Stormont Live’ attracts a fairly small audience, because it is broadcast at mid-afternoon on BBC2; yesterday, 17,000 people watched the programme, which was 9% of the viewing audience. The programme’s viewing figures can range from 10,000 to 19,000. The viewing figures are small, but you would know all about it if 17,000 people tried to get into the Gallery to watch Question Time; there would be a long queue outside the Building and down the steps.

10. Compare the viewing figures of ‘Stormont Live’ with those of teatime news programmes. Last night, ‘BBC Newsline’ did a report on Stormont behind the scenes. Some 153,000 people watched the programme, which was 27% of the total viewing audience at that time. Unusually, those figures were almost on a level pegging with those for ‘UTV Live’, which was watched by 148,000 people.

11. Although the programme has a small audience, it is important because it provides a public service and maintains the visibility of the Building in the public’s eyes. That concludes my prepared remarks; Eamon and Billy will probably echo what I have said.

12. Most journalists would like to see more topical questions being incorporated into Question Time, as that would make it relevant for our audience. On Thursday mornings, we hold planning meetings during which I go through the questions planned for Question Time with the programme’s producers and editors; often, however, they will say that they covered those questions a week or fortnight earlier. I understand what has happened: a Member has raised an issue that was relevant at the time but which has since dropped off the agenda. It is not for us to dictate what an MLA should do. A Member may have an abiding interest in an issue and, therefore, have a constant reason to table questions pertaining to it. However, a topical element to questions, similar to that which the House of Commons introduced, should be considered.

13. If a Member has to read a question, it is too long. Occasionally, viewers make negative comments about the standard of debate on ‘Stormont Live’. If a Member has to read a question, he or she should consider its length. The same should apply to Ministers’ answers. You should try to prevent Question Time being turned into a series of lengthy statements or lengthy questions; that is an abuse of the system.

14. Mr Eamon Mallie: I do not mind giving way to Billy; it is a media thing — television and radio tend to dominate. We tend to treat the written press as lesser human beings, and I regret that.

15. The Deputy Chairperson: You are being very kind.

16. Mr Mallie: I have not started yet. [Laughter.]

17. Mr Billy Graham (The Irish News): Thank you for inviting us to address the Committee. It is worth looking at the format of Question Time. Given that the devolved political institutions are relatively new, politicians and journalists are on a learning curve with the conduct and reporting of politics.

18. There are always battles in newsrooms because it can be difficult to persuade news desks to cover politics. However, journalists should be covering proceedings at Stormont in more detail.

19. I agree with Mark about the format of Question Time. Sometimes, there is a stream of questions from Members of one or two parties, which is not completely fair; although I realise that that is just how the questions fall. Nevertheless, Question Time should be more balanced.

20. There is a challenge for politicians and journalists to engage with the public. It can be difficult for people to follow political discourse on television if it does not flow coherently. I am not suggesting that Question Time be turned into a circus, but I have heard that Question Time in the Parliament of Australia can be quite rowdy. Daytime viewing and listening figures for coverage of the Parliament of Australia are quite good, and the night-time repeats are even better.

21. The way that the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers conduct business is very important; sometimes, they cut politicians off too severely in the flow of debate. Speakers have difficult jobs, but they could give Members a little more leeway.

22. The four-party Government, with the Alliance Party in opposition, means that the political system is different here — although the devolution of policing and justice could lead to a five-party Government. I am not sure how that would affect Question Time.

23. Mr Mallie: Ok, guys. Did you notice that I said “guys"? What is going on here? Why are there no female members of the Committee? Anyway, thank you for inviting us to the meeting.

24. The problem at Downtown Radio and Cool FM is that we split frequencies. Cool FM attracts many young listeners, whereas Downtown Radio tends to attract an older generation that remembers the Troubles. Journalists at Downtown Radio live or die in 20, 30 or 40 seconds. If you ramble on rather than getting to the heart of the matter quickly, you will probably not make it.

25. Reporting for Cool FM is becoming more problematic for me because the station tells me that the political coverage does not connect with young people. Cool FM has a very big audience, so I am increasingly challenged to make politics relevant to young people. However, as an ageing professional, who is faced with an even more ageing bunch of grey-haired politicians, I do not know how to make Assembly proceedings more relevant to a younger generation.

26. For most of the time, the people whom we are trying to connect with are not interested in the awful inertia at Stormont. Debates in the Chamber seem to be an endless, unedifying, squabbling, sectarian ping-pong. Trying to make them relevant and to get them to connect with the community is very difficult for us all. That is a problem for all of us — journalists and politicians — and we must examine it.

27. I am under pressure to make this place more relevant and pertinent to the younger generation, but I do not know what to do. The station is trying to address the problem, but I do not know how we will cope. Should we change our presentational style and go for the spats and the humorous incidents? It is as much a problem for me as it is for you.

28. Most of the time, because of the repetitious nature of proceedings in the Chamber, I find myself gravitating towards the Great Hall or the Long Gallery to connect with visitors or with those who are lobbying on behalf of various interests, such as cancer charities. Yesterday, I met a lady who has been treated for breast cancer. She was at Stormont to represent a group of people from Dungannon who had formed a committee to set up a drop-in centre where people in post-operative cancer care could meet and have a cup of coffee. They are linking up with people from Lithuania, because no such centre exists in that country.

29. I am beginning to gravitate towards that type of story in this Building, because I cannot sell the nonsense that is going on in the Chamber; people are bored by endless one-sided arguments. Downtown Radio listeners are not tuning into that, and the younger generation certainly is not.

30. Let me give you an example of the sense of awareness of this institution. Why was that awful tragedy involving the McElhill family in Omagh not an issue in this Building on that day or the next? We did not know the full facts, but the incident was relevant and pertinent. Why are issues such as that not being discussed in the Chamber? Why did the relevant Minister not make a statement in the House?

31. Let us consider the banking situation. Last week, the Government of the Republic of Ireland moved to secure and underpin the banks. I rang the Department of Finance and Personnel here to ask whether that decision was relevant to us and whether it would affect us, because the Bank of Ireland and First Trust Bank have branches here. The Department of Finance and Personnel issued a statement that since we were subject to Treasury rules, it was not relevant to us. By teatime, it was very relevant, because money was already moving from the Northern Bank and others to the Bank of Ireland and First Trust Bank. Was a Minister available to talk about it? Did anyone stand up in the House to reassure the community at large and tell them not to panic? It was two days before Nigel Dodds spoke about the issue. We suddenly discovered yesterday that there was a banking crisis. Why was that not discussed in the House? We must make this place relevant.

32. Those are the issues that would enhance the institution and make it more relevant in the media. It would be easier for us to connect with our editorial desks and editorial decision making if this place had a greater awareness of what was going on around us. As Mark said, questions are being asked in the House that were put down two weeks ago. Give me a break. Where are we living? This is the twenty-first century. This place will make itself irrelevant if you guys do not sort yourselves out collectively. I get the same wage every week; my life will not change one iota. However, there is an onus on us to relate to the broader community.

33. Most of the time, we find out what is happening when a Member stands up to speak. There is no proper briefing system in this Building. I realise that what I am saying is off the radar, but I say what I think. I do not hang around; you can accept that or reject it. The Committee Clerks are intelligent, able people who are capable of briefing us. Are they empowered to brief us about Committee business? There is so much irrelevance in the Building because the media are not brought into the system. You seem to be afraid of us — except when you want to exploit us or to take advantage of us to leak something. There should be much more interaction and communication to make what happens in this Building relevant.

34. Those are ongoing gripes. We have had these discussions endlessly among ourselves. We have had endless meetings with people in this Building, but they go nowhere.

35. I appeal to the Committee not to ignore what we are saying; try to make your business relevant. We are not against you; but we can make your lives much easier and more relevant if the system is improved.

36. The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you for your open and honest assessment, Eamon; much of what you say should be considered seriously — and acted on. Relevance is vital. We could explore all the issues that Eamon has raised, but we must try to stay within the confines of the inquiry, which relates specifically to Question Time.

37. I am interested in the suggestion of splitting Question Time. Instead of having it on a Monday, with three Ministers responding to questions between 2.30 pm and 4.00 pm, it would be split, with two Ministers answering questions on Monday and two on Tuesday.

38. Mark, would that be advantageous?

39. Mr Devenport: From the point of view of ‘Stormont Live’, it would be advantageous. Questions are easily digestible for viewers.

40. Some of the debates are relevant, particularly if we boil them down and play segments. The worst of all possible scenarios is being live on air on a slack day, and, on arriving in the Chamber, we find that Members are involved in a vote — not on some heated matter that is crucial to the future of our education system, but a vote on some technical Bill. That is difficult to present to viewers.

41. Question Time is a banker. Short questions are asked and relatively short answers are given; that is digestible for viewers. I talk from the selfish point of view of ‘Stormont Live’, but none of the other witnesses will demur that, with questions to three Ministers in a row, the switch-off factor increases. We might pick up the first item of news from questions to the Minister who is being asked first and may be still chasing that item when questions to the third Minister are going out. Unless the third Question Time is really big, it tends to get lost in the news cycle.

42. The Deputy Chairperson: One of the issues that we have considered and are concerned about is the number of questions for a Minister. None of the Ministers ever gets beyond —

43. Mr Mallie: Question 5.

44. The Deputy Chairperson: Well, a Minister once got to question 11 or 12.

45. Mr Mallie: The average is pretty low.

46. The Deputy Chairperson: If a few dropped out, it might help. That is a major concern for us, and it contributes to the issue of relevancy.

47. Mr Devenport: The number of questions to be asked could be reduced.

48. I once presented a Northern Ireland Questions special in Westminster, when they ran out of questions; although that has happened only once. There followed an embarrassed pause before the Prime Minister turned up for Prime Minister’s Questions. However, that is a rarity. One wonders why some of the questions are asked when they might be better submitted as questions for written answer. If topical questions filled up at least the first half of a Minister’s time and there were fewer questions, it would be much better.

49. Eamon spoke about briefing, which covers matters other than Question Time. However, when Northern Ireland Questions are on at Westminster, I can normally phone an official in the Northern Ireland Office to ask whether something is likely to come out of them. If an answer is likely to be newsworthy, I will be tipped off. Sometimes, at Stormont Question Time, we announce that the first question is about a certain subject, only to find that that question has been withdrawn. That happens in the Commons, too, and we do not know why. However, when we are about to go on air, it might be useful if we could be warned not to spend much time on a particular topic because the question has been withdrawn. That can happen at the last minute, but any forewarning would be useful.

50. Mr Neeson: We are holding the inquiry because, in the view of most people, Question Time is simply not working.

51. We are trying to develop a formula to make Question Time interesting. We all agree that two weeks is too long for notice of a question to be given, so that must be dealt with. Many of us are interested in the recent development at Westminster where topics of the day are debated — we should consider introducing something similar.

52. As Mark suggested, having Question Time on Mondays and Tuesdays would be helpful. The Assembly Commission recently visited the Parliament of Canada, which has ministerial Question Time every day. However, that system is a bit rubbish because Members get 30 seconds to ask a question and are given 30-second answers.

53. Mervyn raised the problem that once the Member who tabled a question asks a supplementary, and another two or three Members are invited to ask supplementaries, not much time is left for the other questions on the list. I wonder whether supplementary questions are a good idea. That is particularly important, given that it is the luck of the draw as to what questions are selected — there may be two or three questions from the DUP, three from the Ulster Unionists and, on a lucky day, there may even be a couple from the Alliance Party. Should that system be changed as well?

54. Mr Devenport: A debate on the topics of the day could deal with that issue to some extent. Supplementary questions should not be outlawed because sometimes they take an issue further and, if a unionist view has been given, it allows for a nationalist view on the same topic. Using topical questions to deal with a burning issue might allow for a more spontaneous debate. However, a system without supplementary questions may truncate debates in the way that Billy was talking about, in that only one partial view would be given.

55. The Deputy Chairperson: Billy suggested that it seems as though only certain parties have their questions selected — we have complained about that; however, it is a ballot system, so that is just how it is.

56. Mr McClarty: The system could be skewed in people’s favour.

57. The Deputy Chairperson: The Assembly introduced Matters of the Day. That was a departure, but it has not been used as we expected. It was created because some incidents occurred, and we thought that there was a need for a mechanism that allows Members to raise a particular issue in the Chamber more quickly. That system is reasonably well regulated, since the Speaker has latitude to determine the relevancy of an issue to be raised.

58. Mr Mallie: If the facility exists, why do Members not use it?

59. The Deputy Chairperson: That would be an interesting question for the Committee to revisit. The Matters of the Day facility was only introduced in the spring, so it has not been going long.

60. Mr McClarty: Some difficulty has arisen about whether issues are relevant to a specific constituency or to the entire Province. I am aware that the Speaker has made rulings that a particular issue is a constituency issue and is, therefore, not serious or important enough to be tabled as a Matter of the Day.

61. Mr Devenport: It has been a useful innovation because it has been used to discuss a terrorist attack, for example; to that extent, it has brought into the Chamber matters that might otherwise have been discussed in interviews in the Great Hall. However, more use could be made of it.

62. Mr Mallie: There are times when it should be used. The banking crisis is a perfect example because it seems as though the world is obsessed with the issue, yet it is not relevant to our politicians or our community.

63. The McElhill tragedy in Omagh was another case that was not raised on the day in this place. There are plenty of occasions on which a Minister should have made a statement to the House.

64. Perhaps there is an argument for allocating five minutes of every plenary sitting to relevant matters of the day. I do not know how exactly it could be done, but we should work hard to bring the Chamber live to the community.

65. Mr O’Loan: Getting this place to connect with the real world is a problem — it is not happening. Question Time is not working — it is a disaster. Even Members are beginning not to attend; attendances are very low. Members’ respective parties decide who asks what question, so unless a Member has been programmed to do their bit, they will not find Question Time interesting enough to attend. If we are to get anywhere, questions must be topical.

66. Would giving party leaders a role in Question Time add more drama to the occasion? In Westminster, party leaders can be asked anything and Members are allowed two or three bites at the cherry, and they can respond by saying that a particular party leader is talking rubbish. That provides drama, but it is meaningful, and the Prime Minister, or whoever, is genuinely tested.

67. Mr Mallie: In his day, Dr Paisley used Question Time in the House of Commons more than anyone to catch the Speaker’s eye.

68. Mr Devenport: There is a role for that. This is not Westminster; we have a different structure, and we do not have a Leader of the Opposition. However, there is a role for questioning party leaders, and people would listen to the questions and the answers.

69. Considering the matter slightly tangentially, sometimes Ministers and their party colleagues put the short-term victory of conducting a neutered exchange ahead of the long-term purpose of connecting with the public. A Member might think that he or she is being a clever politician by not saying very much, answering a safe question, and having a scripted exchange, but that is a bit like the old chestnut: if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, how does one know whether it ever actually fell? Unless exchanges are genuinely spontaneous, involving real debate, the public will not connect, and the Assembly will be on the road to irrelevancy; you may as well not have Question Time in the first place.

70. Mr O’Loan: I agree that Speakers’ attitudes in Question Time cause it to become too compressed and constrained; they are far too quick to jump in, even in responding to noise in the Chamber. For goodness’ sake, have they ever seen Prime Minister’s Questions on television? It seems that our supplementary questions must be spot on and without interruptions. Those answering are politicians who have been given ministerial positions — let them fend for themselves and take what comes.

71. The Deputy Chairperson: Having been subjected to the Speaker’s wrath on several occasions, I agree. We should have a debating Chamber, and although that does not give Members licence to be rude or to use unparliamentary language, it is good to have robust exchanges. That applies across the Chamber and to Ministers, all of which adds to a debate’s relevancy and to the public’s enjoyment of what they see.

72. Mr McClarty: Such behaviour has probably been your downfall, Mr Deputy Chairperson. [Laughter.]

73. There is a difficulty with Question Time; otherwise, we would not be having this inquiry. We want to make Question Time more lively and relevant, not only for the public who watch it on television or listen to it on the radio but for Members. As Declan said, the number of Members in the Chamber for Question Time has diminished.

74. I would love a system that includes open questions, along the lines of those at Westminster about the Prime Minister’s diary, for example. Members should be able to hit other Members with any relevant, topical question under the sun. Furthermore, I would like a much more spontaneous arrangement in which Members bob up and down to catch the Speaker’s eye. Perhaps the witnesses might comment on that.

75. Mr Graham: I agree; that would lead to healthier exchanges. I mean no harm to civil servants, but they provide documentation for Ministers that seems — whether by mind reading or by computer implant — to anticipate the answers to supplementary questions, which means that Ministers are not fully tested. That can weigh down Question Time.

76. Mr Mallie: The solutions to many of the problems that have been raised are in this room. One does not have to be a professor to solve those problems — it is a question of streamlining the system and making it work.

77. The Deputy Chairperson: Many of the comments and criticisms that you have raised echo what Committee members have already said. We want a change, and we want to ensure that the structure that we implement is not just something that was agreed among ourselves, which could make the system worse. We could easily agree a solution that is so well constructed that all Members tow their party line to protect their own Ministers. That would be fatal. We want to make Question Time spontaneous and relevant, irrespective of who the Ministers are — that is what the Committee should be doing.

78. Mr K Robinson: We could provide an element of theatre, in the best possible sense of the word. If the audience got a positive theatre experience, it would relate much more to the work of the Assembly. The public do not understand much of the work that happens, and it is as dull as ditchwater. Most members of this Committee spent three hours in various other Committee meetings this morning, which is the type of work that is not covered by the media. Therefore, the highlight of the week for the Assembly is what the media choose to broadcast or write about. To a large extent, the media set the parameters.

79. Some of your media colleagues are entirely negative about the Assembly, which is beginning to undermine the whole democratic process. We can help you to help us to turn the situation around so that we become relevant. For example, at Westminster, if a Minister is on his or her feet, the camera can pick up a Member, such as Dennis Skinner, and a viewer can say, “He is going to bite someone’s ankles". That gives spontaneity to proceedings, creates interest and gives Members the opportunity to get involved and, sometimes, bite our own Ministers. Not once in this mandate has a Minister been bitten by a Member from his or her own party. In the first mandate, I was told off by two of my former colleagues for bringing something up on their blind side that they had not expected. Members can add to the theatre of proceedings.

80. The reading of questions was also mentioned. I watched proceedings of the National Assembly for Wales last night, and it was dreadful — the screens in front of Members act as a barrier between viewers and the proceedings. Poor Rhodri Morgan was talking to goodness knows who, if anyone, and Members were reading poorly — we are slightly better readers than they are.

81. Mr Mallie: Do not flatter yourselves. [Laughter.]

82. Mr K Robinson: Thank you for that vote of confidence. How do our viewing figures compare with those for the Welsh Assembly?

83. Mr Devenport: I do not know; I can find out and get back to the Committee.

84. Mr K Robinson: Is the lack of public interest a problem across the UK or is it specifically a cloud over Stormont? The concept of Members bobbing up and down is an extremely good idea, because no one, including Ministers, would know what is coming next. The problem is the Speakers — Mr Storey only got told off; I got thrown out.

85. The Deputy Chairperson: I am working towards that.

86. Mr K Robinson: I wanted to pursue a certain Minister and felt that the Speaker was preventing me from getting the answers that I wanted. Sometimes, the response from a Minister is not an answer at all or is so nebulous that it is a waste of time.

87. Positive public engagement is required because the situation in the Chamber is very boring from a Member’s perspective. However, Eamon, you cannot have it all ways. The media sometimes highlight ping-pong situations because the positive exchanges do not always provide the best visual or radio highlights. Although Joe Bloggs and Jimmy Smith having a ding-dong provides the media with a good image or sound bite, it just adds to the overall woes of this place, because people say “There they are at it again — I do not even know what they are arguing about, but there they are at it again."

88. Mr Mallie: That is true.

89. Mr K Robinson: A Member may have put a great deal of work into raising an issue on behalf of a constituent, but it is not covered by the media because it is dull. However, if I were to fight with David McClarty, by Jove, the story would be on the front page of the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ and every other newspaper.

90. Mr Mallie: That is part of my global criticism. Often, it is the spat for the spat’s sake that is covered. I often ignore the spats because there is no merit in them. It is often merely having a spat for a spat’s sake across the Floor with a political opponent.

91. What I cover and give ample time to is when a politician brings a big idea to the House, and that is the Assembly’s Achilles’ heel. In my time of covering this place, I have rarely heard a big idea on the Floor. Given what we listen to most of the time in the House, I have to ask, do politicians think at all? Surely our politicians can think of something fresh in order to bring new ideas to the House rather than the old, regurgitated political jibes. There must be more thinking taking place in Northern Ireland than we hear about in the Chamber.

92. I do not record spats between individuals, as there is no merit in them. However, a big idea or a challenging thought will get coverage.

93. Mr McClarty: Occasionally, something that has no merit will make good television.

94. Mr Devenport: I cannot guarantee that I will not report the next spat.

95. A great deal of business is conducted in Committees in the House of Commons, but one is likely to see coverage of Brown versus Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions. To some extent, conflict makes news, but news can also come in other ways. For instance, if one were to report on the stand-off in the Executive, people would switch off because that conflict is so repetitive that it is not news. Presenting that story again would not serve to illuminate.

96. If Question Time is reformed to add more spontaneity and — dare I say it? — theatricality, there will be conflict stories; but there will also be other stories. We sometimes highlight humour in our programmes because that can capture the public interest; or a fact could be uncovered that people were not previously aware of. News is about novelty: things that are important, significant and new. When compiling my blog, I sometimes comb through the questions for written answer and uncover facts that I was not aware of — how much woodland there is in Northern Ireland, for example. If I find that interesting, perhaps somebody else will, too.

97. We cannot predict the news; whether it will be spats and conflict or the surprising resolution of spats and conflict — which is, after all, what this entire political process has been about. Deals are as much news as stand-offs, and agreement is as much news as conflict. Certainly, the present system is bust and needs fixed.

98. Mr K Robinson: What is this shadowy body, the SCA? We want to know whether you have a constitution or whether you seek a grant from us before we leave the subject.

99. Mr Devenport: I became the chairman of the SCA because I did not leave the room quickly enough.

100. Mr Mallie: Labhraímid Gaeilge nuair a bhímid le chéile. We speak Irish when we are together.

101. Mr Devenport: He is our military wing. [Laughter.]

102. Lord Browne: I concur with much that has been said, but we are restricted by our system of government. With due respect to David, we are restricted by the rules of the House, because the Speaker must enforce very strict regulations.

103. There should be more barracking from the Back Benches. The rules do not allow that, and it has a bad effect on the House. If someone attempts to introduce humour, many people regard it as demeaning the debate; I do not. More humour should be introduced.

104. We are in the early stages of the Assembly’s being permanent and up and running. The Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales have had nine years of stability, whereas we still have much to learn. There is room for improvement.

105. I would also like to see, as Billy said, a restriction on the length of questions. They should be questions and not statements, and a Minister should be restricted in the time that he or she has to answer. Question Time is losing its effect because a Minister might get no further than question 4; therefore, a Member whose question is on the list at number 8, 9 or 10 knows that his or her question will not be answered. That is why Members are not coming to the Chamber. Question Time needs to be more cut and thrust and more to the point. Topical questions should be introduced, and Question Time should possibly be introduced over two days. I think that I have summarised everything there.

106. The Deputy Chairperson: One of the other issues that we have been looking at is Ministers taking questions from their own Members. I am not necessarily going to ask my party leader a very difficult question; that applies to Members from most parties. I am, however, more than happy to ask difficult questions of the opposing party or of any other party.

107. Mr McClarty: We have noticed. [Laughter.]

108. The Deputy Chairperson: That would let the public know that Question Time is not just a damp squib. Members should have a chance to expose a Minister’s weakness, but the supplementaries seem to be as prepared as the original questions.

109. There was another thing that we thought might be useful. There is a rota for questions to Ministers — the First Minister and the deputy First Minister answer questions only every other week. However, having questions to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister every week might enliven proceedings. What are your views?

110. Mr Devenport: Question Time is most likely to make the news. Although one never can be sure, it is in our terms, “box office", and if they were answering topical questions, it would make things more relevant.

111. Mr Mallie: How often have the First Minister and the deputy First Minister appeared before their Committee?

112. Mr Devenport: They gave evidence to it last week.

113. The Deputy Chairperson: Twice.

114. Mr Mallie: There is something odd about that. Last week’s meeting came at a very delicate point because of the row about whether the Executive would meet. Our experience is that those meetings have been more stimulating, more exhilarating and much more challenging, with more spontaneous questions being put to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. As for questions to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in the House — give me a break.

115. The Deputy Chairperson: That is a valid point because prepared lines are not given to members of any Committee whenever a Minister appears — at least, not that I am aware of. Questions are either spontaneous or some members ask no questions at all. I have seen members of a particular party ask no questions of their Minister in Committee; it is left to other members to ask all the questions.

116. Mr Mallie: When the First Minister and the deputy First Minister appeared before their Committee, there seemed to be greater latitude for members to tackle them, without the rigid structures and straight-jacketing that applies to the cross-examination in the Chamber.

117. Mr K Robinson: Will you please keep ‘Stormont Live’ at the same time? My grandchildren think that it is wonderful. [Laughter.]

118. The Deputy Chairperson: My sister-in-law saw me on television yesterday; she said that it proves that I was at work. [Laughter.]

119. Mr Devenport: Although I am unsure whether it will happen again, ‘Stormont Live’ was, for a while, broadcast immediately after ‘Sesame Street’. [Laughter.]

120. The Deputy Chairperson: What is the difference? [Laughter.]

121. Mr Devenport: I do not know whether anyone noticed the difference. [Laughter.] Moreover, it increased our audience figures, although I am unsure of the age of that audience.

122. Mr McClarty: I thought that your sister wanted the watershed to be extended. [Laughter.]

123. Mr Devenport: If the Committee decides to change the time of Question Time, please touch base with us first because finding television slots is not always automatic.

124. Mr Mallie: Billy Graham mentioned this point. Although it may seem irrelevant to Members, when, during a speech in the Chamber, an MLA is on the verge of crescendo, the Speaker interrupts and kills the Member’s point stone dead. That happened three times in one afternoon. That cut — as we journalists call it — or sound bite is lost.

125. Mr McClarty: Hang them. [Laughter.]

126. The Deputy Chairperson: Do you mean hang the Speaker? [Laughter.] Hang the Deputy Speakers, too. Today’s meeting has been useful and conducted in a good spirit. The Committee accepts constructive criticism and is keen to make changes to increase public interaction with the Assembly.

127. Mr Devenport: I have one housekeeping matter. Ken Reid sends his apologies; he was called to London on a story.

128. The Deputy Chairperson: The Committee is keen to hear your feedback. Thank you for attending.

22 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Mervyn Storey (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Sean Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan

Witnesses:

Professor Rick Wilford

Queens’s University, Belfast

129. The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Storey): We have received a written submission from Professor Rick Wilford, and we are delighted that he has joined us today. You are very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to put together the submission. I will ask you to speak to it and then we will have a question-and-answer session.

130. Professor Rick Wilford (Queen’s University): I hope that members ask some questions; otherwise, I will have to go back to the school board meeting, and I think that I would rather be here.

131. Thank you for inviting me. Today, unlike when I appeared before the Committee during its inquiry into the structures and systems of Committees, I am conducting my education in public, because I had to revisit some of the issues that I had not looked at for some time, and I am sure that that will become evident as the session unfolds.

132. I wish to underline a couple of points before members address any questions to me. Members must be clear in their own minds about the purpose behind questions for oral answer and questions for written answer. Questions for oral answer are about holding Ministers to account and subjecting them to scrutiny. They are an opportunity to put a Minister on the spot, and that is welcome. They also supply the opportunity to influence policy and to defend and promote constituency interests.

133. Questions for written answer are rather different. Their primary aim is to discover information that may be more difficult to acquire elsewhere. They can be used as a means of encouraging Ministers to make a policy statement or to make them aware of constituents’ concerns. Therefore, questions for written answer are separate to questions for oral answer, but they are related means of discharging some of the responsibilities of Members.

134. Before I came here today, I read a survey of Back-Benchers in the House of Commons that was undertaken by Mark Franklin and Philip Norton, or Lord Norton of Louth as he is now known. Some of the findings may be instructive in helping to develop the Committee’s thinking. For instance, they found that, as far as Back-Benchers were concerned, questions were most effective in publicising MPs’ concerns, taking up constituency interests, evaluating their own performance and that of others, including Ministers, and securing information on policy. However, questions were least effective in influencing Government policy and getting hold of hard-to-obtain information. However, that particular issue is now resolved due to the advent of the Freedom of Information regime.

135. Most worryingly of all, Mark Franklin and Philip Norton found questions to be least effective in holding Ministers to account. That issue, which lies at the heart of the Committee’s inquiry, is something that has not only seized the attention and imagination of members of this Committee; it has clearly been concerning Members on the Back Benches in the House of Commons.

136. The Deputy Chairperson: Obviously, you are right to draw that to our attention, as it gets to the heart of the reason for Question Time — the session should be about bringing the Minister or the Department to account.

137. Mr Neeson: In your paper, Rick, you outline that the form of government that we have here is really a four-party coalition, and although my party, and others, portray ourselves as the opposition, we are limited in our ability to fulfil that function. How can that problem be circumvented?

138. Professor Wilford: You ask the easy questions first. [Laughter.] It is extremely tricky. One of the suggestions that I made in the paper — and it was really only kite-flying — was somehow to advantage those parties that are not represented in the Executive, as a means of providing some space or opportunity for the minor parties in the Chamber. The only way that can be done is probably mathematically, by devising some kind of formula that would, if you like, handicap Members from the four parties represented on the Executive. The corollary of that would be that the minor parties would have a relative advantage.

139. I have spoken to my colleague Sydney Elliott about that, and he assured me that it could be done, although he did not give me the script so that I could relay that information. Beyond that kind of mathematical formula, the only other action that could be taken would be some kind of self-denying ordinance on the part of Members from the parties in the Executive, which would perhaps enable Members from minor parties to have at least some priority on the Floor. I can understand that that would aggravate and annoy Members from the four parties in the Executive.

140. In the past, I have written that I have concerns about the Assembly as a parliamentary democracy, in the sense that one of the things that I associate with a parliamentary democracy is some kind of formal opposition. As I said the paper that I have provided, there should be an opportunity to turf out the rascals, if rascals they should be, but the rather confected Executive formation that we have does not provide for that. The only alternative is to provide space and opportunity for minor parties and/or — as the Committee Clerk mentioned just before I took my seat — provide the Chairpersons of the Statutory Committees with the opportunity to ask the first question. I know that that does not provide a particular advantage for the minor parties, as none of their members chairs a Committee, but it might help to some extent.

141. Mr Neeson: Should Members who belong to the same party as a Minister ask questions of that Minister?

142. Professor Wilford: Yes. I do not think that there should be any prohibition on that at all, not least because Members have a duty to represent the interests of their constituents. If the Assembly takes the view that it is a problem that needs to be tackled, there are formulas that can be devised. That is relevant to the idea of a self-denying ordinance; my suspicion is that when Ministers are due to answer questions, Members from the party of the Minister probably stack the Business Office with questions in order to weight the shuffle. Perhaps a limit should be put on the number of questions that a party group can submit to be asked of a Minister from that party. A ceiling could be put on that figure. It is not beyond the wit of the parties to develop a means in order to restrict the sheer volume of questions for oral answer that are submitted for a particular Minister.

143. Mr Brady: This may be simplistic, but as someone who is relatively new to all the parliamentary structures, etc, and as someone who has been asking statutory organisations for answers for 25 years — having worked in the voluntary sector — I, possibly naively, expect that when I ask a question of a Minister, I might actually get an answer.

144. There are problems in the logistics of asking questions for oral answer. Indeed, one such difficulty is getting an answer to the question that has been asked. Frequently, I have asked questions that have not been answered. That may sound simplistic, but receiving an answer should be at the heart of Question Time. I am not sure how it could be — excuse the pun — legislated that a Minister answer the question that has been asked.

145. Professor Wilford: I agree with your concerns. A footnote to the ‘Inquiry into Assembly Questions’ mentions that the Scottish Parliament entertained the idea of naming the session “parliamentary answers" rather than Parliamentary Questions. That would have demonstrated that the purpose of the exercise is to elicit answers, however imperfect those answers may be. In a briefing on standard operating procedures, the Home Office advises that Ministers’ answers should be accurate, brief and clear when answering questions. The subtext of that is that questions should be answered.

146. Mr Brady: Francie has suggested that the problem may be the way in which I ask questions. [Laughter.]

147. Professor Wilford: Ministers can be incredibly evasive. However, that is a matter for the Speaker, presiding officer or whoever is in the Chair; that person’s role is decisive. He has to be assertive in ensuring that Members are accurate, brief, clear and concise in proposing questions, and that Ministers respond in kind.

148. It would be helpful if each Department furnished the Committee with its standard operating procedures. Indeed, I am trying to find out what Departments’ advice is to Ministers regarding answering questions for oral answer. All UK Departments furnish that information, and although there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, Ministers should be given general instruction on the appropriate content of answers.

149. Mr Brolly: Some questions for oral answer should more properly be questions for written answer. Obviously, Question Time is a parliamentary custom. However, it may be time to reassess that custom, because modern technology means that questions for written answer can now be answered very quickly.

150. Professor Wilford: Questions for written answer are not always answered quickly. The data that I eventually received show that most Departments miss response-time targets for questions for written answer. Indeed, some Departments miss those turnaround targets massively. I do not have the figures with me, but I think that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department of Education, in particular, work massively beyond the due date for reply.

151. Questions for oral answer and questions for written answer serve different purposes. Questions for written answer can elicit extensive or statistical information. It would not be desirable for a Minister to read out a list of statistics at Question Time. Questions for oral answer have a variety of purposes. One of those purposes is entertainment. It is similar to the BBC’s mission statement:

“Inform, educate, entertain."

152. Mr Brolly: We have not quite got to that point yet.

153. The Deputy Chairperson: Some of us try.

154. Professor Wilford: Members have not got there yet. [Laughter.]

155. Questions for oral answer should be much more topical and immediate than questions for written answer. They should show Members’ responsiveness both to their constituents and to what is on the agenda. There is an opportunity to make Question Time here more topical. Members submit their questions for oral answer 10 days in advance of Question Time. That is an extraordinary length of time compared to practice in other Chambers, where questions for oral answer can be submitted two to four days in advance. If questions for oral answer could be submitted later — all other things being equal — Question Time would be much more topical.

156. Questions for oral answer should be topical. They should be more immediate, and — if I could make a plea — they should not be read from a script.

157. The Deputy Chairperson: That was a criticism that was made by representatives of the media who appeared before the Committee. They also said that supplementary questions should not be read out.

158. Professor Wilford: I sometimes wonder whether questions are written on behalf of Members. If that is the case, it detracts from the purpose of Question Time. Members should be smart and quick on their feet, they should address the issue, and they should be determined. It should not be beyond Members in the Chamber to be quick-witted and sure-footed in subjecting a Minister to scrutiny.

159. Mr O’Loan: I have a couple of points about the issues that you proposed for consideration. If statutory Committee Chairpersons were subjected to Question Time, they would have to be freed from their duties as Chairperson to answer questions, because they would be speaking on behalf of the Committee if they spoke as Chairperson. If they were not freed from their duties as Chairperson, it would completely remove the life from Assembly Questions.

160. It could be done, because they are the Chairpersons, but they would have to be free to speak and be allowed their full political role. It would be an interesting idea if that were done, but not otherwise.

161. Professor Wilford: I agree. Chairpersons have many opportunities to have the first bite in the Chamber anyway — certainly when motions to debate Committee reports are tabled. In the case of my proposal, they would be selected. As the Committee Chairpersons, they should be aware all the issues and should have a better insight than many other Members. I made my proposal in the sense that the Chairpersons could bring information and insight to the process — but not when speaking on behalf of the Committee. I did not have that in mind.

162. Mr O’Loan: You also suggested that the First Minister and deputy First Minister could attend Question Time on a weekly basis. I am quite interested in the idea of joint attendance, because I have no experience of that and did not know that that had happened. I even wonder about the format — how were proceedings handled when both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister attended?

163. Given the present quality and style of Question Time, the idea of another session does not attract me one little bit. However, it might if the quality and drama of proceedings were improved, but that is a serious caveat at the minute. Will you provide more information about when the First Minister and deputy First Minister both attended Question Time?

164. Professor Wilford: As I recall, they took questions in turn. David Trimble answered the first question and some of the supplementary questions. Seamus Mallon then answered the next question that was on the Order Paper and responded to the supplementary questions that followed. The questions were turn about, and it was alternated in that way. That is my recollection of how that operated.

165. The Deputy Chairperson: Comparing this mandate to the previous one, which of the two do you think has had more spontaneity, has engaged people more, and has been more relevant? The world does not sit with bated breath on a Monday afternoon and wait for Question Time, but the figures that the BBC provided last week indicate that the public is interested. That will either rise or decline on the basis of what people see and hear, and their interest will decline if Assembly Questions do not become more relevant.

166. Professor Wilford: I have not seen the viewing figures — I wish that I had.

167. The Deputy Chairperson: We can make those available.

168. Professor Wilford: For all sorts of reasons, Question Time is the centrepiece of many parliaments. It is the shop window for many members of the public, and one does not want shoddy goods put on display. It does not matter about the procedures that are adopted, reformed or changed, or the system that is used to address questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The quality of the exercise is what matters. That is dependent on so many variables, including the competence — or otherwise — of Ministers and Members, and their readiness to engage.

169. In relation to your question, I believe that Question Time worked better in the first mandate on several levels, partly because — like it or not — the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is a joint Department and the First Minister and deputy First Minister share joint responsibility for that Department’s remit. At the symbolic level, it is important for those Ministers to be seen together, but that is a political matter.

170. There is no reason why, if the First Minister and deputy First Minister were to attend Question Time together, they could not be flexible in responding to questions — it does not have to be as stylised as it may have been in the first mandate. However, I believe that the format used in that mandate worked better because it conveyed a sense of joint endeavour on the part of the office — bedevilled though it was by all sorts of difficulties — whereas the current situation is much more stilted and lends itself more to partisanship. Partisanship has a role in Question Time, not to the exclusion of all else, but it can be an opportunity to hector. However, it can also be an opportunity to drive a wedge between the First Minister and deputy First Minister, so for that reason, there may be some merit in their appearing jointly.

171. The Deputy Chairperson: Is there merit in their doing that? I had never tried to compare how Question Time operates in the current mandate with how it was run in the first mandate until Declan referred to it. I take your point that Question Time can be an opportunity for Members to be partisan. For example, when the First Minister is answering questions, Members of the DUP will probably phrase their questions in a way that is to the benefit of that Minister, but if the deputy First Minister is answering questions, Members of the DUP will try to ask more problematic questions. Sometimes Members forget that it is a joint office.

172. Is there merit in shuffling questions so that neither the First Minister nor the deputy First Minister knows what question he will be asked? Each Minister would still be provided with the question in advance, so the problem of the departmental machinery helping to formulating his responses would remain. However, neither Minister could be set up or hijacked, as it would help to avoid all the difficult questions from a nationalist perspective being asked to the unionist First Minister, and vice versa.

173. Professor Wilford: I agree that that could help, however I consider that problem to be inevitable — I cannot see any way around it because Members cannot be bridled. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Sophisticated systems can be devised that will give Members opportunities to ask questions, but the success of those systems would depend on the quality of the Members and their readiness to take the opportunity that Question Time provides. Members must be clear in their own minds what Question Time is about — is it about party point-scoring, or is it about trying to get a Minister to account for the actions or inactions of his or her Department?

174. The Deputy Chairperson: One of the frustrations that Members face relates to the issue of asking a topical question. Members can suggest that an issue be raised during “Matters of the Day"; however, if something happens on a sitting day and the relevant Minister is taking questions, there is a huge problem with the amount of notice that must be given for a question.

175. The Order Papers are now issued weeks in advance, which should mean that Members are well prepared. However, there ought to be a facility that can accommodate spontaneity and allow Members to ask the burning question that is being asked in the media on a particular day. Without such a mechanism, the people who should be able to answer that question are in an elected forum but are not being challenged to give an answer. That answer may come out two or three days later, either through a press statement, or in response to a question for oral answer or a priority question that must go through the appropriate process.

176. Professor Wilford: Dealing with such issues is an art; it is not a science. Provision exists for urgent questions to be tabled so that in the event of an urgent issue arising, notice of a question can be given if the Speaker deems it to be in the public interest.

177. Standing Order 20(2) states that Private Notice Questions must be submitted not less than four hours before the start of Question Time. Is that correct? That is slightly exceptional, too.

178. The Deputy Chairperson: I do not think that that Standing Order has ever been used.

179. Professor Wilford: Some priority Private Notice Questions have been tabled.

180. The Committee Clerk: Two priority Private Notice Questions have been tabled.

181. Mr Brolly: Two hours?

182. The Committee Clerk: Two priority questions were tabled during last week’s session.

183. Professor Wilford: Did you say that priority questions must be tabled not less than two hours before the start of Question Time?

184. The Committee Clerk: Sorry, no. Private Notice Questions must be tabled not less than four hours before the start of Question Time.

185. The Deputy Chairperson: Yes, it is four hours.

186. Prof Wilford: That should be reduced to two hours, as is done in the Scottish Parliament. I see no injury to the process in changing that Standing Order, if an issue is as urgent and immediate as a Member might infer. That should not be particularly difficult. Interestingly enough, during the first session of the Scottish Parliament, 47 urgent questions were tabled, but only four were accepted. That is because the Presiding Officer — or in the Assembly’s case, the Speaker — has the discretion to decide whether a question meets the criterion of urgency.

187. On the issue of topicality, Members must be on their toes to seize on an agenda that is prevalent among the public or in the media, or ideally both. Supplementary questions provide an opportunity for inventive Members to link a question to a matter of pressing public concern. However, that is up to Members. They have the tools, but they must use them.

188. Mr McQuillan: Sometimes Members need a bit of time to explain the background to a supplementary question, but that is made difficult if the Speaker presses them to simply ask the question. However, the Minister can take all day responding to the question, without really answering it.

189. Professor Wilford: Yes, you are quite right.

190. Mr McQuillan: Should a limit be placed on the time that a Minister has to respond to a question?

191. Professor Wilford: I think that in the Canadian House of Representatives, a time limit of 35 seconds is enforced for supplementary questions. Canadians speak very slowly. [Laughter.]

192. In the Dáil, the allotted time for a question and supplementary question must not exceed six minutes. A time or a word limit can be applied. However, it is the Speaker’s role that matters more than simply what the Member asks and how the Minister responds. The Speaker has the discretion to curtail or to redirect both a Member and a Minister. The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers must be assertive in doing so.

193. Mr McQuillan: Has a Speaker ever redirected a Minister to answer a question again or more fully? I cannot recall that ever happening.

194. The Deputy Chairperson: The Speaker and the Deputy Speakers are very keen to remind all sides of the House to be inventive when asking supplementary questions.

195. Professor Wilford: Members can be really imaginative and inventive in the way in which they seek opportunities to ask supplementary questions, such as catching the Speaker’s eye. Members must be inventive. It is no good Members asking either questions that they have been rehearsing for three or four days or innocuous supplementary questions. Members must be aware that that is a real opportunity.

196. The Deputy Chairperson: You mentioned the centrality of the Speaker. I do not want a rabble in the Chamber, but Members should add to the spirit of debating in the Chamber — just not to the point where Members are simply being offensive or making noise. I have made that point numerous times.

197. Mr Neeson: Caitríona.

198. The Deputy Chairperson: Some members here doubt that I am being serious, because of the interaction between the Minister of Education and me. It is about addressing the core issues. Every other Member should take that attitude. However, the Speaker must play a central role in facilitating the debate and allowing it to flow. Sometimes, the debate is cut dead.

199. Professor Wilford: I could not agree more. I would not have the gall to suggest to the Speaker how he should discharge his role. However, it is an important role, and he must exercise his discretion wisely, and in a way that keeps the rhythm of questions flowing.

200. The Deputy Chairperson: Question Time commences each Monday at 2.30 pm and continues until 4.00 pm. A suggestion was made to the Committee that Question Time be split over two days and that, rather than having the entire Question Time on Monday, it should be divided between Monday and Tuesday. The journalists thought that the timing was not too bad, because it enables them to send on their reports in time for the news later in the evening. What is your view on that?

201. Professor Wilford: I read on Mark Devenport’s blog that Question Time over two days had been suggested. It is a good idea and not one that had occurred to me — often, the obvious escapes one, does it not? However, I thought about it afterwards and decided that it was a good idea. Presumably the idea is that two Ministers would answer questions on each day, and questions to four Ministers each week rather than three would mean a quicker rotation. The speedier turnover would increase the topicality of questions.

202. However, I suggested that there is a case for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to appear weekly. Their equivalents elsewhere do, and I see no reason why they should not follow suit. Perhaps, therefore, one slot should routinely be taken by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, either together or separately.

203. Mr Brady: Parties exercise a certain level of protectionism over their Ministers. The spontaneity and topicality of Question Time is muted because Members may feel that they are putting their own Minister under pressure. However, the Ministers are competent and should be able to deal with any question. Were you to observe the Chamber during Question Time, you would see DUP Members gathered round their Minister and Sinn Féin Members gathered round theirs. It is a kind of trench syndrome, with Members peeping over the top to see whether someone is about to fire a question at their Minister with which he or she may have difficulty, and vice versa. As time goes on, Question Time may evolve into a more spontaneous event. However, I have observed that trench syndrome in the Chamber.

204. Also, when some Members ask questions that are not necessarily convoluted, but may take slightly longer to ask, the Speaker may jump in, or other Members start shouting, “ask the question". Members have different methods of arriving at asking a question.

205. Professor Wilford: Although there is no strict rule on that particular point, brevity should be the general rule.

206. Mr Brady: I do not disagree.

207. Professor Wilford: Given the confected way in which the Executive are constructed, and the kind of tensions to which Ministers are subject, protectionism is almost inevitable. That said, however, it is up to Members of other parties to catch the Speaker’s eye and ask their questions. In the past, on some fairly scandalous occasions in other Parliaments, questions have been planted. Sometimes, such questions are politely described as “inspired", and they are designed to give the Minister a gentle ride.

208. Members know when that is happening, and it is incumbent on them to counter it, whoever the Minister is. One must always remember that the Minister is there to be scrutinised and to be accountable for the actions of his or her Department. That should be the focus of Members’ interest. It does not matter which party the Minister is from.

209. Mr Brady made a point that Question Time may change over time. I made the same point during the inquiry into Committees — all too often, Members act as party animals, rather than Committee creatures. During Question Time, they must act as parliamentary creatures, not party animals. Ministers represent everyone in Northern Ireland. Their Departments serve the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland, and Members should be there to ensure that their constituents’ interests are being protected, defended or extended, whatever the case may be. If we had a two-party system rather than the current four-party system that would become more intense. The dynamic would be completely different.

210. The Deputy Chairperson: The dynamic would indeed be completely different. It would also be interesting to see how the partisanship would operate in a two-party system. At present, the arrangement between the four parties is not as collective as one might think, and at some stage, we will all have a go at a Minister from another party. That is despite the fact that we act collectively in one Executive.

211. Professor Wilford: Another frustration is when a Minister here is demonstrably not up to the job. Under the British single-party governing context, he or she can be dumped by the Prime Minister. It is different here because the Ministers are in the gift of the four parties. Other parties, even though they may take a view that a particular Minister is not up to the job, can do very little about it unless the party from which that Minister comes also shares that view. However, questions are an opportunity to test the competence of a Minister, irrespective of the party. That must be remembered.

212. Mr Brady: It is often forgotten that the current Assembly has only been in place for a relatively short period. There are huge issues in the context of this Assembly that are not present in Britain, Canada or elsewhere. Those obstacles or issues must be overcome.

213. The point that you make in relation to opposition is valid, because according to some parties, they are the opposition. Indeed, one party leader was introduced as such at the party’s conference. I have no problem with that, but there are other issues involved that have not been addressed in the normal contextual form of other parliamentary institutions.

214. Professor Wilford: I do have some sympathy for that view, but I would be worried that it would become an alibi for inaction or stagnancy.

215. Mr Brady: Yes, but I do not believe that I will be saying that in five years.

216. Professor Wilford: The Scottish Parliament is in a difficult situation; it has a minority single-party Government in office, which creates different problems again.

217. However, Members of the Assembly should be giving the lead, particularly in relation to questions for oral answer. Although I appreciate that there are difficulties in the Assembly and the Executive, they are not the same entity. The Assembly is not the Executive, but is in place to scrutinise the Executive. Members should look after their own problems and let the Executive deal with theirs. Members are there to challenge Ministers; that is your role as MLAs.

218. Questions to Ministers are a device that you can make the best use of. Ultimately, how much use is made of that device, and how good that use is, is up to each Member. It does not matter how liberal the procedures are, it is the competence and the ability of Members to make use of those tools that matters.

219. The Deputy Chairperson: In relation to questions for written answer, have those questions become less relevant as a result of the Freedom of Information Act 2000? Before that Act was introduced, when Members asked the right questions, they received the answers and the publicity that went with them. Now, investigative journalists — including those from the BBC — are constantly reporting that they have obtained information as a result of the Act and have not arrived at the source as a result of an inquisitive, parliamentary procedure. Has the introduction of the Act been a good thing or a bad thing?

220. Professor Wilford: Freedom of information (FOI) is an excellent measure, but not for the reasons that you are suggesting. In fact, I do not think that our freedom of information regime is as liberal as it ought to be, but that is another matter. All the evidence is that the volume of questions for written answer — across the UK — continues to increase. That form of scrutiny massively outstrips questions for oral answer in all parliaments. The difference between the media and Members is that Members have much more of a forensic or particular interest in specific policy areas.

221. The media’s agenda is usually rather different. Open Government and freedom of information are not the same. In open Government, the Government decide what information they want to release, the form that it is released it in and when it is released. In contrast, freedom of information is driven by citizens, or, in this case, Members. Members, their advisers and their researchers know the information that they want. Therefore, FOI requests present better opportunities for Members to get the information that they want.

222. Questions for written answer are a particularly sharp device available to Members, because they commit Departments to putting down facts on paper, which is important. Although one can access relevant documents, responses to questions for written answer present information in a way that is easily digested. Therefore, FOI requests are not a substitute or replacement for, and do not diminish the importance of, questions for written answer — they are complementary of each other.

223. The Deputy Chairperson: As the Committee Clerk said, the response to questions for written answer has become a major issue.

224. Professor Wilford: Do you mean the response times?

225. The Deputy Chairperson: Yes. In some Departments, the standard response times are not adhered to in 80% of questions for written answer. Some Departments are sending out a standard reply, stating that they are unable to provide an answer in the stipulated time and will do so as soon as possible. That is becoming more of an issue, and will be discussed at the next Committee meeting.

226. Professor Wilford, thank you very much for your time and your submission. The Committee will forward the information on viewing figures to you.

19 November 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Lord Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr David McClarty
Mr Adrian McQuillan
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

Witnesses:

Mr Joe Cassells
Mr John McManus
Mr Paul Mills

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Mr Robson Davison
Mr John Leonard
Mr Graeme McFarland
Mr David Savage

Department of Education

227. The Chairperson (Lord Morrow): I welcome the officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), Joe Cassells, Paul Mills and John McManus. DARD has the best record of all Departments in answering its questions on time. Mr Cassells, why are you so good?

228. Mr McCartney: You will get a Blue Peter badge at the end.

229. Mr Joe Cassells (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): You have asked a leading question, Mr Chairman.

230. I will describe the process for answering questions in DARD. I head up the Department’s corporate policy division, and I am the departmental Assembly liaison officer. It is in that role that I have overall responsibility for the DARD ministerial private office and for the provision of advice and guidance to our officials on all aspects of interaction with the Assembly, including preparation of draft Assembly questions.

231. Paul Mills has direct line-management responsibility for the private office. John McManus works in the private office, and he deals with Assembly questions and with the Business Office on a day-to-day basis. I have provided the Committee Clerk with information on the processes that are followed in DARD, and I will be happy to take questions on that.

232. We normally receive the daily list of questions late each afternoon. Those are all channelled through the ministerial private office, which explains why our division is in the lead in the process of answering questions on time. On receipt of the daily list, Paul and I scan it to determine which business area in the Department is the most appropriate to prepare the draft answer. We then advise John in the private office on the potential ownership of the questions, and he commissions draft answers from the relevant lead officials. That is done at a relatively senior level in the Department in that the head of the respective branch is involved and that person’s Senior Civil Service and departmental board member is also copied in.

233. Ordinary questions for written answer must be answered within 10 working days. The private office allocates the questions to the relevant business area and indicates that it will seek a draft answer for the Minister’s consideration within five days. Therefore, we cut the timescale for the process in half. If we have not received a draft answer from officials after five days, we continue to check with them daily until we get an answer that we can present to the Minister for her attention. When we receive the draft answer, we communicate it to the Minister and her special adviser for consideration, either in hard copy or electronically, depending on where the Minister is. We send it to the Minister with the view that she will clear the answer within the ten-day deadline.

234. The deadline for responding to priority questions for written answer is between two and five days, and we constrict our internal procedures to fall in line with that.

235. There are some variations on the process. Occasionally, we receive questions that are of such a nature that they may require input from several sources across the Department. In those circumstances, my branch co-ordinates the departmental answer. That particularly applies if factual, complex and detailed information is needed from across the Department and departmental agencies.

236. A second variation is when the same question has been asked of several Departments on the same daily list. Some negotiation may take place about which Department should take the lead in providing an answer. Regardless of whether our Department takes the lead or is providing part of the input, we still must clear the input with the Minister. That can put additional pressure on officials as they follow the timescales. We handle questions for which we provide part of the input in the same way that we handle priority questions for written answer — we telescope the timelines.

237. I wish to raise three further issues. I am aware that you have the statistics for clearance rates for April to July 2008, to which you referred earlier. Our analysis has shown that the trends identified for the Department’s response rates during that time reflect what has happened in the 18 months since the return of devolution. The Department has been late replying to questions on only two or three occasions.

238. Perhaps it is worth putting those figures into context. The statistics show that DARD receives fewer than the average number of questions received by other Departments for the same period. I am unsure whether there is a particular reason for that or what the significance of it might be. It should also be borne in mind that DARD and its agencies have a large number of staff — some 3,000 people.

239. Since devolution returned, as I said, part of my job has been to ensure that our officials have consistent guidance on the processes to be followed. I appreciate that central guidance exists from which all Departments in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) must work. However, we supplement that with our own guidance and templates. We provide examples of how officials should answer questions and arrange for staff in the Department to receive training. We do not, however, provide direct training for staff; rather, the Centre for Applied Learning provides that across the whole NICS.

240. In conclusion, despite the fact that we have a fairly good record, we keep our processes under review. Recently, we amended and reviewed processes in light of changes within the Department and at a central level. That is done on an ongoing basis to ensure that we do not get into difficulties with clearance rates.

241. The Department’s clearance statistics are reported on a monthly basis to the permanent secretary and his departmental board. This recent innovation allows him and his colleagues to view the Department’s performance rates.

242. The Chairperson: Thank you very much, Mr Cassells. Has a Member ever said that he or she was disappointed with the quality of an answer?

243. Mr Cassells: I am not aware of that ever having happened. John McManus deals with those sorts of queries on a daily basis, so perhaps he is better placed to answer your question.

244. Mr John McManus (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): To date, no Member has complained about the quality of an answer.

245. Mr Cassells: No Member has complained directly, and I have not had to make a judgement call on whether I believe a question was answered inadequately because a Member has asked another one shortly after receiving a response.

246. Mr McCartney: First, do you ever receive a question that could be answered without going through your office? Secondly, do you ever conduct a tracking exercise for costs?

247. Mr Cassells: John will address the second question in a moment. What was the first question again?

248. Mr McCartney: What do you consider to be a needless question?

249. Mr Cassells: Our presumption is that it is not our role to query why a Member is asking a question. We provide the information to answer his or her question as best we can. It is fair to say that the majority of questions that we receive are of a factual nature. Members ask questions such as how many projects have been taken forward in their constituencies or how many public appointments have been made in the past three years. Answering such questions may involve a bit of work for officials in gathering information. The information and the sources that we use may already be available to Members, either through departmental publication schemes, on the Internet or information kept in the Assembly Library. Paul, do you want to add anything?

250. Mr Paul Mills (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development): No, I have nothing to add; what you said summarises the process.

251. Mr Cassells: John will deal with the issue of tracking of costs.

252. Mr McManus: We do not track costs, as such. A mechanism is available if the cost of answering a question is disproportionate. However, it is not something that we have had to use.

253. Mr McCartney: How do you make that judgement?

254. Mr McManus: It is to do with how many man-hours it would take for a member, or members, of staff to answer a question.

255. Mr Mills: When a question arrives for an officer manager, he or she will instinctively know how long it should take for the staff to extract the relevant files, or find the information, which may or may not be in the building. An office manager can make an assessment based on how long it would take one member of staff to extract one piece of information and extrapolate it to ascertain whether it would cost more than £700. That then defines the disproportionate cost.

256. The Chairperson: Can the same criteria be applied to freedom of information requests?

257. Mr Mills: Yes, there is a cost consideration in answering those questions as well.

258. The Chairperson: If the cost would be disproportionate, you do not answer the question — is that right?

259. Mr Mills: Yes.

260. Mr Cassells: The presumption is that we will answer any question that we are able to. Since devolution was restored, we have not failed to answer any question for written answer because of disproportionate cost.

261. Mr Mills: Existing guidance prompts officials to consider alternative ways of answering questions.

262. The Chairperson: Can you give us the average cost of answering questions?

263. Mr Cassells: The short answer is no; we do not keep that information as a rule. However, questions are answered within a time limit. Therefore, we could extrapolate how much it costs to answer each question by assessing the amount of time that staff have spent producing answers. The majority of the input comes from staff carrying out the required research. The costs involved vary from question to question.

264. Mr Mills: A question may be answered with a simple statement that a publication is already available. However, another question may require a more complex answer, which nears the limit of disproportionate cost.

265. Mr Cassells: We do not have readily available information on the costs of answering questions.

266. The Chairperson: Would your Department have to go to considerable lengths to make that information readily available?

267. Mr Cassells: At Westminster, Ministers have been asked how much it would cost to answer a particular question. However, I am not aware that that question has been raised during this mandate. We could provide information on the costs of answering questions for written answer if it would be helpful. We could take a straw poll of a variety of question types rather than assessing them in their entirety. We could then take an average and extrapolate the amount of staff time that was spent answering a question.

268. The Chairperson: What would be your response if it was decided that each Department must provide information on the costs of answering questions?

269. Mr Cassells: I have no difficulty with that concept as long as it would not interfere with the time available to provide a substantive answer. Questions must be answered within a certain time frame, but they must also be answered accurately. Members seek a substantive answer, and that is what we want to give them.

270. Mr Mills: A requirement to provide information on the costs of answering questions would add another tier to administration.

271. Mr O’Loan: I was surprised to hear that you have never proactively tested the reaction to your answers. Would it not be sensible to do so?

272. Mr Cassells: The majority of the questions that we deal with are factual. Gathering the relevant information and producing an answer may be a complex internal process, but, hopefully, those answers meet Members’ needs. On an ad hoc basis, we could judge Members’ satisfaction with an answer by examining whether they took issue with it through a further question or a direct response.

273. Questions that combine a factual response and a ministerial or policy view or which are wholly for a Minister to answer — albeit with officials having provided the draft for consideration — are more problematic. Ministers’ views on policy can be challenged on the Floor of the House or through other media. We carefully consider whether what we deem to be a quality answer is one that matches Members’ expectations.

274. Mr O’Loan: You have had the experience of the Assembly not being up and running. The Assembly is functioning now, and the Department receives many questions. Is answering those questions regarded as a significant burden? Is there talk behind the scenes about the level of input that is required to produce answers?

275. Mr Cassells: Devolution places a variety of additional pressures on staff. Responding to questions for written answer is one of those pressures. Having a locally-based Minister has a different dynamic from the direct rule situation. However, people accept that that is part and parcel of the job; it is what devolution and local democracy brings.

276. In order to manage the process during direct rule — between the previous mandate and this one — we “staffed-down" and “staffed-up" again at private-office level. Our private office was not as busy, nor did we employ as many people during direct rule, because they were not needed. We did not have the same volume of daily questions from the House of Lords and the House of Commons. When devolution returned, we made sure that we had enough people in place to manage the increased volume of work. That is an extra pressure that the folk who provide draft answers have to bear.

277. Mr K Robinson: You scaled down and lost experienced staff at that stage. How did you replace them when you scaled up again?

278. Mr Cassells: Whether under direct rule or devolution, we do not employ staff for longer than a two-year tenure. It is recognised that the duties of those staff members often require them to be available out of hours. That is particularly true of travelling ministerial secretaries, who may be required to work long hours and outside normal office hours. Travelling secretaries and assistant private secretaries are directly recruited, and know the job that they are coming in to.

279. My colleague John McManus, who came to us in the past year since the return of devolution, understands that his tenure will end soon. The gap between the previous mandate and this one meant that no staff with experience were left in the private office. However, we did have experience at management level; my colleague Paul Mills provided continuity in his overall management responsibility for private-office staff.

280. Mr Mills: There is also a developmental aspect for staff. They only stay in post for a short time, after which they move on and take their experience with them to other business areas. When they are asked to answer questions, they know exactly what the pressures are in the private office.

281. Mr K Robinson: That is very helpful; thank you.

282. The Chairperson: Is there anything that this Committee or the Assembly could do to help you on the issue of the admissibility of questions?

283. Mr Cassells: We do not have any particular difficulty with the admissibility of questions, as long as we understand what it is that the Member is asking. Having said that, there are occasions when it is not clear whether the question is solely, or at all, for our Department to answer. There are areas of responsibility that are closely linked with other Departments. Issues can arise if a question has been wrongly targeted.

284. Mr Mills: We try to quickly detect questions that are not for DARD to answer. As Joe mentioned earlier, we scan the questions when we receive them before we give them to the private office or to the various business areas. If the question does not fall within DARD’s area of responsibility, we will check with the Assembly’s Business Office, or, possibly, for clarification, with the Member concerned.

285. Mr Cassells: If the issue is that the subject of the question is not clear at first sight, John McManus will negotiate with the Business Office.

286. Mr McManus: I would attempt to get clarification from the Business Office or from the Member, so that we can answer the question as best we can.

287. The Chairperson: The only drawback for you and your team, Mr Cassells, is that there is only one way to go.

288. Mr Cassells: Down. [Laughter.]

289. The Chairperson: Your Department is 100% effective at the moment. It is hard to improve on that.

290. Mr Cassells: Yes, it is. That level of performance has been consistent throughout the 18 months since the return of devolution. As I mentioned earlier, we do not take any comfort from that, nor are we complacent about our internal processes. At the most senior levels in the Department, and at the levels at which officials manage those processes, it is important to ensure that staff are fully aware of their responsibilities. We do not want to appear smug about that, because we know that it could quickly go in another direction.

291. The Chairperson: You have not come across as smug. You should, perhaps, prepare your troops for the issue of costs, because the Committee is considering changes. Thank you for attending.

292. I now welcome Robson Davison, John Leonard, Graeme McFarland and David Savage from the Department of Education. The Committee has asked the best and worst performing Departments to attend today’s meeting. Unfortunately, your Department is the worst performing regarding questions for written answer, and the figures show that you are 70%, 97·5% and 75% late. Mr Davison, you can outline your case, after which members will ask questions.

293. Mr Robson Davison (Department of Education): I will make some initial comments, after which my colleague Mr Leonard will outline the Department’s processes. We understand that questions for written answer are important to ensure accountability, and we accept that our performance between April and July 2008 was poor and unacceptable. The Department has taken steps to address that problem, and the figures for September and October 2008 show that we have made progress. However, we are not complacent, and we are considering how to address a major issue with priority questions for written answer.

294. Mr John Leonard (Department of Education): We have provided a process map — similar to that discussed by Joe Cassells from DARD — that outlines our procedures. When the Department receives questions for written answer from the Assembly’s Business Office, the top management support unit — which encompasses the private office — allocates the questions to heads of branch and heads of division in the Department, and we stipulate a three-day deadline. That is a shorter time frame than that in DARD. Thereafter, the appropriate officials provide draft answers.

295. The Department receives a large quantity of questions, many of which require input from education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) and other non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs). That process can take time. Officials provide draft answers to the top management support unit within the three-day deadline. Furthermore, we must include an Irish-language translation in the draft answer. That is a ministerial requirement that has existed since February 2008. Our colleagues in DARD are not subject to that requirement.

296. The timeline that was supplied to the Committee shows that Irish-language officers insert a translation within 24 hours. That is a new part of our process map that was introduced in September, when the Department obtained Irish-language officers to deal with translations in-house. Prior to that, we had to go to the translation service in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) to get the Irish-language translation included in the draft answers. That was taking between four and five days, which was creating a tremendous punctuality problem, and that is reflected in the figures that you have for the period between April and July.

297. That problem has been overcome with the in-house resource that we now have. We are now able to provide Irish-language translation on a same-day basis, which allows us to get draft answers to the Minister for clearance a lot more quickly than in the period that the Committee has statistics for. That is a big factor in accounting for our improved performance in September and October — the information that we provided to the Committee shows an overall on-time rate of 77% and 81% for those two months respectively.

298. Our procedures are very similar to those used by DARD in that the top management support unit allocates the questions to officials and allows them three days to provide the draft answer. We then input an Irish-language translation, and it is then passed to the Minister for clearance before going back to the Business Office and distributed to Members’ pigeon holes.

299. Mr Davison: Earlier, the officials from DARD were asked why their performance so good. I suppose that the corollary for us is to ask why our performance is so poor. I will provide information on that by way of an explanation, not by way of excuse; I accept that our performance is simply not good enough.

300. The Department of Education receives a large number of questions for written answer — over 600. Only one other Department receives more than that. Overall, the Department of Education is quite small. The great bulk of questions that we received over the period that we are discussing fell to a limited number of branches. The questions are separated into blocks that hit a small number of branches. For example, the building branch receives an enormous amount of questions, as does open enrolment. Furthermore, we receive many questions about special educational needs. The questions are not split evenly across the Department — they fall into those certain areas and we have to take account of that.

301. Our system is complex. To answer many of the questions that we receive, we must deal with several different NDPBs. For example, we may have to trawl all five education and library boards and CCMS, or we may have to go further than that. We have to rely on those bodies and collate those answers before we can feed them into our own system. Furthermore, in order to provide us with information, the boards and CCMS may have to gather material from the schools that fall within their remit. Therefore, the system can involve quite a long chain.

302. We also have a significant policy agenda, which involves many contentious issues. Therefore, a lot of the questions that we receive may require considerable detail; for example, a question about the state of a particular building project. Furthermore, questions about open enrolment or transfer may involve considerable internal debate and political discussion.

303. As John said, the Minister wishes to have all answers translated into Irish. In the period that the Committee is dealing with, that service was carried out outside of the Department, and that had the impact that John pointed out. Irish-language officers have now been assigned to that piece of work, and have managed to speed up the processes quite considerably. Basically, the problem is the comparative number of questions against the comparative size of the Department, spread over a small number of branches, and sometimes requiring complex and detailed answers. That is our explanation; it is not by way of an excuse.

304. The Chairperson: Thank you. I am sure that some members will wish to ask a few questions. We acknowledge that there has been an improvement, as the paper you have provided today shows, and that the Department seems to be heading in the right direction. You said that the problem is due to the volume of questions that had been asked, and also the fact that there are contentious issues involving education at the moment, which may generate extra work. However, a comparison can be made between your Department and, for instance, the Department that has been asked the most questions — the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS). That Department was late in replying to 4·1% of ordinary questions for written answer, whereas as your Department has been late in replying to 69·8%. I feel that that is not a good comparison; the workload of your Department is no greater than that of DHSSPS. Do you have any estimations of what it costs to answer questions that are asked of your Department?

305. Mr Leonard: My answer is similar to that given by Joe from DARD. We do not monitor costs and do not have that information. Although there is a high volume of questions, we manage to obtain the information and answer most of the questions without incurring disproportionate costs. Sometimes a lot of input is required from boards and CCMS etc, which can add to the overall man-hours taken to draft answers, and therefore increase costs. We do not monitor that, but we are aware that there are some occasions on which the costs of providing an answer are prohibitive and above the disproportionate-cost level.

306. Mr Davison: You asked officials from DARD whether they would welcome cost analysis — in one sense it can add to the burden, but taking cost into account and having some kind of cost barrier might be helpful. Our starting position is that we aim to provide an answer to every question, almost irrespective — up to a point — of how long it is going to take, and how much effort is needed to get that answer.

307. The Chairperson: Does the cost of translation push the overall costs over the threshold of disproportionate costs?

308. Mr Leonard: It has not until now.

309. The Chairperson: Does it cost more to get an answer from your Department than from any other?

310. Mr Leonard: It does; it was costing more when we were using the DCAL translation service, because the work was being sent out to contracted translators who were charging a certain amount per word. We now have an in-house resource, and our own officials are able to do that as part of their other duties in-house and quickly.

311. The Chairperson: I am a little edgy on the issue of disproportionate costs. You can clearly state that the Department does incur disproportionate costs to answer questions, but you cannot tell us what those costs are. Do you see an anomaly there?

312. Mr Davison: Honestly, if we were to take cost into account, it might help us, although our starting position is to find an answer to every question, almost irrespective of cost. Our accountability is the balancing factor, because answering Assembly questions is an important part of the Department’s accountability process. Ergo, we want to provide an answer to every question if we can.

313. The Chairperson: Mr Davison, you do not have to say “honestly", because we believe you. We are simply probing to try to get the information into our heads — rest assured that we believe you.

314. Mr Davison: My concern is that if it were up to the Department to set a limit on cost, it could be construed as an effort to avoid answering some particularly complex or detailed questions. Our starting position is to try to answer everything.

315. The Chairperson: Therefore, neither you nor your staff would want to hide behind disproportionate cost.

316. Mr Davison: Not really.

317. Mr McQuillan: You said that you have to go to education and library boards, and so forth, for answers. What resources do you allocate to them for sourcing those answers? Do your requests put pressure on the boards? Perhaps someone with 101 jobs to do would not have time to find the answer.

318. Mr Davison: I am not blaming the boards; I am simply saying that the Department is part of a long chain. We give a block grant to boards, and they allocate resources according to their requirements.

319. Mr McQuillan: Yet, 18 months ago, the boards did not have to provide answers to questions.

320. Mr Davison: That applies to us too. I cannot tell you how each board has responded to the changes brought about by devolution, but I am sure that they have increased the proportion of resources allocated to its demands. In many cases, when the boards do not hold the detail of the answer required, they must go to the schools. Rather than allocating blame or responsibility, I am making the point that the Department is part of a long chain. I am sure that the boards have responded to the needs of accountability in the same way as the Department, but I cannot quantify that for you.

321. Mr David Savage (Department of Education): It is fair to say that, inevitably, when relying on a chain of command to garner an answer, it becomes a bit more difficult to ensure that deadlines are met. With the best will in the world, that is a factor when questions are sent to education and library boards.

322. The Chairperson: Are you saying that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link?

323. Mr D Savage: Exactly; for example, the top management support unit can try its best to ensure that it sets a reasonable deadline for a branch to provide a draft answer. However, after the question is sent on to an education and library board, the unit becomes reliant on someone else, and so on, and that can cause problems.

324. Mr McQuillan: So, you may have to go down to the level of a school principal who is overworked and probably underpaid?

325. Mr Davison: Yes, for example, we receive many questions about building, such as on the state of a particular school building. To obtain the required answer, we may have to ask the principal, who, in turn, may have to ask someone else.

326. Mr McQuillan: That person probably works for the education and library board.

327. Mr Davison: Perhaps not; if building has started on the site, the appropriate person may be a private contractor.

328. Mr McQuillan: I would have thought that someone at board level, rather than the principal, would know the answer.

329. Mr Davison: The boards cover a raft of issues, as does the Department. Therefore, sometimes the answer genuinely resides at the school, or with someone with whom the school is dealing. I am not trying to overstate the situation; it sounds as though I am apportioning blame, but I am not. It is simply that the Department operates as part of a long chain. The answers must come up through that chain; sometimes the answer comes easily, and sometimes it does not.

330. Mr McCartney: The DARD officials said that they have approximately 3,000 members of staff. How many members of staff are in the Department of Education?

331. Mr Davison: We have approximately 650 members of staff.

332. Mr McCartney: Does the volume of questions sometimes clog up the system?

333. Mr Davison: That is my point, Mr McCartney. The questions fall disproportionately on a small number of branches and can, at given times, have a major impact on their work. I do not want to paint the picture that it is always like that, but at some points, if a large number of questions are received by a small branch, it can make what they are trying to do quite hard.

334. Mr McCartney: The Chairperson has already pointed this out, but if the Department had to go to the Western Education and Library Board or a school, could you put a cost on that?

335. Mr Davison: If we were pushed to do so, we could give an estimate. We would rely on the boards to give us the data on how much it costs them.

336. Mr McCartney: Do you make the calculation that it is disproportionate on their behalf, or is that —

337. Mr Davison: We do that on their behalf. It is instinctive as opposed to an actual analysis of detailed costs, because we try to answer every single question.

338. Mr McCartney: The Chairperson asked the DARD officials, and maybe I am asking in a different way. it may be difficult for you to answer, but how do you view the questions? If, for example, you are asked about the state of a building in a particular school in Derry, is there not a possibility that you could lift the phone and ask the principal, and he may be able to tell you himself?

339. Mr Davison: There are a number of issues. For example, we are thinking about improving our position by putting a lot more of our information on our website. We want to develop that so that we do not have to chase a trail. We could then refer members to particular web pages. Any Member who wants to ask us a question directly is very welcome to do so. We will try, on every occasion, to provide answers. Our Minister presses us hard to ensure a good quality of answers, and we have had no feedback to the contrary. We have had feedback about the slow delivery of the answers, but not the quality.

340. Mr D Savage: It is useful to note that there are other ways of getting information. The current process is useful in extracting exact information that is cleared and signed by the Minister within an improving deadline. However, there are other methods that would allow officials to pick up the phone to get an answer.

341. Mr K Robinson: Thank you for your presentation. I am looking at the figures that the Committee has, which you may not have, for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. They are late in supplying 7·1% answers overall. However, it has a most convoluted system, as it has boards, trusts and goodness knows what else in between. I do not think that anyone in the room has fathomed how that Department actually works. It also works as part of a long chain, yet it seems to be coming in with a reasonable figure.

342. You have raised the factor of costs, which seem to be an extra burden on the Department. The Minister has obviously taken the decision that an Irish translation is essential from her viewpoint. When I am trying to read your answers, I find it intrusive that whole sections of the reply are in a language that I do not understand. I have got to the stage, through sheer frustration, of drawing lines through translated text in order to try to block it out so that I can get from A to B in a regular pattern.

343. Some members of Committee for Education are less than pleased with the lateness of some of the information that we receive. Is it possible — to cut costs and the time involved in getting answers back to us — that a member could indicate whether they wish to have an Irish section included in the response? Would that streamline the process? Would that help on staffing costs? Finally, would that help members to assimilate the information that we are getting at our end of the chain?

344. Mr Davison: In comparison with the DHSSPS, we realise that we are not doing as well as they are. I do not know enough about DHSSPS to analyse why that is the case; I can analyse only the Department of Education’s process.

345. The issue of translation into Irish is a matter for my Minister. Your suggestion as to indicating whether an Irish translation is included is, at heart, a political question. I cannot, as a civil servant, answer that. It would be a matter for this Committee and Ministers collectively to consider whether that is a possibility.

346. Mr K Robinson: The reason that I ask is that the figures show that DARD, and the Department for Regional Development (DRD), return a very low number of late answers. I cannot recall whether Irish translations appear in, for example, DRD answers. If they do, they are certainly not as intrusive as in the replies that I get when I ask a question about education. They do not disrupt my train of thought, or my response to the reply.

347. Mr Davison: Again, as you will appreciate, that is, at heart, a political question. I cannot speak for DARD or DRD. I know where the use of Irish stands with our Minister, and within the Department’s practice. If that was to be changed, it would be a political call, not a call for a civil servant to make.

348. Mr K Robinson: Perhaps this is a call for a civil servant, Robson: how does the cost of employing translators within the Department compare with what happened previously when you had to use DCAL folk?

349. Mr Davison: I cannot give you a direct answer to the specific question of cost comparison because, as I said earlier, we do not do that. The officials who currently translate for us are officials within the Department, and do lots of other work. We use the skills that they have in the use of Irish. There is no additional cost to our officials in the way that there would be if we had to pay hard cash for an outside translation service.

350. Mr K Robinson: Can you guesstimate the approximate costs to the Department, given the time taken for an official to translate something from one language to another?

351. Mr Davison: If, as a matter of practice, we did that, it would be factored into the costs. As I said, we do not do that as a mater of course. If the regime changes, we will do that. Comparatively, making use of our own officials with that skill is a considerable reduction in the cost that we were paying to DCAL.

352. The Chairperson: In relation to the question that Mr Robinson is pushing you on; we appreciate that is difficult for you to have that information to hand. Can you provide us with that information in writing please?

353. Mr Davison: If the Committee Clerk sends us the precise question or questions that you want answered, we will certainly do our best.

354. The Chairperson: Is that all right, Mr Robinson?

355. Mr K Robinson: Yes, that is very helpful Chairman, thank you. Mr Leonard, did you want to respond to that?

356. Mr Leonard: I agree with Mr Davison.

357. Lord Browne: Following on from Mr Robinson’s line of questioning; what percentage of questions are submitted in Irish alone?

358. Mr Leonard: It is a very small percentage.

359. Lord Browne: When you say small, can you quantify that?

360. Mr D Savage: All questions are submitted in English.

361. Mr McCarthy: It is not permitted to submit questions in Irish.

362. Mr D Savage: That is due to the fact that, as you say, questions are permitted to be submitted only in English.

363. Lord Browne: When you say a small percentage, do you mean zero?

364. Mr D savage: It is zero.

365. Lord Browne: Do you have any plans to introduce further measures that will improve your performance? Are there any areas that you feel could be improved on?

366. Mr Davison: We have. We are instituting the regular reporting of performance to top management group and to the Minister to ensure that our officials understand the importance of this matter, and the importance of improving our position. We are thinking about whether we can put much more information on our website, so that we do not have to go searching for specifics for absolutely everything.

367. We have reduced deadline times, and John’s team has been given our imprimatur to press hard on those deadlines if people do not respond within the appropriate time frame. We are working our way through tightening up the whole process.

368. I am not being complacent, but it is heartening that our actions have resulted in improvement. There is still a fair way to go to catch up on Departments such as DARD, but, if the only way for them is down, the only way for us is up. The September and October figures tell us that we have started to make an impact. It is a matter of keeping the foot on the pedal to ensure that we drive those figures up even further.

369. Lord Browne: Do you have a figure that you would realistically like to achieve?

370. Mr Davison: I do not have the DHSSPS figure in front of me, but I think it is 4%. That Department’s structures are very similar to ours, so we should at least be up there with it. We have no desire to be sitting here as “dunces". We would much prefer to have been in the DARD position, but we are not.

371. Mr K Robinson: Do you realise, Chairperson, that there is no such thing as failure in education? They have to keep trying. [Laughter]

372. Mr Davison: You are well used to annual reporting. The performance was unsatisfactory to poor.

373. The Chairperson: Perhaps the fact that you were cross-questioned by two former teachers has affected you.

374. Mr Davison: It is always an uncomfortable experience.

375. The Chairperson: As far as the admissibility criteria are concerned, is there anything that your Department would like to see happen that could lead to improved performance?

376. Mr Davison: That is interesting. We encounter only one inadmissible issue, and I will hand over to John after I say this. We occasionally receive questions that require legal opinion. As I tell people in some of the areas in which we operate, we may be a lot of things, but we are not lawyers. We would step into incredibly dangerous waters if we even attempted to offer a legal opinion. That is the only area of which I am conscious.

377. Mr Leonard: That is the main area for us. There have been times when we have been in touch with the Business Office regarding certain questions that asked us for a legal opinion. We had to take counsel about those and we had to seek a rewording of the question. We have had some success with the Business Office and Members, and some questions were reworded. That is the only big issue for us.

378. Mr McCartney: If one asks for the cost of that advice, it is disproportionate immediately. [Laughter.]

379. Mr Davison: That would make costing very interesting.

380. The Chairperson: Are there any other initiatives that the Assembly could take to assist you?

381. Mr Davison: Perhaps what you mentioned about making a point of specific costing. We would not want to do that unilaterally — we would want to do that within a framework in which every Department was doing that. Sometimes, an apple is being compared to an orange both inside the Department and between our Department and others. Some kind of standardised view of costing would perhaps be helpful internally and in comparing ourselves to Department’s such as DARD.

382. If we were to take full cognisance of the costs of questions, it may well be the case that we would not answer some because their costs are disproportionate. That might be very helpful from the centre.

383. The Chairperson: As we said to the DARD officials, perhaps you should prepare your troops for that. It is better to be forewarned and to be ready for that. You assured us that your performance of answering is something that you are continually monitoring.

384. Mr Davison: Yes.

385. The Chairperson: That is fair enough. You told us that you are taking that seriously, and we believe you. Mr Davison, I thank you and your team for attending. Sometimes it is easier if you are coming to deliver good news. I suspect that your session might have been more difficult than DARD’s.

386. Mr Davison: If we do this again, I hope that I am not here. [Laughter.]

387. If I am here, I hope that I am in the DARD seats.

388. The Chairperson: We just hope that you are here, and we hope that for the right reasons. We will do it again some time. Thank you very much.

6 January 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Lord Morrow (Chairperson)
Mr Mickey Brady
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Séan Neeson
Mr Declan O’Loan
Mr Ken Robinson

Witnesses:
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister)(Mr Donaldson)
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister)(Mr G Kelly)

Mr Neil Jackson
Mr Alan Rogers

Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister

389. The Chairperson (Lord Morrow): I welcome both junior Ministers to the meeting. We will give them an opportunity to make a presentation. I do not know who will speak first — I am sure that they will have agreed that between themselves. I invite whoever is to speak first to begin.

390. The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister)(Mr Donaldson): Thank you, Mr Chairman, and I wish members a very happy new year. We appreciate the opportunity to appear before the Committee to discuss the Executive’s views and proposals on the procedures and processes for Assembly questions. With us today are Neil Jackson and Alan Rogers from OFMDFM. I will make some introductory comments, highlight one specific aspect of the Executive’s response, and I will then hand over to my ministerial colleague to focus on the remaining principal themes in the response. After that, we will, of course, be happy to respond to any questions that members may have.

391. The Executive fully recognise the important role of Assembly questions in securing the accountability of Ministers to the Assembly. We also acknowledge the importance of Members receiving accurate and timely answers from Ministers. Equally, the work involved in responding to Assembly questions represents a significant investment in time and resources, and we therefore consider it essential that the processes for Assembly questions are as effective and efficient as possible and that they contribute value to, rather than detract from, the services that we all wish to provide to the public.

392. We hope that members will have had the opportunity to consider the Executive’s response. It reflects the agreed views of Ministers and includes a range of proposals covering oral and written questions and arrangements for questions for priority written answer and private notice questions.

393. I now wish to highlight one of the principal recommendations covered in the Executive’s response to the Committee. It relates to the frequency of oral questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is, of course, regrettable that the Executive’s proposal was made public before we had an opportunity to discuss the matter in detail. It would seem that there is willingness on the part of some people to generate controversy and to question the commitment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the principle and exercise of accountability to the Assembly. Let us be very clear this afternoon: the Executive’s proposal, as with all other proposals, was put forward by the Executive collectively and is intended to promote an open discussion with the Committee, informed by our respective experiences, and with the common aim of ensuring that Question Time is a meaningful and valuable experience for Ministers and Members alike.

394. We also wish to emphasise that there is no question of the First Minister and deputy First Minister seeking to weaken the role of the Assembly in securing the accountability of Ministers. Furthermore, they acknowledge their dual role as joint Ministers of a Department and as joint chairpersons of the Executive. In the latter role, they have answered for the Executive during take-note debates on the legislative programme and on the Executive’s response to the economic downturn.

395. However, as regards questions for oral answer, it has been the practice that Ministers do not answer questions relating to the departmental responsibilities of other Ministers. OFMDFM’s discrete but important range of responsibilities has generated questions on a limited range of topics. For example, during the previous session, between September 2008 and the Christmas recess, half of the questions listed for oral answer by OFMDFM covered only five broad themes: the credit crunch; children and young people; the number of Executive meetings; the investment strategy, and military sites.

396. Although that fact does not devalue the importance of those questions, it is mentioned in order to raise the issue with the Committee about whether the current frequency of OFMDFM sessions is a justifiable investment of the time of the Assembly and Ministers. Although Departments have a broad range of responsibilities and powers, it should be recognised that OFMDFM, as a discrete Department, performs specific functions on a day-to-day basis. There appears to be no logical reason why OFMDFM should be subject to arrangements that are different from those of other Departments, particularly Departments with much broader responsibilities.

397. The concept of fortnightly sessions may have been designed in order to scrutinise the role of the First Minister and deputy First Minister as chairpersons of the Executive; however, that has not been borne out in practice. The majority of questions being tabled for oral answer do not relate to that role, they relate to departmental responsibilities. We welcome discussion with the Committee on the matter. We do not have a closed mind; we are willing to listen to other views. We also do not want to undermine OFMDFM’s accountability to the Assembly. Junior Minister Kelly will outline the remaining principal features of the Executive’s response.

398. The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): I wish everyone a happy new year. As members will have seen, the Executive’s response covers a wide range of issues. In addition to junior Minister Donaldson’s comments on the frequency of OFMDFM’s attendance at Question Time, I will briefly summarise the remaining principal comments and observations in the Executive’s response.

399. The number of questions listed for oral answer should be reduced to a maximum of 15 per session. That proposal reflects our experience in providing answers to oral questions. For example, between September 2008 and the Christmas recess, OFMDFM participated in six Question Time sessions. Of the 120 questions selected for oral answer, only 33 were answered, which amounted to, on average, five or six per session. Although the remaining Members did receive a written response to their questions, I am sure that the Committee will agree that that is not the purpose of Question Time.

400. Moreover, we must be mindful of the considerable time and effort that officials devote to preparing answers to 20 questions. Although the number of questions answered directly by Ministers could increase, it is unlikely to reach 20. Given that fact, and given our common aim to use resources as efficiently as possible, the Executive have therefore recommended that the number of questions for oral answer be reduced.

401. The Executive believe that junior Ministers should be permitted to support the First Minister and deputy First Minister during Question Time by responding to questions that relate to their specific responsibilities. In addition, due attention should be paid to the relevance and length of supplementary questions during Question Time. Such an approach will align more closely with Standing Orders, which state that a supplementary question may be asked in order to elucidate an answer rather than to raise loosely connected issues.

402. We hope that controls can be introduced to ensure that questions tabled on behalf of a Member have been approved by the MLA concerned, which will help to ensure that the questions are directly relevant to his or her interests.

403. There have been criticisms about the performances of Departments in answering questions, however, there have been improvements recently. Monitoring arrangements are in place to ensure that the appropriate level of priority is being given to answering Assembly questions. Our argument is that criteria should be introduced to control the use of priority written questions and that Members should be asked to justify the urgency of their questions. The need for Ministers to respond to questions, when urgency is not readily apparent, means that resources are being diverted from answering other questions within stated deadlines.

404. In Standing Orders, the time limit for giving notice of a private notice question should be increased from four hours to six hours in order to permit more time for a Minister to prepare a comprehensive answer — that is, on the understanding that the Member is seeking a comprehensive answer. Four hours is considered to be a tight period of time in which to prepare such answers.

405. Thank you for providing us with an opportunity to highlight those matters to the Committee. We are very happy to respond to any questions or comments that the Committee may have.

406. The Chairperson: I thank the junior Ministers for their presentation. I will now open the session to members who may have questions.

407. In relation to a point that Mr Donaldson made: OFMDFM wrote to me, as Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures. That letter was in the public domain before I had sight of it, which was regrettable, and it was being commented on by at least one MLA, who felt compelled to speak to the press about it first, despite the fact that it had nothing to do with the Member at that stage. I did not even have sight of the letter that was being trumpeted across the media.

408. That is regrettable, and I do not know how it happened. I suspect that the junior Ministers are not aware of how it happened either. However, when OFMDFM, or the Executive, release letters that are not for public consumption, I ask that it be borne in mind that they seem to be reaching the media before they get to the appropriate place.

409. Mr O’Loan: I thank the junior Ministers for coming today. Do the First Minister and deputy First Minister receive higher salaries than the other Ministers?

410. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Yes, the First Minister and deputy First Minister receive a higher salary. That reflects the fact that they are not only departmental Ministers but have a further responsibility to jointly chair the Executive and co-ordinate the work of the Executive across all Departments.

411. Mr O’Loan: Thank you for pre-empting my second question. They have a higher salary to reflect their considerably wider and deeper responsibilities — do you accept that?

412. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I do indeed — absolutely.

413. Mr O’Loan: There are junior Ministers in OFMDFM. Are there junior Ministers in any other Department?

414. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): The Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides for the appointment of junior Ministers. However, to date, the only junior Ministers to have been appointed are in OFMDFM. I recall that the decision was taken by the first Administration in 1999. The legislation provides for the appointment of other junior Ministers if that is deemed necessary, but that has not been the case to date. At the moment, only OFMDFM has junior Ministers.

415. Mr O’Loan: Why do you think that that is the case?

416. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): It is because of the additional workload involved in relation to the co-ordination of the Executive.

417. Junior Minister Kelly and I have been given specific responsibilities on a range of issues. Indeed, junior Minister Kelly mentioned some of them in his comments: we have policy responsibility for children and young people and for older people, and we jointly chair a range of Executive subcommittees that deal with some of those matters. Equality issues, sustainable development and victims’ issues are just some of the areas that we, as junior Ministers, cover on behalf of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

418. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): We are not here to argue that there is less work in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister than in other Departments. There is a wide range of work, and it is a cross-cutting Department: that is why it has junior Ministers. I am glad that you did not ask us about the wages we receive.

419. I do not think that there is any dispute about the workload. If the issue is whether Question Time for the First Minister and deputy First Minister should be held on a fortnightly or monthly basis, then I think the argument is more about whether the First Minister and deputy First Minister are answering questions specific to their Department. Many cross-cutting issues are dealt with by other Ministers, who answer questions specifically in respect of their particular Departments. On occasions, cross-cutting issues are dealt with by either the junior Ministers or by the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

420. Mr O’Loan: As you rightly, and straightforwardly, put it, you are not here to argue the case that there is less work in OFMDFM: quite the opposite — you are arguing that the existence of junior Ministers is evidence of the fact that there is more work in OFMDFM. I am sure that you would also agree that the extra workload is the reason why the status quo should be maintained and that Question Time for the First Minister and deputy First Minister should crop up in the cycle more often than for other departmental Ministers. Therefore, it seems to be inconsistent and contradictory for you to be proposing a change to the cycle that expects the First Minister and deputy First Minister to be treated the same as any other Minister.

421. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): That is not necessarily the case. Our proposal is based on practical experience of Question Time and how that has worked out. Nothing in Government stays the same. When I first entered Parliament, Prime Minister’s Question Time was held twice a week, for 15 minutes each time. That subsequently changed. There is nothing to say that the Assembly cannot change its procedures. That is why this Committee exists — it would not exist if the procedures were set in stone and did not need to be reviewed.

422. The purpose of our proposal is to find a way to improve the quality of the experience of Question Time for Members. The bulk of the questions that the First Minister and deputy First Minister answer on a fortnightly basis relate to their departmental responsibilities and not to their role of co-ordinating the work of the Executive. We are open to other proposals, but our proposal is appropriate given the repetitive nature of the questions being tabled for oral answer. On reading the questions, one sees the same questions popping up time after time, and one is left wondering what Members and the public are getting out of the process as far as accountability is concerned.

423. That is the only purpose of our proposal. We are not trying to shy away from being held to account. If Members have pressing issues, they can table private notice questions, private Members’ motions, or they can secure Adjournment debates. When the matters arising are the responsibility of OFMDFM, our Ministers will step up to the plate and respond to them. We are saying that we believe that our proposal to reduce the frequency with which OFMDFM attends Question Time should improve the quality of the questions. That is no reflection on Members; it is a symptom of the fact that frequency is part of the problem because it leads to questions that are repeated. A slightly longer gap would mean that questions would be more focused and more pertinent to the issues of the day.

424. I accept entirely what Mr O’Loan said. As far as departmental responsibilities are concerned, OFMDFM is probably the smallest of the Departments in the Government of Northern Ireland. That said, we have a dual responsibility. The extra workload involved in co-ordinating the Executive’s work was, perhaps, the motivation behind the original convention that the First Minister and deputy First Minister were to answer questions on a fortnightly basis. Our point is that when one considers the outworking and practical experience of that arrangement it seems that change is needed.

425. We have put forward our proposal for change, but we are happy to listen to other proposals. Maintaining the status quo does a disservice to the quality that people expect from Question Time.

426. The Chairperson: Mr Donaldson, you said that the same questions keep popping up periodically. Does it follow that the same template answers would suffice? Could a Minister not simply say that the answer was given two weeks or two months ago?

427. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I have seen Ministers in Parliament rise and refer honourable Members to answers that were given earlier. That would be one way of dealing with the problem of repetition, but we are not convinced that it is the most effective way.

428. The Chairperson: Such a system would save time.

429. Mr Neeson: Junior Minister Donaldson spoke about the desire to improve the quality of Question Time. That is the entire purpose of the Committee’s inquiry into Assembly questions. I agree with some of the ideas that have been put forward. However, do you not agree that your proposal, in many ways, undervalues the First Minister and the deputy First Minister’s special role and, indeed, the role of the entire Assembly?

430. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): There was an assumption that the First Minister and deputy First Minister would be questioned as the joint chairs of the Executive. However, that has not been the case in practice, and our argument is based entirely on the practical implications. I appreciate that the Committee is also working in that regard.

431. The fact is that questions are repeated and are on only five issues. The First Minister and deputy First Minister feel that it is inappropriate to answer questions for other Ministers, which narrows the scope for questions on matters affecting OFMDFM. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have a number of specific responsibilities in addition to chairing Executive meetings, and that is where the difference lies. There seems to have been an initial assumption that the First Minister and deputy First Minister would be answering questions for all Departments, but that has not been the case.

432. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): It is interesting to note that when we checked the record of a senior MLA who was most critical of this proposal in the public domain, we found that he had not asked a question of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for a considerable period of time. Nevertheless, he was on the radio suggesting that our proposal would, in some way, diminish his ability to hold Ministers to account; so there has been politicking on the matter.

433. We are trying to respond to the Committee’s remit of improving the quality of the Question Time experience. We do not pretend to have a monopoly on the matter, but we have put forward a proposal that we believe will address the problems associated with the questions that are asked of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

434. I accept Mr Neeson’s point entirely that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have a unique role. That role is reflected by the fact that they answer questions on a fortnightly basis. However, we feel that the quality of the Question Time experience has diminished as a result of that. The challenge for all of us is to improve the quality of Question Time. Members may have other views, but we propose that questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister should take place on a monthly basis to see whether that makes a difference.

435. Lord Browne: The Committee on Procedures has spent considerable time investigating how Question Time operates in other places and has commissioned extensive research in that regard. We are attempting to use that knowledge to streamline and improve Question Time in the Assembly.

436. I accept your logic about the frequency of the First Minister and deputy First Minister answering oral questions. However, we have a unique situation, and we have a duty to respond to public demand. It would not have a positive impact on the public’s perception of the Assembly if the First Minister and deputy First Minister were to attend less often. I am glad to hear that you are willing to listen to Members’ views, and I accept what you say, but you must consider public perception.

437. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): We accept that point. To date, the debate has perhaps been informed by those whose view is that accountability would be diminished, and I have suggested other ways in which to look at that. However, perception is often nine tenths of reality for many people who do not examine the minutiae and nuances of the arguments. We do not want to do anything that will diminish the Assembly’s role in holding the Administration to account.

438. Nevertheless, we are also concerned that we do not create a turn-off factor for the public, whereby those who tune in to Question Time end up yawning and thinking that it is the same old, same old. We want to improve people’s experience of Question Time. As I travel around the world, I meet people who faithfully tune in, week in, week out, for Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, because of the theatre, the verbal jousting, and so forth. It catches people’s interest and increases their interest in politics. If we could find a way to capture that spirit in the Assembly, it would help.

439. However, there is a clear distinction between Westminster and here. Under the system of Government operating at Westminster, the Prime Minister can answer questions on behalf of any Department on any issue at Question Time. If he is asked about health, he will give the Government’s policy on health; and if he is asked about education, he will give the Government’s view on education.

440. The Administration here do not operate in the same way. OFMDFM does not answer questions on issues that do not relate specifically to its responsibilities unless those issues have a cross-cutting impact, in which case there is a basis on which the Department can respond. Our dilemma is that OFMDFM is confined to a narrow range of issues, important though some of them are, and we have the added responsibility of co-ordinating the work of the Executive.

441. We are seeking to find a way in which Members can get the most out of the Question Time experience by holding OFMDFM — and by extension the Executive — to account, to a degree, regarding its responsibilities. However, at the same time, we must do so in a way that produces something that interests the public and enhances the image of the political process in Northern Ireland. I accept Lord Browne’s point, but we must find a way to achieve that objective.

442. Mr K Robinson: Wallace touched on an issue that has exercised the Committee since the start of its investigation, which is the public’s negative perception of the Assembly, whether it is Members, Ministers, the Executive, or the entire corporate body. Perhaps the media sometimes over-egg the situation, but a negative public perception exists, and we have been tasked to, as Mr Donaldson said, bring the theatre experience more to the fore than is currently the case.

443. Mr Donaldson has suggested a couple of issues that affect Question Time, and I would like to tease those out a bit. Recently, I calculated the number of Members who have been here since the first Assembly, and the turnover, for a variety of reasons, since then. Could it be that some Members do not yet fully understand the role of OFMDFM? Could that be the reason why the questions being asked are not hitting the target and, therefore, not bringing forth the information that Members are seeking but do not quite know how to elicit? Alternatively, perhaps the composition of the questions is incorrect because Members do not quite know how to frame them. Members may be able to frame a question to a departmental Minister but perhaps they do not know how to frame one that will elicit information from you two gentlemen or from the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

444. The First Minister and deputy First Minister have a separate role. They represent the Assembly in the media and around the world. They must respond to us, and they must appear in the House every fortnight, because they need to be seen. We cannot have a “Wizard of Oz" situation, in which a voice is heard coming from the back somewhere, but one cannot see who is speaking. The First Minister and deputy First Minister must be up front, as must the junior Ministers.

445. As a former member of the Committee of the Centre in the previous Assembly, I found it difficult to determine the role of the members of that Committee. When we tried to set up a European subcommittee, we suddenly discovered that the Assembly was not co-ordinating with what was going on in Brussels and that nobody knew how to do that. We were tasked with finding out what was happening and determining how OFMDFM, and the Assembly, as a corporate body, might relate to Europe.

446. I will put the question another way. Is there something that you can tell us that will allow us to go back to Members, or to look at our procedures, so that we can achieve the desired result — a fully-functioning Assembly and an active Executive driven forward by OFMDFM?

447. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): As junior Minister Donaldson said earlier, there is no reluctance on the part of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to appear before the Committee. We are trying to do exactly as Ken Robinson suggested — to make Question Time more dynamic, more interesting and more meaningful to people. No one can disagree that there is a perception that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are trying to escape accountability rather than trying to streamline the procedure in order to make a difference. That is a difficulty.

448. The Committee has also examined the possibilities of training. We should not be behind the door in agreeing with what the Committee is saying. How do we focus on the right way of asking questions? As Jeffrey said, there is a system at Westminster whereby a question that has been asked previously can be identified, and an answer provided, allowing Members to move on to the next question. That system encourages Members not to repeat questions. Among the many points that have been raised, training is an essential element, and the Assembly has a responsibility to pursue that idea.

449. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Westminster MPs, when they are first elected to Parliament, are trained in tabling questions. Ken Robinson has made a point that could be pursued.

450. At Prime Minister’s Question Time in Westminster, all a Member has to do is to table a question with the word “engagements" on it, and the Prime Minister will have no warning about what that question is going to be. It is a mechanism whereby an MP can go into the ballot for Prime Minister’s Question Time without revealing his or her hand in advance; and it adds to the suspense and theatre of the occasion, because the Prime Minister is not getting notice of a question on a specific topic.

451. The benefit of the Westminster system is that the Prime Minister is required to answer questions on any matter. It is more difficult to have such a system here, because the First Minister and deputy First Minister have limited departmental responsibilities, albeit with the added dimension of the role of co-ordinating the work of the Executive. Ken Robinson has a point: perhaps we ought to examine how Members are tabling questions, and whether they fully comprehend OFMDFM’s role. Perhaps OFMDFM should examine the need for an information sheet, or booklet, for Members that more fully explains what the Department does. That information is provided on the OFMDFM website, which clearly sets out the Department’s roles and responsibilities.

452. The deficit occurs when it comes to the role of the First Minister and deputy First Minister as co-ordinators and co-chairpersons of the Executive, and what that means; the range of questions that Members might ask in probing the work of the Executive, and the kind of questions Members would be allowed to ask of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

453. The Chairperson: The Business Committee can assist Members with the wording of the questions and in directing where they should go.

454. Mr McCartney: Both junior Ministers have said that questions are repetitive. Has any analysis been carried out on how often a particular band of questions has been asked? Does OFMDFM find itself redirecting questions to other Departments due to their cross-cutting nature? What would be the impact on the quality of questions if their number were reduced from 20 to 15 — or even fewer — and would that, in any way, offset the need for one or two visits to the Assembly each month?

455. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): As far as reducing the number of questions is concerned, many man-hours are involved in preparing answers to questions for oral answer because the Department has to prepare answers to supplementary and possible supplementary questions also. Members can continue to have 20 questions on the list, but the argument is that Ministers never answer anywhere near 20, even when questions are combined. On average, a Minister will answer five or six questions.

456. From memory, questions have been redirected on only a few occasions. On other occasions, when questions or supplementary questions have been asked and the answers have not been readily available, Ministers have given the commitment to respond to Members in writing.

457. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): When responding to the Committee, we looked at the questions for oral answer that were tabled from September to the Christmas recess — although I accept that that is a fairly narrow time band. During that time, half, or more, of the questions asked fell into five categories — the credit crunch, children and young people, the number of Executive meetings, the investment strategy, and military sites.

458. It was no surprise that the credit crunch was a major issue for Members, and I accept that it will come up time and again for the foreseeable future because it relates to ongoing issues of concern. Obviously, in their role of co-ordinating and chairing the Executive, the First Minister and deputy First Minister are accountable as regards the Government’s response to the credit crunch. We are not being critical of MLAs for tabling those questions. However, we accept the basis of the Committee’s remit, which is that we need to improve the quality of the Question Time experience as much for Members as for anyone else. Repeating those statistics is not an implicit criticism; it is recognition of the current situation, that, given our experience across a broad range of issues, Question Time could be better if we could find acceptable ways of changing the current system.

459. Mr McCartney: When the Committee visited Leinster House, it was very noticeable that when Ministers there were asked questions about issues such as how many road accidents there had been in December, they could reply by saying that Members would be better directing their questions to the National Roads Authority or to the Garda Síochána. Have you any comment to make on that point? Sometimes, Ministers are asked questions that officials feel should be answered by other Ministers.

460. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): Part of the answer to that is to try and provide focus on such matters. As junior Minister Donaldson said, Westminster has a system in which Members can be referred to websites or other sources of information. We made additional comments in our letter to the Committee, suggesting ways in which that could be done here; for instance, by focusing on questions before they come to the Business Office. As the Chairperson pointed out, the Business Office gives good assistance to Members.

461. There are options that we do not have at the moment, but we can look at the possibility of Ministers being able to reply to the effect that a full answer to a certain question may be found on a website and then move on to the following question, thereby reaching essential questions that require oral answers.

462. Mr McCartney: Have you ever had to rule out any questions because of disproportionate costs?

463. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Not that I am aware of: that facility exists within the current arrangements across all of the Departments. However, it would be very rare for a Department to rule out a question on the basis of cost. It has happened to me on several occasions regarding parliamentary questions, but I am not aware that OFMDFM has ruled out any questions on that basis.

464. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): In fairness, we answer questions on the basis of the information that we have. If one had to seek information from different bodies, then such a situation might occur, but to my knowledge, it has not occurred — and I have just checked.

465. Mr McCartney: We have evidence from the Environment Committee that 34 questions had to be ruled out because of cost.

466. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): The current cost threshold is £750. If a Department feels that it would cost more than that to provide an answer, it has the right not to answer the question, although that right is rarely exercised. It is very rare that that mechanism is invoked.

467. The Chairperson: Some of the Departments that have said that the cost would be disproportionate have also said that they did not know how much it would cost, so we cannot focus on working out the cost. We are not going to dwell on that at the moment.

468. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): We recognise that issue, and we have asked officials in OFMDFM to carry out an exercise during January to examine the approximate costs of a sample number of questions on the basis of the average hourly salary cost of each grade involved in processing an Assembly question. We are happy to share that information with the Committee when it becomes available.

469. Mr O’Loan: Given that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have an overview of the entire Programme for Government, do you accept — leaving aside the minutiae of individual departmental questions and issues — that there is a wide range of questions that can be asked of the First Minister and deputy First Minister regarding the Executive’s overall strategy?

470. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Yes; however, our experience is that Members very rarely play the field to its full extent.

471. Mr O’Loan: Would it not be better to encourage the Assembly to do exactly that? It would demonstrate to the public, as mentioned earlier, the importance of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in all of this.

472. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): That is precisely why we feel that changing the frequency of Question Time for the First Minister and deputy First Minister will require Members to look at the broad range of issues that can be raised. Evidence suggests that the current fortnightly arrangement leads to questions that are being repeated, with the same subjects coming up time and again, while others are not touched on. Therefore, we have put forward a suggestion as to how that may be addressed. Again, we have indicated that we have an open mind and that we will listen to what others say; but our objective is precisely as Mr O’Loan has indicated — that Members take the whole field into consideration when they are asking questions and that they raise a broader range of issues than the evidence suggests is happening at the moment.

473. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): It might be interesting to test that point, because we are dealing — in practical discussion as opposed to public perception — with the facts before us. The argument is that those facts will change if we change our approach. I assume that we can return to this issue at a later date, if we try a new approach and find that the problems are the same, or worse. Perhaps that is a way of moving forward.

474. The Chairperson: Do you have any views on extending Question Time into Tuesdays, so that it would take place on both Mondays and Tuesdays?

475. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): One of the interesting consequences of changing the frequency of questions for the First Minister and deputy First Minister is that that would free up time in one of the two weeks. It would be interesting to consider what might be done with that time. That might give the Committee some flexibility in seeking to broaden and improve the experience of Question Time.

476. We do not have a strong opinion on the matter, but, if Question Time were to be held on Mondays and Tuesdays, would that mean that the sessions would be reduced from one-and-a-half hours, comprising three half-hour slots, to two slots, one of which would transfer to Tuesdays? Would we require a shorter Question Time on Tuesdays, or would we divide that session into two 15-minute slots?

477. As I said, we do not have a strong opinion; however, we must consider how such changes might impact on other Executive and Assembly business. Would there be less time for private Members’ debates or Executive business on those days? Perhaps Assembly sitting times would have to be lengthened to accommodate such a proposal. Although we have an open mind on such changes, they would be subject to ministerial availability. If increasing the frequency of Question Time resulted in the problem that we have with OFMDFM — questions being repeated — the Question Time experience would not be enhanced. However, if the Committee were to consider a novel approach that would create greater interest and, as Lord Browne said, would capture the public’s imagination, we would happy to look at it.

478. The Chairperson: We are not proposing that the First Minister attends on a Monday and that the deputy First Minister attends on a Tuesday.

479. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): Is it being suggested that the half-hour session should be extended to two half-hour sessions, or might it become two quarter-hour sessions?

480. The Chairperson: Although all those possibilities have been discussed, we wish to hear your opinions on the matter.

481. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): In summary, we have an open mind, although we wish ministerial availability to be considered. The key test for any proposal is whether it would enhance the Question Time experience for Members, Ministers and the public.

482. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): There is a wide range of possibilities. Currently, Departments prepare answers to 20 questions in each half-hour session. If OFMDFM, or any Department, has to prepare answers to 40 questions, covering two half-hour slots, that would be a substantial draw on resources, and the effort would probably detract from other Executive business. I realise that that is not what the Committee is suggesting, but it is an example of what might happen if such proposals were to be implemented. On the other hand, if the number of questions were to be reduced, one might take a different view.

483. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): In addition, it is worth noting that the Committees play an important role in holding Ministers and Departments to account, and, given that Committees meet on Tuesdays, the possibility that Question Time might conflict with that role must be considered.

484. The Chairperson: Will you comment further on the issue of junior Ministers coming to Question Time?

485. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): As junior Minister Kelly explained, we have specific responsibilities — albeit on behalf of the First Minister and deputy First Minister — and we take the lead in certain matters. Although we attend Executive meetings and can speak there on those subjects, the First Minister and deputy First Minister are accountable for those subjects to the Executive.

486. We are responsible for policy across the Departments on children and young people, and many matters relevant to that subject arise during Question Time. In addition, we are responsible for policy on older people, equality matters, sustainable development, and victims’ issues. Therefore, although we support the Committee’s objective of increasing the quality of the Question Time experience, we wonder whether having junior Ministers available to answer questions — alongside the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who have the lead responsibility in those matters — would enhance the Department’s role in Question Time, which must be the motivation behind any changes.

487. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): Members may be wondering whether junior Ministers will end up taking half of OFMDFM’s Question Time. I do not think that it is as straightforward as that. We deal specifically with children and young people, older people, and business in the Assembly. Those are the issues for which we are responsible. I imagine that our contribution would centre on those three issues.

488. The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): It is also fair to say that there is a practice adopted in Parliament whereby the Secretary of State often relies on a junior Minister to respond to a question. If one considers that some UK Departments can have five Ministers on the Front Bench at Question Time, we are certainly not suggesting that that should happen here: however, there is a precedent in Parliament.

489. The Chairperson: Do members wish to ask any further questions?

490. Mr K Robinson: I will make an observation on the role of the junior Ministers. The public may not necessarily understand their role, and if one were to go down the road suggested, one would have to explain the role of junior Ministers very clearly to the public, otherwise they would perhaps get the impression, for whatever reason, that the First Minister and deputy First Minister were stepping into the shadows.

491. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): The intention is not that the junior Ministers would take the places of the First Minister and deputy First Minister; it is that we would be there alongside them, which we are anyway, as a matter of habit or practice. During Question Time, we are on hand to assist the First Minister and deputy First Minister. If it is thought that the junior Ministers will be taking the places of the First Minister and deputy First Minister; that will not be the case.

492. Mr K Robinson: The Chairperson was concerned that, if the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the two junior Ministers were sitting side by side, the amount of eye candy available to the public would be overwhelming. [Laughter.]

493. The Chairperson: It is more than they could take.

494. The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): It may be more than we could take.

495. The Chairperson: I thank the junior Ministers for presenting their report today.

Appendix 3

Written Submissions

Letter from the Speaker to Lord Morrow
Letter from the Speaker to Lord Morrow
NIA Image

Lord Morrow
Chairperson, Committee on Procedures
Room 430
Parliament Buildings
Stormont

15 September 2008

Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Thank you for your letter of 23 June enclosing the Terms of Reference for your Committee’s forthcoming Inquiry on Assembly Questions.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on the various aspects you propose to cover and my views on specific issues are set out in the attached Annex. I would also wish to take the opportunity, with the experience of a full Assembly session behind us, to let you have some of my general thoughts and comments in relation to Question Time.

General Comments

As you know from discussions at the Business Committee, it is my view that Question Time each Monday should be one of the liveliest items of business in the Chamber. It is the most public opportunity that Members have to scrutinise Executive Ministers, but there is a perception among Members, the public and the media that Question Time has sometimes been less than exciting due to a lack of spontaneity.

There are also issues around the relevance of some supplementary questions and the practice of some Members reading supplementaries verbatim in the chamber. I would suggest that these issues impact negatively on the ‘theatre’ of the occasion and the rapid and unplanned approach that should be a feature of Question Time. I would intend to address the issues around supplementaries in the forthcoming session, initially with the Business Committee.

Turning to the specific issues mentioned in your Committee’s terms of reference, I have included in the Annex my thoughts and comments in relation to each and I trust that these will be useful during the Committee’s deliberations.

Yours sincerely,

William Hay Signature

WILLIAM HAY MLA

Annex

Speaker’s Comments on Committee’s Terms of Reference

Oral Questions

(i) the methodology for selection of questions, the number of questions on the Order Paper and the number of questions answered during question time

Our current computerised random ballot and shuffle (undertaken as per SO 19 (13)) works well in relation to producing a random list of 20 from the questions tabled.

In my letter to you of 19 May 2008 I set out some proposals which the Business Committee agreed should be considered by the Procedures Committee as part of its inquiry. This included the Scottish Parliament’s two-step process of balloting Members’ names first before inviting questions.

There have been very few occasions when a Minister has managed to get through all 20 questions in a 30-minute session and this has happened only because a number of questions were linked or withdrawn and some Members were not in their places. The suggestion of considering a reduction from 20 to 15 therefore seems worthy of consideration, as indeed does some sort of time restriction for posing supplementaries and time allowed for Ministers to respond to the initial question and supplementaries. I understand that limits are imposed in some parliaments.

(ii) the rota for Ministers including the frequency of questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister

I am content to leave the frequency issue to your Committee to see what proposals arise from the inquiry.

(iii) the time bands allocated for question time

Given that the Assembly normally sits only two days each week, one Question Time per week seems reasonable. The current 30-minute session for each Minister seems to work fairly well but could possibly be improved by more focussed supplementary questions. It would be useful to know whether the time restrictions imposed in other places has resulted in a sharper focus on questions and answers.

I am aware that the Committee will be consulting others on its inquiry and it would certainly be worth taking a view from the media via the Stormont Correspondents Association on the optimum time allocation for Oral Questions from an audience perspective.

(iv) the length of Ministerial responses

As you are aware there is no control at present under Standing Orders on the length of a Ministerial response. The length of a reply will depend very much on the relevant Minister’s style and possibly on the length of briefings provided by Departmental officials. There have been occasions when Ministers have read out replies verbatim from their briefs and recently there have been instances of some lengthy and detailed answers which can detract from the concise style which other Ministers have adopted and which comes across much better at Question Time for all concerned.

It would appear that the only way of avoiding very lengthy and detailed responses may be a consideration of time restrictions, but I will be interested to learn if your Committee is able to identify any other approaches adopted elsewhere to address this issue.

(v) the length of supplementary questions and response

A single and more focussed supplementary question (as intended under current SO 19 (7)) is much more likely to attract a shorter and more focussed Ministerial response.

As mentioned at (iv) above it will be interesting to establish what time restrictions are imposed in other places. While it is a matter for the Committee to consider what time restrictions might be proposed, I would suggest that the following would be reasonable and worthy of consideration:

(vi) the method for allocation of supplementary questions

The Assembly’s Standing Order 19(7) makes clear that the allocation of supplementary questions is a matter for the Speaker’s discretion (discretion which is delegated to a Deputy Speaker when in the chair during Question Time). I believe that there are strong arguments in favour of such discretion being retained. The Committee may find it helpful to know that the following factors are among those which are presently considered by myself and the Deputy Speakers when exercising that discretion:

Written Questions

(i) the process for the tabling of written and priority written questions including assessing whether the limits should be increased or decreased

The process for ordinary written questions does not attract the same controversy as that for orals. Generally speaking the current 10-day (2 week) time limit works well and seems reasonable. Members can now table questions by email and this has worked smoothly since its introduction in mid-May, with a fair proportion of Members (about 30%) currently using this method.

I am content to leave the time limits issue to the Committee to see what proposals arise from the inquiry.

(ii) review the extent to which Government Departments achieve the targets for answering written questions

Following a series of complaints from Members about late answers to written questions I raised the issue with the Junior Ministers. Subsequently the Head of the Civil Service initiated a review involving 6 of the 12 Departments which I understand has revealed inconsistencies across Departments and recommendations for improvements. Your Committee may therefore wish to seek the views of the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister in relation to this matter.

The Business Office compiles monthly statistics on late answers and these can be made available to your Committee staff.

The Committee may wish to establish how our average of late answers compares to that in other places.

Priority Written Questions

(i) review the criteria for admissibility of priority written questions

At present there are no additional criteria for admissibility of priority questions. When tabling a Member may simply state that an answer is required within 2, 3, 4 or 5 days. It is suspected that a proportion of priority questions are being tabled because of the poor record of some Departments in answering ordinary written questions. However, Business Office staff have no grounds on which to challenge a Member on the urgency of a question. I am content to leave the issue to the Committee to see what happens elsewhere and what proposals arise from the inquiry.

Private Notice Questions (PNQs)

(i) review the criteria for admissibility

Under Standing Order 20 PNQs are considered using the following criteria:

(a) the subject matter should be of an urgent nature;

(b) it should relate to a matter of public importance; and

(c) the relevant Member of the Executive Committee must be given adequate notice.

In the past session 6 PNQ requests were accepted and 8 were rejected. Most of those turned down were on grounds that they were non-urgent and could have received a reply via a two-day priority written question.

I am content to leave this issue to the Committee to explore what happens elsewhere and to see what proposals arise from the inquiry.

Standing Orders

(i) review the grammar, language and style of SO19 and consider improvements

A review of Standing Orders will obviously depend on the findings and recommendations of the Committee’s Inquiry but I do believe that the opportunity should be taken to examine Standing Order 19 in order to make it simpler to understand.

First Submission from
Dr Nicholas DJ Baldwin FRSA

Dr Nicholas DJ Baldwin FRSA
Dean and Director of Operations
Wroxton College
Fairleigh Dickinson University

I would wish to make the following submission on the topic of Oral Questions:

I would suggest that five questions be placed on the Order Paper [Only four of which could be printed in detail – see below]

Five questions in total. Four of the questions - questions two, three, four and five - should be chosen (via a computerised system) by random draw. The exception - the first question (question one) - to be chosen the day concerned by the Speaker - questions submitted by Members - based on the topicality/urgency involved.

I would suggest that all five of the questions placed on the Order Paper be answered – there being a maximum of 12 minutes for the consideration of each question (a maximum that would be ‘policed’ by the Speaker).

As follows:

Every Tuesday (when the Assembly is sitting)

Every alternative Thursday (when the Assembly is sitting)

A full hour.

It would however be suggested that consideration be given to making Questions to both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister take place over 40-minute periods (with three questions being considered during this time - one ‘topical’ and two other) and that this be in addition to a ‘regular’ hour-long question time to the Minister whose ‘turn’ it is on the roster (as outlined).

The emphasis should be on brevity - and would be ‘policed’ as such by the Speaker.

The emphasis with regard to both question and responses should be on brevity - and would be ‘policed’ as such by the Speaker.

To be at the discretion of the Speaker.

Second Submission from
Dr Nicholas DJ Baldwin FRSA

Dr Nicholas DJ Baldwin FRSA
Dean and Director of Operations
Wroxton College
Fairleigh Dickinson University

Date: 17th September 2008

I would wish to make the following comments arising from my reading of the Research Paper: ‘Comparative Information on the Procedures of Assembly Questions’ and the key issues raised:

Four of the questions - questions two, three, four and five - should be submitted no less than three days prior to the Question time concerned [and would be chosen (via a computerised system) by random draw]. The exception - the first question (question one) - to be chosen the day concerned by the Speaker - questions submitted by Members - based on the topicality/urgency involved.

Four of the questions - questions two, three, four and five - to be chosen (via a computerised system) by random draw – individual members being limited to submitting a single question. The exception - the first question (question one) - to be chosen the day concerned by the Speaker - questions submitted by Members - based on the topicality/urgency involved (with, again, individual Members being limited to submitting a single question).

I would suggest that only the five questions that are chosen actually be placed on the Order Paper.

[Only four of which could be printed in detail; the exception - the first question (question one) - to be chosen the day concerned by the Speaker - questions submitted by Members - based on the topicality/urgency involved].

I would suggest that all five of the questions placed on the Order Paper be answered – there being a maximum of 12 minutes for the consideration of each question (a maximum that would be ‘policed’ by the Speaker).

Submission from Professor Rick Wilford

Introduction

I welcome the invitation to submit some thoughts in relation to the Inquiry into Assembly Questions.

Members will be aware that this issue has figured recently on the agenda of the Scottish Parliament, has been addressed periodically by the Welsh Assembly’s Business Committee and that written questions are currently on the agenda of the House of Commons’ Procedure Committee.[1] It is worth noting, I think, that whilst the Scottish Parliament’s Procedure Committee produced its ‘Final Review’ of Oral Questions in 2005, in its ‘Legacy Paper’ published at the end of the second session (2nd Report 2007, 21 March, p4) it remarked that having ‘devoted much time and effort …to oral questioning procedures…we are conscious of a widespread feeling that [they] still do not work particularly well—that is, they are not a particularly effective means for members to obtain information or hold Ministers to account’. The Committee concluded: ‘the Session 3 committee may therefore wish to take a fresh look at how oral questions are handled in the Chamber’.

The recommendation of the Scottish Procedure Committee suggests, quite properly, that identifying and implementing effective and efficient procedures for oral (and written) questions is an imprecise undertaking, certainly more of an art than a science—and a plastic art at that in the sense that the procedures are revisited on a serial basis to be refashioned and reshaped. In that light, the Committee’s decision to inquire into ‘Questions’ is both normal and welcome.

In surveying procedures relating to ‘Parliamentary Questions’ (PQs), I have examined a number of Parliaments/Assemblies, including the Dáil, UK House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, and those in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Members will understand that the details of procedures can and do vary among these legislatures: there is, in effect, ‘no one size which fits all cases’. That said, there is common ground which I explore below, consistent with the Committee’s terms of reference: indeed, I employ the ToR as the organizing framework for this submission.

Before turning to the ToR, a preamble is in order.

Preliminary Remarks

In the UK, the device of parliamentary questions is generally thought to have originated in 1721 (in the House of Lords) in the wake of the ‘South Sea Bubble’.[2] Over a period of 150 years the procedure evolved gradually until 1869 when ‘question time’ as such was introduced into the House of Commons.[3]

Types of PQ. There are, of course, two major types of questions common to all Parliaments viz., oral and written, and which have different though related purposes. They are related in that each type seeks to elicit information from Government and thereby hold all Ministers to account and to subject them to scrutiny.

Provision for priority, emergency, private notice or urgent questions (the terminology varies) is also commonplace: whatever they are termed, they too share a common purpose, viz., enabling a Member to raise a problem at once with the relevant Minister. Such a problem must be of an emergency nature and be of public importance. Commonly, the judgement of whether the question meets those criteria is, within the context of prevailing procedures, at the discretion of the relevant Speaker/Presiding Officer.

In addition, the UK House of Commons has experimented with a fourth category of question, namely ‘cross-cutting questions’, introduced in January 2003. As their name implies, this was designed to enable Members to pose questions on topics that straddle a number of Departments and which require the presence of at least two Ministers to respond to questions. To date, two such sessions have been held (in Westminster Hall): one on youth policy (23 January 2003) and the other on anti-social behaviour (28 October 2004).

Issues to Consider. The current inquiry identifies a number of issues relating to oral, written, priority and private notice questions. In addition it will also review the form of Standing Order 19 with a view to its improvement. These matters are addressed in the order set out in the Committee’s ToR.

The Centrality of PQs

It is undeniable that Oral Question Time, however it is styled, is a centrepiece of each sitting of the relevant House.[4] Whilst it takes up a relatively small proportion of a House’s time—in NI’s case approximately 12% of the weekly plenary sessions are dedicated to Ministerial Question Time—it tends to attract a disproportionate amount of media and public attention.

One can understand fully the media’s interest in QT: its dynamics and surrounding atmosphere differ markedly from the more ‘normal’ run of parliamentary business, indeed its very unrepresentativeness explains its appeal, both to journalists and the public. The former draw on the occasion for print and broadcasting purposes whilst for the latter it is a popular event, and like other ‘blood sports’ sometimes descends into chaos and disorder. And yet, there is something of a paradox here. Whilst it is invariably well attended by the media and public, many are critical of the style and the behaviour of members. A standard metaphor that is employed to characterise QT, at least in the UK context, is ‘Punch and Judy politics’. However, such observations are by no means confined to the UK.

A piece of research undertaken on the Australian Parliament elicited a large number of criticisms.[5] Among them, one scholar of parliamentary practice comments that QT ‘is the low end of Parliament’s contribution to public deliberation’ while a former Presiding Officer of a state parliament, after reflecting on the behaviour of Members asked: ‘Is it any wonder that QT is questioned as an accountability mechanism?’[6] It may indeed be the case that Members, conscious of the live broadcast of QT, use the occasion to hector in order to heighten media impact: but this has two adverse effects. First, it defeats the purpose of QT which is to seek information and hold Ministers to account. Secondly, it does little perhaps to promote an understanding within the general public of parliamentary democracy; indeed it may alienate some, if not many.

Where self-discipline is lacking, curbing the behaviour of Members is, of course, a task for the Speaker/Presiding Officer, aided by the appropriate rules of procedure and the advice of Clerks. Such rules commonly create a set of constraints, informed both by the determination to ensure that QT achieves its major purpose and to bridle Members as the following brief survey demonstrates.

Oral Questions: Procedures Elsewhere[7]

A survey of procedures elsewhere discloses that weight is placed on identifying what is not permissible, rather than what is permitted. Thus, commonly, there are prohibitions on both the form and substance of a question.[8] The rules governing oral questions in the Canadian Parliament are representative in each regard.

Canada (House of Representatives) For instance, in respect of substance, members are among other things not permitted to: make a statement, representation, argument or expression of opinion; pose a hypothetical question; seek an opinion, legal or otherwise; or ask a question that is a matter of sub judice. Equally, questions must not reflect on the character of the Minister under question nor relate to roles outwith the Ministerial one, eg party activity.

These and other prohibitions are designed to lend focus to oral questions as are the guidelines about their form. Questions must be brief, seek information and lie within the sphere of administrative responsibility of the Government or relevant Minister or, in the case of the administration of services, to a designated spokesperson of the Board of Internal Economy. (In NI’s case, a member or members of the Assembly Commission.)

New Zealand (House of Representatives) The admonitions resemble those in Canada. Thus, in terms of substance/content, Questions must not contain: statements of facts and names of individuals unless their inclusion is strictly necessary to both render the question intelligible and they can be authenticated; arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets, ironical expressions or expressions of opinion; discreditable references to the House or any member of Parliament or any unparliamentary or offensive expression. Equally, Questions must not seek a legal opinion nor refer to closed sessions of committees until their proceedings are reported to the House or to a case pending adjudication by a court.

As to form, the NZ HoR is terse: given the prohibitions, the only requirement is that OQs are concise.[9]

Australia (House of Representatives). As with the above cases, the rules applying to questions are essentially a list of ‘Don’ts’ rather than ‘Dos’.[10] The first general rule encapsulates the primary purpose of an oral (and written) question, viz., ‘to obtain information or to press for action’. It also insists that questions may not be debated, ie, used as a vehicle for the discussion of issues by way of a short speech and should not ‘simply give information or framed so as to suggest its own answer’ (ie be rhetorical) ‘or convey a particular point of view’.[11] There is no injunction to be concise; rather members are informed that ‘questions of excessive length are not permitted’.[12]

One interesting variation is designed to deal, in part at least, with ‘soft’ or what are sometimes termed ‘planted’ or ‘inspired’ questions: viz., ‘a question may not ask a Minister to announce government policy but may seek an explanation about the policy and its application and may ask the Prime Minister whether a Minister’s statement in the House represents government policy’.[13] As with rules elsewhere, Members cannot repeat a question already fully answered: however, this general prohibition does not preclude what are sometimes called ‘moving target’ answers, ie those seeking updated information.

Dáil Its standing orders,[14] which are more narrative in form, include common injunctions including that any Q must relate to the public affairs of the relevant Department/Minister or to administrative matters for which s/he is officially responsible. These extend, as is common elsewhere, to bodies under the aegis of the relevant Department (eg executive agencies, as they are styled in NI). TDs are instructed that the purpose of each Q ‘shall be to elicit information upon or elucidate matters of fact or of policy’ and ‘shall be as brief as possible’.

As in other Parliaments, a time limit applies to OQs, that is to say they may not seek information provided orally within the previous four months in response to a previous OQ,[15] nor anticipate the debate on a subject on notice and scheduled to be brought before the House within the same week in which the OQ is to be answered.(SO 6).

This cursory survey does reveal a common pattern. OQs should be concise, preferably singular, be designed to elicit information and have the primary purpose of holding Ministers to account and thereby subject to scrutiny.

Terms of Reference

SUPPLEMENTARY ORAL QUESTIONS. One source of controversy that attends SQs is their number, ie how many should be allowed to each Member? This is a particular bone of contention in relation to SQs to the Prime or First Minister in what may be styled as a ‘normal’ or adversarial parliament: that is where the Government of the day is confronted by a formal Opposition.

In Scotland, which has currently a single party minority administration, the picture is also complicated. The allocation of supplementaries is, as elsewhere, a matter for the Presiding Officer as a previous incumbent, George Reid, acknowledged. Giving evidence to its Procedure Committee, he insisted that ‘there has to be some discretion for the Presiding Officer’ albeit that, in relation to First Minister’s Questions, he was concerned to achieve ‘fair shares’, by ensuring that ‘there was proportionality across the parties and’ (interestingly) ‘within parties’. He noted that in the first session, two types of proportionality were applied to FMQs. First, in relation to Qs 1 and 2, which were judged in terms of the relative strength of the formal Opposition parties, And, secondly, in relation to Qs 3-6 which were judged in terms of the proportionality of the whole House – which, as he acknowledged, led to a two-tier process.[16] He sought to temper that practice by calling backbenchers to ask supplementaries on the back of OQs to the then First Minister by the Leaders of both the SNP and the Conservatives.

The unique character of the NI Executive—a four party ‘government’ which together holds 97 of the 108 seats—creates a very different dynamic than is the case of a single party or two-party administration faced by a major (and formal) Opposition party or parties. There is, in effect, no alternative government-in-waiting ready willing and perhaps able to throw the ‘rascals’ out—if rascals they be.

In that sense, QT, whether to the FM/dFM, or departmental Ministers, while it certainly should be focused on scrutiny, information seeking and holding Ministers to account, can become the occasion for testing the cohesion of the Executive as a whole. That makes the judgement of how many supplementaries to allow, and to whom, a matter of careful judgement for the Presiding Officer.

Question Selection

The fact that all OQs tabled are subject to a random electronic shuffle has two unavoidable effects. First, MLAs from the non-Executive parties, perhaps notably the self-styled ‘opposition’ parties, are constrained by the sheer weight of numbers of Members from the Executive-forming parties: the odds are stacked against the former in terms of getting a first oral question, though not necessarily a supplementary. Secondly, the Chairs of Statutory Committees are not advantaged in the shuffle, but perhaps they should be. Again, this becomes a matter for the discretion of the Presiding Officer who has to determine which MLAs to call to pose a supplementary question.

Affording such discretion to the Presiding Officer is unavoidable in any circumstances, but in the context of NI reinforces the delicacy of the role. That said, there is perhaps some merit in enabling routinely the Chairs of Statutory Committees to ask a supplementary, not least because s/he should be ‘across’ the policy, expenditure and administration of the relevant Department. Equally, the counter-argument can be levelled, viz that the Minister’s appearances before the relevant Committee already gives something of an advantage to the relevant Chair, albeit in the narrower confines of a committee room rather than the wider arena of (televised) QT.

As to the non-Executive parties, either the ‘shuffle’ is weighted mathematically to lessen the odds against them and/or the Presiding Officer uses his/her discretion in a manner that enhances their opportunities to pose supplementaries. Both proposals would be massively unpopular with the major parties for obvious reasons and, in the latter case, potentially expose the Presiding Officer to the charge of bias.

Number of Questions on the Order Paper

The justification for a lengthy list of OQs is to avoid the embarrassment of too short a list leading, potentially, to a foreshortened QT—either that, or the relevant Minister rambles on in order to fill the looming space. The extent to which the list is completed depends upon a number of variables, including the length of both supplementaries and Ministerial answers.

Brevity of ‘Qs’ and ‘As’

The admonition to Members to be concise in posing their questions, also applies to Ministerial answers. If I could cite the advice of the UK Home Office, it may serve as a guide to NI’s Ministers.[17] The general guidance is that ‘All answers should be: ABC – Accurate, Brief, Clear.’ The same stricture should also apply to OPQs. A particular issue in the Assembly is the preference for some Members and Ministers to pose Qs or supply Answers (in part) in a language other than English. Inevitably, given the lack of simultaneous translation this eats into the allocated time which could only be resolved if such translation facilities were deemed to be appropriate/cost effective.

What gives, in my opinion, much more cause for concern is the habit of some Ministers of using OQs as an opportunity to embark on lengthy expositions of Departmental/Executive policy (perhaps prompted by inspired OQs). One means around this potential problem is to encourage MLAs to submit written rather than oral questions. Indeed, Members perhaps need to recognise that they have to hand a variety of means of seeking information—including WQs, a letter to a Minister, and/or a meeting with the Minister—and that they should choose the appropriate method of so doing. The risk of enabling a Minister to recite statistics in response to an OQ that would more properly be provided in a Written Answer is that it unduly reduces the time available for pithy, spirited and informative exchanges.

Again, the role of the Presiding Officer is pivotal: his/her discretion has to be exercised in a manner that facilitates the major purpose of OQs, viz to elicit information and hold Ministers to account and subject to scrutiny. There are two measures that can aid the PO in exercising that discretion: either impose a tight time limit and/or a word limit on both Qs and As,[18]

Rota

The frequency of Ministerial attendance seems insufficient, especially in regard to the FM and dFM. Moreover, it is I think to be regretted that the current FM and dFM have decided not to appear together at QT, unlike their predecessors. That, however, is a matter of sheer politics. Nevertheless, it does hinder the opportunity for Members to explore the extent of joined-upness within OFMDFM which is, after all, meant to be the strategic hub of the Executive. This could be supplemented by the provision of cross-cutting QT, as experimented with at Westminster Hall (see above).

Length of OQT

Even failing a joint appearance by the incumbents, there is a case for a weekly rather than a fortnightly FM/dFM OQT. I can imagine that Messrs Robinson & McGuinness might chafe at the suggestion but their Juniors could deputise or be delegated the opportunity to answer even if the FM and dFM are in attendance since OQs are directed to the Office itself. In both Scotland and Wales the FMs appear weekly to take OQs (for 45 mins), as of course does the Taoiseach (on two days, for 45 mins each) and the UK Prime Minister (one day, for 30 mins).[19]

As to other Ministers, a four-week rota seems appropriate although Members may be interested in the practice of the Scottish Parliament where Ministers appear every three weeks to tackle both ‘general’ and ‘themed’ Qs for 40 minutes. This led to the grouping of Departments enabling MSPs to probe ‘joined-upness’ during the themed section of QT without compromising the opportunity to pose topical questions.

Whatever recommendations the Committee arrives at in relation to OQT, the key issue is the extent to which it regards the occasion as a piece of parliamentary theatre or the opportunity to scrutinize Ministers and secures their accountability for policy, administration and expenditure. I think, too, that the Presiding Officer and the Deputy Presiding Officers, should be much more assertive in constraining Members and Ministers from lengthy disquisitions: brevity is not only the soul of wit but also of both Qs and As.

Re OQs to the Assembly Commission: the current rota of 12 weeks seems unduly lengthy, especially given the plethora of changes that have followed in the wake of the Capability Review and, among other things, the Assembly’s planned ‘Outreach’ strategy. As the reforms unfold, the Assembly may take the view that more frequent OQs would be appropriate, if only for a limited period, in order to scrutinize their implementation.

Written Questions

These are by far the most heavily used method of extracting information from Departments in all democratic Parliaments, dwarfing the use of OQs for the same purpose.

Tabling/Number

The current limit of five WQs per day per Member is not unduly restrictive and does allow for a concerted approach by any individual MLA, party or group of Members.[20] Members do need to recall that they do have other means at their disposal to supplement WQs and so need not place undue reliance on them. A WQ exists to elicit information rather than to engage in ‘government by correspondence’ or as a way of conducting politics by another means. To quote the former Minister for Parliamentary Business in Scotland, Patricia Ferguson, ‘The more accurate, detailed and precise questions are, the easier it is to provide an answer’.[21]

WQs are by their nature much more complex and composite than OQs though they are generally subject to constraints, eg in the UK Parliament they cannot have been asked within the previous three months (except in relation to a ‘moving target’) nor if they seek information that is readily available elsewhere.[22]

Departmental Answers

The target of a 10-day response to ordinary WQs from the Departments seems appropriate (in Canada’s House of Representatives the turn-around can be 45 days, although this is not a strict target). The Assembly’s Business office has data relating to Departmental performance in achieving the 10-day target. While I do not have this information immediately to hand, I did discover through a telephone conversation with an Assembly Liaison official in OFMDFM that (a) the Departments do not routinely publish their standard operating procedures on their websites; and (b) that there is no common operating procedure across all 11 Departments.[23] The Committee may wish to consider both matters.

Priority WQs

There is little guidance in the Assembly’s standing orders or indeed any documentation that I could discover in relation to PWQs. I do understand that Members can submit up to five PWQs per day, although there is little encouragement to do so, and that Departments have a maximum of five days to reply. There is no clarity in the SOs re PWQs—what in the House of Commons are styled as ‘named day questions’. The absence of any criteria for the admissibly of PWQs, other than that they must conform to the guidance/strictures relating to ordinary WQs, seems anomalous. It also seems rather excessive that Members can submit up to five PWQs per day, especially since that number is rarely if ever reached.[24] However, a ceiling figure, whatever it may be, is appropriate else priority question procedure could be abused, especially if there is no onus on Members to demonstrate the urgency of the question.

Private Notice Questions

The criteria for PNQs are common to each of the Parliaments surveyed. That is, they must be of an urgent or emergency nature and concern matters of public importance. Equally, it is commonplace for the judgement on their admissibility to be reserved to the Presiding Officer/Speaker, provided—as SOs make clear—adequate notice has been given to the Minister(s) concerned and they comply with normal rules governing the substance of questions.

In a sense, determining the admissibility of a PNQ does place the Presiding Officer in a potentially awkward situation; but this is not a matter that can/should be delegated to a committee. Invariably, more PNQs are submitted than are allowed. Much turns on the interpretation of both urgency and what constitutes a matter of public importance. The minutes of the Scottish Parliament’s Procedure Committee’s inquiry into Questions discloses that in the Parliament’s first session, only four of 47 emergency questions were accepted by the then Presiding Officer.[25]

There is variation in the period of notice required for a PNQ. In the Welsh Assembly, it is two hours before the Q is asked, provided the Presiding Officer is satisfied that it is of urgent public importance (SO 7.56), albeit that this criterion is not defined. In the Canadian House of Representatives, no time limit is included in SOs for the tabling of an urgent question though, as elsewhere, the Q must be copied to the relevant Minister if the Speaker decides that it is in the public interest for an answer to be given immediately (ie after the normal round of OQs). In the UK House of Commons, ‘urgent Qs’ require notice to be given to the relevant Minister before noon on both Monday and Tuesday, 10:30am on Wednesday, 9:30am on Thursday or 10am on a sitting Friday: as elsewhere, it is up to the Speaker to decide on its admissibility, ie the Q must be urgent and be of public importance. That said, in each case such urgent matters may be covered by way of a Ministerial Statement.

In the NI Assembly, four hours notice is required for the Speaker/Clerk and the relevant Minister and the PNQ normally asked immediately before the adjournment debate. Four hours does seem something of a lengthy period and it could be halved without injuring the procedure.

SO 19. I would lay no claim to being a linguistic style guru, but it does seem to me that the layout of the SO could be improved. In addition, it would seem advisable to include in SOs the procedure(s) governing PWQs.

Conclusions

Current procedures governing O and WQs are not, in kind, markedly different from those applying in other Parliaments. I think the Committee needs to recognise that while the structure of SOs is comparable to those applying elsewhere, there are differences in detail. That said, no matter what the structure may be, the role of agency, ie the behaviour of Members, is crucial. In addition, the discretionary role of another agency, the Presiding Officer, is vital.

Perhaps the key possible changes for consideration are:

Two final thoughts. First, the popularity of OQT in the transmission by the BBC of Stormont Live needs to be established (the BBC will have viewing figures). This would give the Committee some idea of its centrality in the mind of the public. Secondly, and relatedly, the Committee may consider conducting a survey of individuals in the public gallery to gauge their evaluation of the value and purposes of OQT. While this would not supply an entirely representative sample but rather a cross-section of opinion, it would provide the Committee with a sense of how the visitors view the occasion, notably whether they understand it as primarily a piece of political theatre (whether comedy or tragedy) or a means of securing information and holding Ministers to account. If the former view prevails, the Committee may care to reflect on its significance.

RW
24 September 2008

[1] The HC Procedure Committee last produced a report on PQs in 2002: see HC 622, 26 June 2002. Its current inquiry has been carried forward from 2006-07 into the new session of Parliament. (Members may be interested to know that there was a HC Select Committee on PQs in 1972 and that the HC’s Procedure Committee produced a report on PQs in 1991.) The Procedure Committee of the Scottish Parliament has produced a number of reports or part reports on either/both oral and written questions, including: Changes to Standing Orders concerning Written Parliamentary Questions and the Languages of Public Petitions, 6th Report 2002, 21 November; First Minister’s Question Time and minor Standing Order changes, 1st Report 2003, 29 August; Oral Questions in the Chamber, 2nd Report 2003, 22 December; Oral Questions and Time in the Chamber, 1st Report 2004, 30 January; and Final Review of Oral Questions, 2nd Report 2005, 9 February. There is not, as far as I am aware, a discrete report from the National Assembly for Wales on the matter of questions but rather, references to them (both oral and written) are scattered throughout the minutes of the Business Committee, while the procedures are, of course, codified in Standing Orders.

[2] See ‘Parliamentary Questions’, HC Factsheet P1, Procedure Series, March 2007. Available at www.parliament.uk/factsheets

[3] Ibid, p3.

[4] One suggestion discussed by the Scottish Procedure Committee was to re-label PQs as ‘Parliamentary Answers’, thereby placing the onus on Ministers to supply information.

[5] Available at www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/proc/quest

[6] Ibid, pp1-2. One rather revealing statistic cited in the same study is that since 1994, some 83% of orders to withdraw from the House of Representatives have been made during QT.

[7] The following discussion is focused primarily on supplementary questions.

[8] The rules governing QT in the UK House of Commons are available in ‘Parliamentary Questions’, op. cit.

[9] In the Scottish Parliament, the admonition to MSPs is: ‘A question shall be brief, clearly worded and address specific points’. Guidance on Parliamentary Questions’, 4th edn, May 2007.

[10] See House of Representatives, Guide to Procedures, 3rd edn, June 2008.

[11] Ibid., p 96.

[12] Loc. cit.

[13] Loc. cit.

[14] Dáil Éireann, Standing Orders Relative to Public Business, 2002, SO (2).

[15] In the case of Written Questions, the time limit is reduced. Qs for written answer may not seek information provided within the previous two weeks, whether answered orally or in writing. Ibid, SO (4).

[16] Scottish Parliament, Procedure Committee Official Report, Meeting No 5, 7 October 2003, p2.

[17] Available at www.homeoffice.gov.uk/about-us/freedom-of-information/released-information/foi-archive-about-us/5671-Parliamentary-Questions

[18] In the Canadian House of Representatives, the time limit for OQs, including supplementaries, is 35 seconds. The UK Home Office suggests that Answers ‘should be no more than two or three sentences and no more than 50 words’, Op.cit. In the Dáil, the time allowed for each OQ and answer is a maximum of six minutes, including two minutes maximum for the initial Ministerial reply, and each supplementary Q and each reply shall not exceed one minute each (SO 37: 2).

[19] The UK Prime Minister also appears regularly (at six monthly intervals) before the House of Commons’ Liaison Committee, a practice introduced by Tony Blair.

[20] In Canada’s House of Representatives, the limit is four WQs per day. In the UK House of Commons, there is no restriction, which led a former Leader of the House to refer to their volume as reaching ‘industrial quantities’.

[21] Oral evidence, Procedure Committee, Scottish Parliament, 11 June 2002, p3.

[22] Practice does vary. In the Canadian House of Representatives, for instance, a WQ must not repeat the substance of a Q already lodged in the same calendar year. In the Dáil, Qs for written answer may not seek information provided within the previous two weeks in response to a Question, whether answered orally or in writing (SO 34:4).

[23] I was furnished with OFMDFM’s timelines and templates for responding to both O & WQs which were revised on 14 August 2008.

[24] However, in both the Dáil and the House of Commons, the same number (five) of priority or named day questions can be tabled per day. In the latter case MPs can expect an answer within a maximum seven days unless the Member requires an answer on a specified date which is indicated when the Q is tabled.

[25] Procedure Committee Minutes, 9 September 2003, p3.

Letter from Clerk Assistant

Letter from Nuala Dunwoody to Stella McArdle
Letter from Nuala Dunwoody to Stella McArdle

Letter from OFMDFM -
Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Stella McArdle
Committee Clerk
Committee on Procedures
Room 430
Parliament Buildings
Belfast
BT4 3XX

31 October 2008

Dear Stella

Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Your letter of 23 October to Alan Rogers, which asks for any similar guidance which we have in place to that which the Cabinet Office has issued for UK Ministers answering questions in Westminster, refers.

I should perhaps first clarify that, to our knowledge, the Cabinet Office guidance, while dealing with the Parliamentary Questions aspect of Ministers’ correspondence with Members of Parliament, is not addressed to UK Ministers themselves but to the officials drafting answers to parliamentary questions.

On that basis I have attached guidance on procedures for handling written and oral questions which was issued to officials in NI Departments prior to devolution last year. While this generic guidance has not been revised since then, its principles remain current although departments may choose to further refine it on the basis of experience of answering Assembly questions and to take into account any specific requests from Minister(s), and any specific departmental process for preparing answers to Assembly questions.

I hope this is helpful

Yours sincerely

Signed Gail McKibbin

GAIL MCKIBBIN
Departmental Assembly Liaison Officer

Procedures for Handling
Written Assembly Questions

Written AQs – Overview

Assembly Questions – Who cares?

“Assembly questions have a significant role in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They are a way for Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to hold the Government to account, either in the form of oral questions to Ministers in the Chamber of the Assembly or in the form of written questions"

Importance of Accuracy

Clearly MLAs value their privilege to extract information from government Ministers through oral and written questions. They are a key means by which MLAs can respond to the needs of their constituents and hold Ministers to account for policy decisions/actions made by their Departments. The penalty for Ministers not treating such questions with due respect can be severe:

“it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Assembly, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead the Assembly shall be expected to resign.

Corporate Governance

When drafting answers to Assembly Questions officials should be aware that they are not simply preparing a response on behalf of their own department. The quality of the answers to AQs, whether oral or written replies, bears a direct reflection on the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the management of the entire Northern Ireland Administration. It is essential that drafting officials recognise the importance of this corporate approach when drafting answers. A practical outworking of this concept is the frequent requests for officials to provide part-inputs to AQs for which another Department is taking the lead in answering.

The cycle of a Written Assembly Question

Stage 1: Tabling of AQs

Assembly Questions must be given the highest priority for answer. MLAs can table up to 5 Written AQs per day either in person at the Assembly Business Office or by fax from an approved fax No.

Timescales for answering Written Questions are as follows;

Stage 2: Allocation of AQs

A daily Question Book is produced by the Assembly Business Office containing all AQs that were tabled the previous day – the Business Office will accept AQs from MLAs up to 4.00pm on any sitting day.

The Business Office will allocate questions to Departments and will issue a Daily list via e-mail to all AQ Contacts in Departments (including Assembly Section – OFMDFM). This process should be completed by early to mid-morning.

Role of Departmental AQ Contacts

On receipt of the allocated Daily List of AQs, departmental contacts should consider the allocation and only alert the Business Office if it transpires that a question would be more appropriate for answer by another Department. It will fall to the Department who currently has the question to agree the transfer and to notify the Business Office of the outcome. If a transfer is not agreed by close of play on the day of the list being issued, the Business Office should be notified and mediation will begin between Departments if necessary.

Departmental AQ contacts will issue AQs to lead officials or transfer AQs to other Departments via the Knowledge Network Register.

Stage 3: Answering of AQs

Once departments have accepted that an AQ falls to them for answer it is the responsibility of the relevant lead official to draft an appropriate answer. Ministers may have their own views on how AQs should be presented however, in order to maintain a level of consistency across departments an AQ template for Written Answers is attached at Annex A.

Drafting officials should return AQ answers and accompanying background note to Departmental Private Offices whose responsibility it will be to get Ministerial clearance.

Once the Minister has cleared the answer Private Office will forward the final answer, via electronic mail, to the Business Office who will ensure that the approved answer is forwarded to the Table Office for entry in Hansard.

Private Offices must also ensure that a hard copy of the AQ, signed by the Minister, is handed to the door-keeper of Parliament Buildings for the Member.

Stage 4: Publication

The final stage in the cycle of an Assembly question is the publication of the answer in Hansard. Private Office/Departmental Assembly Liaison Officers (DALOs) must ensure the accuracy of the answer in Hansard. Departmental AQ Contacts should also check that the answer appears in Hansard within a reasonable time (1-2 weeks).

Written Assembly Questions – General Information

Officials’ role

It is a civil servant’s responsibility to Ministers to help them fulfil those obligations. It is the Minister’s right and responsibility to decide how to do so. Ministers want to explain and present Executive Committee policy and actions in a positive light. They will rightly expect a draft answer that does full justice to the position of the Executive Committee and their Department. Every Question should be answered fully and as concisely as possible and in accordance with guidance on disproportionate cost. If there is a conflict between openness and the requirement to protect information whose disclosure would not be in the public interest, you should check if the information should be omitted in accordance with statute (which take precedence) or the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. If the information is covered by one of the exemptions specified in Part II of the Code of Practice on access to Government Information, this should be clearly spelt out in a background note to the Minister.

Do not omit information sought merely because disclosure could lead to political embarrassment or administrative inconvenience.

Where there is a particularly fine balance between openness and non-disclosure, and when the draft answer takes the latter course, this should be explicitly drawn to the Minister’s attention. Similarly, if it is proposed to reveal information of a sort that is not normally disclosed, this should be explicitly drawn to Ministers’ attention.

If it is concluded that material information must be withheld and as a result the Question cannot be fully answered, draft an answer which makes this clear and which explains the reasons. Take care to avoid draft answers which are literally true but likely to give rise to misleading inferences.

Where there are difficulties in interpreting the Questions, advice should be sought from your Private Office, who may, if necessary, seek to clarify the Question with the Business Office. Where this is not possible and any doubt remains, the answer to a Question should make it clear what interpretation has been taken.

Holding reply

If, exceptionally, it is not possible to answer a Question within the timescale, perhaps because of the nature of the Question, a holding Answer to the Member, copied to the Business Office, must be given by the Minister along the lines of:

“I shall reply to (Name) as soon a possible"

Format of Answers

In general, answers should be succinct and to the point. A short background note should be provided for the Minister, explaining the context of the Question.

There is no need to repeat the Question in the answer and it is permissible to refer to publications available in the Assembly Library rather than to, for instance, copy out detailed tables.

Disproportionate Cost

Although, with certain exceptions, a Member can expect a reply to any Question, an answer may be refused if that information is not readily available and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost. For information, the present limit for Written Questions is £700.

If it is considered that the cost of answering a question would be unacceptably high, the following draft answer should be submitted to the Minister, together with a reasoned explanation and, if possible, a rough estimate of the cost of providing a full answer:

“Information in the form requested is not readily available and could only be (obtained)/(complied) at disproportionate cost".

It should be borne in mind that despite a disproportionate cost, Ministers may direct that the Question should be answered.

Grouping of Questions

If a Member asks two or more Questions of a similar nature and these are for written reply on a particular day, then they may be answered together.

Transferring Assembly Questions

Occasionally a Question will be allocated to the wrong Department. The following procedure should be used in such cases to avoid delay.

Departments should contact the relevant Department, normally through the Private Office, and arrange to transfer the Question. It remains the responsibility of the Department to which the Question was allocated to arrange for any transfer. As soon as a Question is transferred, the Business Office should be informed in writing (or by e-mail) and the necessary paperwork passed to the Department answering the Question.

Background Notes

Background Notes should always accompany a draft answer on a separate piece of paper. The purpose is to provide as much information as is considered necessary to understand the background giving rise to the Question. It should be brief and factual (one page if possible) but you may also attach press cuttings, Hansard extracts or previous correspondence on the subject.

Background notes may include:

Assembly Written Questions - Good Practice Guidelines

General Introduction

As a general rule the answer to all Assembly Questions should be:

Drafting officials should also bear the following checklist in mind:

(a) Format

(b) Contents

Use of Jargon/Abbreviations

As a general rule it is always preferable to use plain English in drafting replies to Assembly Questions and officials should seek to avoid the use of ‘jargon’ in their answers. In some cases it is acceptable to use technical terminology where this is widely recognised and understood by those working in the sector/industry of the subject matter under discussion.

If an official desires to use abbreviations within the draft of an answer to an AQ it is essential that the full wording is spelled out in the first instance when used to avoid misinterpretation. A number of departments have abbreviations for projects, working groups and policies that are identical in appearance yet stand for completely different areas of business and subject matters.

Quotation of Sources

Where an answer makes use of published material (e.g. statistics, economic data or quotations from reports) the source is given, as appropriate, either in the text of the answer or as a footnote.

Using references to Website material

It has become common practice in answering Questions to refer to information contained on official websites.

Advice on Part Inputs/Co-Ordinated AQs

Part Inputs between NI Departments

It is the responsibility of the lead department to seek inputs from other departments as appropriate and to ensure that the final draft answer deals fully with all aspects of the Question. In handling AQs, it is important that departments work together to ensure that answers take account of all the relevant issues, adhering to the concept of lead responsibility.

In cases where uncontroversial factual information is required for another Department this can be communicated directly to the officials involved; otherwise the material should be cleared with Ministers first. Similarly, when Departments are seeking to commission material from another Department, officials should ensure that it has been properly cleared by Ministers from the Departments concerned. In both instances, the relevant Departmental Private Offices should be informed that part inputs are being sought to ensure that Ministerial clearance is received from each Department.

When requesting part inputs from other NI Departments, drafting officials from the lead department may wish to consider the merits of supplying guidance and/or a template pro-forma to indicate specifically the nature of information that they require. This is particularly useful when part inputs are being sought from a number of departments and significantly reduces the effort required by drafting officials to gather information from differing sources into a composite and meaningful answer.

Correcting Answers

Responsibility for ensuring accuracy of answers and correction of errors

It is of critical importance that officials from Departmental branches take full responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of answers they may draft for Assembly Questions throughout the entire cycle of the AQ process.

Officials who discover that information that has been submitted as an answer to an Assembly Question is factually incorrect or misleading should notify their Minister immediately. Departmental Private Offices should ensure that the Business Office is made aware of any such instances and corrections to a previous AQ answer should be forwarded by email from the Departmental Private Office to the Business Office once cleared. Simple human error during this process may alter, possibly dramatically, the content and meaning of some answers. With this in mind, it is good practice that drafting officials check Hansard copies. Departmental Assembly Liaison Officers (DALO’s) should also regularly check Hansard to confirm the accuracy of AQ answers and it remains the responsibility of Private Offices to take the lead in arranging for any corrections to be made to printed errors.

Advice on Agencies and Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs)

There are 2 main issues that this guidance note intends to cover:

1) Procedures to be taken where it is more appropriate for the Chief Executive of an Agency or NDPB to respond to an Assembly Question; and

2) Procedures to be taken regarding the inclusion (or non-inclusion) of information in relation to data in respect of agencies and NDPBs in response to Assembly questions (typically the round robin type, asking for example “how much a department has spent on X in the last three financial years")

Responding to Assembly Questions by Agencies and NDPBs

Over the last few years the NI Administration have become Agencies and this has had an effect on the way in which Questions addressed to them are answered. Whereas in the past the Minister responsible for the subject would answer these Questions, this task now usually falls to the Chief Executive of the Agency concerned. The Minister will inform the Member that he has delegated the responsibility for answering the AQ to the relevant Chief Executive who in turn will reply to the Member.

The procedure for providing such answers is that after the Question is allocated, it then becomes the responsibility of the Chief Executive to write to the appropriate MLA supplying him with the answer in the form of a letter. The letter may have to be cleared with the Minister before issue.

The Chief Executive’s response should be sent to The Asssembly Business Office as soon as it is signed as it can then be printed in Hansard for all interested parties to see. The letter should also be copied to the relevant Minister.

Inclusion of data re agencies and NDPBs in Assembly Questions

Current accepted practice has been to answer for the core Departments of the Northern Ireland Civil Service – but not their agencies or NDPBs, unless the question, or the context, suggests that the questioner is looking for information about them too.

There was some concern that this could at times be misleading to the Assembly. In the past Ministers asked that, in response to those AQs where there could be any uncertainty, the reply should make clear whether information related to core departments alone, or also agencies and NDPBs.

Where a written AQ relates to policy matters or could be in any way contentious, it should be answered by the Minister through the normal AQ process.

Handling AQs During Recess

Recess

During a recess Ordinary written replies, once approved, should be sent to the Member as soon as possible.

If you are unable to reply substantively to a named day question on the last day of term before a recess, the Private Office should notify officials in the Business Office immediately who will then issue a holding reply, on the date for answer, along the lines of “I will reply to X as soon as possible". The substantive reply should then be sent to the Member in the normal way as soon as it has been approved.

Reference to earlier Questions

It is permissible to refer a member back to an answer given previously to a similar Question provided it is within a few months and in the same session of the Assembly. Where this is considered appropriate the formula to use in the draft reply is:

“I would refer the hon.Gentleman to the reply I gave my hon Friend the Member for (name of constituency) on (date).

(Official Report Col...........)".

As indicated above, the Hansard references (volume and column numbers) are given at the foot of the reply.

Reference to Written Questions seeking readily available information

When a Member seeks factual information which is published and readily available (for example, on a departmental website), a reply along the following lines may be given:

“The details requested by the hon. Member are (published quarterly/annually etc) in (name of source and references) a copy of which is in the Library"

Annex A

Suggested template for Written Answers

The Office of the First Minister
and Deputy First Minister

[ NAME ], First Minister and
[ NAME ], Deputy First Minister
Parliament Buildings,
Stormont, Belfast BT4 3XX

Mr David Hilditch MLA
Northern Ireland Assembly
Parliament Buildings
Stormont 7 October 2002

AQW 246/02

Mr Hilditch has asked:

To ask the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister what community relations funding has been allocated to make young people aware of the dangers of interface violence [Question Font – Times New Roman, size 14, single line spacing]

ANSWER [Answer Font – Times New Roman, size 14, 1.5 line spacing]

The main provider of community relations funding to young people is the Department of Education through its schools and youth community relations programmes.

Its annual budget of around £3.6million is used to promote and develop good community relations in the education and youth service sectors in the age range 4 to 25.

Funding targeted at making young people aware of the dangers of interface violence has however been provided by our Department in two ways:

The Rt Hon [F Ms Name]MP MLA [D F Ministers Name]

Background Note

[MAXIMUM 1 A4 Page Font – Arial, size 14, 1.5 line spacing]

Drafted by [OFFICIALS NAME & DATE]

Cleared by Head of Division – [NAME & DATE]

Copy distribution List:

Each Department will have their own copy distribution lists.

Procedures for Handling
Oral Assembly Questions

Oral Questions - General Information

Oral Assembly Questions provide Members with the opportunity to question Ministers closely and to ask the Government to account for its actions and policies. The sense of theatre attached to these occasions can therefore be significant. Furthermore, asking an oral AQ in the Chamber allows the Member:

“to secure an opportunity in their supplementary question to make a political point – to criticise or to praise a minister; to urge action here or to discourage action there; to draw attention to a politically damaging situation or to highlight governmental successes; or simply to publicise, especially to fellow Members or constituents, the questioner’s own skills, activities or beliefs in regard to an issue of his own choosing. There may be many variations on this theme".

Oral Question Time

Oral Questions are tabled with the primary aim of pressing the Minister for action or to convey criticism rather than seeking purely factual information (this is more appropriate for written AQs).

Oral Questions will normally be taken in one of three half-hour sessions between 2.30pm and 4.00pm on Mondays on which there is a sitting. A rota will be drawn-up by the Assembly Business office detailing when each Department will answer question, this regime means that a Department will be “tops" for questions approximately every four weeks. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will have oral questions every two weeks. The rota may be accessed on the Assembly’s Website, archive.niassembly.gov.uk.

Notification of Questions

The Assembly Business Office will post the list of Questions on its Internet Website (archive.niassembly.gov.uk) at approximately 08.30am on the Wednesday before Oral Questions. The Business Office will also e-mail the list to Departmental Private Offices.

No notice prior to this will be given. It is essential therefore, that Oral Questions are given priority and dealt with immediately by officials.

When the period for tabling questions closes the Business Office will randomly select and order up to 20 Questions from the database that will be put to the Minister during Oral Questions. Questions not selected will be regarded as lapsed and there will be no requirement upon the Department to provide an answer. Questions not reached during the Oral Questions session itself will be treated as Written Questions. An answer for each, in hard copy and signed by the Minster, must be handed to the doorkeeper (to pass to the Member who laid the Question) immediately on completion of the period for Questions. A copy of answers to all those questions not reached should be delivered immediately to the Business Office.

Special Advisors

The Minister’s Special Advisor (s) should be involved at the outset with preparing answers for Oral Questions. This is to allow an Advisor to consider the questioner’s interests and likely Supplementary Questions; and to provide additional briefing for the Minister as necessary.

The subject of Oral Questions

Questions directed to a Minister must relate to:

According to Standing Orders, the purpose of Supplementary Questions is to elucidate an answer. The Assembly authorities advise however that this will be subject to a broad interpretation and Departments must expect to brief their Minister on the widest range of issues within her/his responsibility.

Supplementary Questions

A member putting a Question to a Minister may follow up the Minister’s response with a Supplementary Question. The Speaker has the discretion to take additional Supplementary Questions from that Member or other Members. Departments should ensure that briefing is provided in anticipation of this, covering any further points that might be raised.

Each subject will have its own specific requirements, but normally at least 5/6 possible Supplementary Questions should be provided. It may not be necessary to provide any additional material beyond an answer and a background note for those Oral Questions that are highly unlikely to be answered in the Chamber. This will, of course, be subject to the agreement of the Minister.

Grouping of Questions

If two or more Questions cover much the same ground the Minister may group Questions. Upon rising to answer the Minister might use the form of words:

“With the Speaker’s permission, I will take Questions 5 and 8 together…"

If a Member signals to the Clerk that he wishes to postpone the Question until another day she/he may do so, there is no guarantee however that their Question will again be selected for answer.

Supplementary Briefing

Drafting officials should also be aware that they may be expected to provide additional question-specific briefing at very short notice during the orals process. Assembly Business Office in consultation with Special Advisers and the Minister’s Private Office may commission specific items of briefing at each round of orals. This may be as a result of ‘intelligence’ through discussions with MLAs indicating particular lines of inquiries that an MLA plans to take on an oral AQ for the Minister.

Urgent Questions and Private Notice Questions

Urgent questions

The minimum period of notice of a Question may not be appropriate in the case of an emergency or important unexpected development. In such circumstances, any Member may apply to the Speaker for permission to ask an Urgent Question of the responsible Minister. Urgent Questions can be asked of any Department on any sitting day.

In order to ask an Urgent Question the Member must apply to the Speaker before [10:30am] on the day on which an Answer is required (noon on Mondays and 10:00am on Fridays). When an application is made the Speaker’s Office notifies the Department concerned (via Private Offices). Relevant senior departmental officials, Permanent Secretaries and other Ministers might be contacted immediately to advise that an Urgent Question is pending.

Work on preparation of drafts needs to be started at once, in anticipation of the Speaker accepting the application. In coming to a decision, the Speaker has to keep in mind the fact that any Urgent Questions allowed will be answered immediately after normal Question Time, or at [11:00am on Fridays]. If successful, the Member concerned asks the Urgent Question by reading out the text of the Question. When the Minister has read out the prepared answer, the Speaker allows supplementary Questions, as with normal Oral questions. On average 45-60 minutes is allowed for an Urgent Question.

Answers to Urgent Questions are generally drafted at some length, more in the style of a statement than an answer to an oral Question. The draft is supported by a background note and notes for supplementaries.

In practice, Urgent Questions are not common during Assembly Sessions with an average of 2 or 3 a month typically allowed. However, officials should still be aware that they may be asked to draft such a response under extremely tight deadlines.

Suggested Template for Oral Answers

Question 10

Mr John Fee

To ask the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister what progress has been made to obtain permanent offices in Armagh for the North-South Ministerial Council.

(Question – Times New Roman font 16 single spacing)

Answer (Answer – Times New Roman font 12 1.5 spacing)

Although the Joint Secretariat is operating effectively from its temporary accommodation in Armagh, work is ongoing to identify and procure a new permanent headquarters.

A schedule of accommodation requirements for a new permanent headquarters in Armagh has been drawn up and is currently being developed and evaluated by the professional staff of the Construction Service of the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

This evaluation will include an investment appraisal of options, including a new build and the possibility of refurbishing part of the former Armagh Prison. The evaluation process will take several months, after which the various options will be put before the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland and the South for consideration prior to submission to the North South Ministerial Council for approval.

NSMC Joint Secretariat - Staffing

Line to Take:

At present, the North South Ministerial Council Joint Secretariat has a complement of 29 staff. Of these, 15 are from Northern Ireland, 11 from the Republic of Ireland, and there are three vacancies to be filled from the Republic.

The schedule of accommodation includes an allowance for some expansion of these numbers should the mandate of the North South Ministerial Council being extended to other areas.

NSMC Joint Secretariat - 2001/2002 Budget

Line to Take:

The 2001/2002 budget for the northern side of the Secretariat is £920,000 of which approximately £500,000 is for staff salaries.

This compares with the budget for 2000/2001 of £950,000 of which approximately £400,000 was for staff salaries.

Delay in Bringing Forward the Accommodation Issues

Line to Take:

The North South Ministerial Council and its Joint Secretariat is a new and quite unique organisation. The nature of its working arrangements and the accommodation requirements needed to support them has taken some time to evolve. The Joint Secretariat is now sufficiently confident of those requirements to have provided the construction professionals with a schedule of requirements and the project is being taken forward by the establishment of a project team.

When will the New Accommodation be Ready

Line to Take:

Until the project evaluation has been completed it is difficult to say when the new accommodation will be ready for occupation. Much will depend on the nature of the work associated with the preferred option, but we think that it is likely to be late 2003 or early 2004.

Cost of the New Permanent

Line to Take

Until the Investment Appraisal options have been fully evaluated it will not be possible to estimate how much a new permanent headquarters for the Joint Secretariat will cost.

However, the recommended option and associated costs will be rigorously scrutinised by the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland and the South, before being submitted to the NSMC for final approval.

Timescale for the Evaluation Stage and Procurement of a Permanent Headquarters

Line to Take

It is difficult to predict, at this early stage, how long the evaluation process will take. The evaluation process will include a new Investment Appraisal, followed by a period of consultation between the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland and in the South. Finally, the preferred option will be submitted to the NSMC for approval. It is anticipated that this process should be concluded by mid 2002.

The Next NSMC Plenary to be Held

Line to Take

The next NSMC Plenary is scheduled for Wednesday 1 May 2002 in Northern Ireland. The venue has not yet been selected, although Armagh, at this stage, remains the preferred venue.

Background Note

Previous responses to questions are attached

Mr Fee

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on permanent accommodation for the North/South Ministerial Council in Armagh.

(AQO 1562/00)

The First Minister:

The Member will recall the written answer given to him on 14 May, which also touched on this issue. The joint North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) secretariat is currently assessing the accommodation requirements. An investment appraisal will be prepared in respect of permanent headquarters buildings for the NSMC secretariat. Although the possibility of using the former Armagh jail is likely to be one of the main options in the appraisal process, full consideration will also be given to other viable options, including new build. When a preferred option has been identified, proposals will be submitted in the first instance to the two Administrations separately in order to identify whether funding is available. If so, the proposals will ultimately be submitted to NSMC for approval.

Mr Fee:

I am delighted that Armagh jail is being considered as a location for the Ministerial Council. Can the Minister indicate how many staff are likely to be needed? How many are likely to come from each jurisdiction?

The First Minister:

At present, around 29 staff members are being accommodated in Armagh. Of those, 15 are from Northern Ireland, 12 from the Republic of Ireland, and there are two vacancies to be filled from the Republic. I appreciate the Member’s comments with regard to the Armagh jail; the people in Armagh are to be congratulated on its renovation. We will look in an entirely neutral and thorough fashion at whether it would be an appropriate place for the NSMC.

Mr Kennedy:

North/South activity seems to have stopped over the last couple of months. Does the Minister share my concern that meetings of the British- Irish Council have also stopped and, indeed, that those meetings are lagging considerably behind North/South Ministerial Council activity? Will the Minister assure the Assembly that he will seek to redress the balance and ensure that British-Irish Council activity reaches parity with North/South Ministerial Council activity?

The First Minister:

I am not sure that the Member is entirely accurate in saying that activity has stopped. There has certainly been a degree of slowdown in the activity of the North/South Ministerial Council. Indeed, if I dare to say so, Mr Speaker, judging by the large swathes of blue space that can be seen on the Benches, something else may be distracting Members from their attention to business here. I dare say that the same factor has had an effect on the Administration in general, although I would not want to say that the Administration has been deleteriously affected by other distractions.

The Member made a serious point about the British-Irish Council, where there has been a disappointing level of activity. There are possibly a number of reasons for that, but it would, perhaps be inappropriate for me to go into them here. I am anxious that we look into the matter, because as an earlier question from the Member’s Colleague indicated, many issues that are being looked at in the context of the North/South Ministerial Council are also highly relevant in a British-Irish Council context. As we move towards the full implementation of the agreement in June, the target that was clearly set, we are also anxious to see the full implementation of the British-Irish Council.

Written Submission from DARD

Overview of the Process for Handling Assembly Written Questions in DARD

Ordinary Written Questions:-

Priority Written Questions:-

Department of Education
Assembly Question Process Map

Assembly Question Process Map

Department of Education AQW Performance Statistics

Assembly Questions due for Answer Between April and July 2008

Number of Questions Answered on time Answered late Questions Not Yet Answered % On Time
AQW 523 158 365 0 30%
Priortity AQW 120 3 117 0 3%
TOTAL 643 161 482 0 25%

Assembly Questions due for Answer During September 2008

Number of Questions Answered on time Answered late Questions Not Yet Answered % On Time
AQW 58 51 8 0 88%
Priortity AQW 20 9 11 0 45%
TOTAL 78 60 18 1 77%

Assembly Questions due for Answer During October 2008

Number of Questions Answered on time Answered late Questions Not Yet Answered % On Time
AQW 127 108 19 0 85%
Priortity AQW 17 8 9 0 47%
TOTAL 144 116 28 0 81%
Letter from William Hay to Lord Morrow

Submission to the Committee on Procedures

Annex A

Introduction

Question Time should be one of the liveliest items of business in the Chamber. It is the most public opportunity that Members have to scrutinise Executive Ministers, and is particularly important for “back benchers". However, there appears to be a strong perception among Members, the public and the media that Question Time is not sufficiently spontaneous, and that it is sometimes less than effective in obtaining the answers from Ministers that Members expect.

Any revisions to practices, whether initiated by me, as Speaker, or governed by amendments to Standing Orders, should be aimed at moving away from the current perception of “stage-management", and should have a positive impact on both the ‘theatre’ of Question Time and the ability of Members to ask the questions, and obtain the answers, that they require.

Changes already made

I have already engaged with Party Whips on a number of issues that I have been seeking to address, and have introduced the following changes:

Lack of spontaneity

There are many factors that contribute to the lack of spontaneity during Question Time. It is therefore unlikely that any single change will, by itself, remove the concerns referred to above.

As well as the changes that I have already made, the Committee may wish to consider if there is merit in introducing a rule that no two supplementary questions are so similar in nature that the Minister is effectively asked to repeat an answer. Members would rise to their feet only if they have an alternative supplementary to ask.

Additionally, the Committee might consider if there would be merit in allowing the Chairperson of the relevant Statutory Committee to ask the first question, whether notified in advance or not, and then allowing him/her to ask one or two supplementaries, before moving on to questions from other Members. This might help to create a greater sense of “scrutiny", with the caveat that the Chairpersons would be called in that role, and would have to restrict their questions to those which represent the concerns and interests of the Committee, rather than themselves or their parties. Allowing the Chairpersons the first question, and a number of supplementaries, may have the added benefit of highlighting the powerful role that Committees play in our system, which is often lost behind the doors of Committee rooms and out of the media spotlight that is available during question time.

Selection of questions

The Committee might wish to consider the possibility of not allowing the first three or four questions to be from the Minister’s own party, limiting the number of questions tabled by Members of the same party and allowing the Chair of a Statutory Committee to ask the first question as long as that Member could ask a question as a Member (not as chair) later if required.

Ministerial responses

There is no provision in Standing Orders on the length of a Ministerial response. The Westminster convention, which has obvious merits, is that “An answer should be confined to the points contained within the question, with such explanation only as renders the answer intelligible. Lengthy answers should be circulated within the Official Report instead of being given orally." The UK Home Office advice to its Ministers and officials is that all answers by Ministers should be “A,B,C – Accurate, Brief, Clear." If a matter justifies a complex and detailed response it might be more appropriate for the Minister to give a brief outline and undertake to write to the Member.

Standing Orders require a Minister to answer a question as clearly and fully as possible. At present, the Speaker might intervene if the Minster refuses to answer, but beyond that it is very difficult to become involved in a subjective assessment of the degree to which an answer fulfils the criteria referred to above.

Method for selection of Members to ask supplementary questions

Members frequently express concern to me and to officials about not being invited to pose supplementary questions. Standing Orders make clear that the allocation of supplementary questions is a matter for the Speaker’s discretion. Clearly, in the time available, it will never be possible to call all those who indicate a desire to ask a question.

The Committee may find it helpful to know that the following factors are among those which are presently considered by myself and the Deputy Speakers when exercising the discretion accorded to me by Standing Orders:

It has been suggested to me that consideration could be given to preventing supplementary questions being asked by Members of the same party as the Minister. I am of the view however, that we should not assume that all such questions are “inspired" by the Minister. In any case, I try whenever possible to avoid a situation in which only Members of the Minister’s party are called to ask a supplementary.

The process for tabling written and priority written questions

The process for ordinary written questions does not attract the same controversy as that for orals. Generally speaking the current 10-day (2 week) time limit works well and seems reasonable. Members can now table questions by email and this has worked smoothly since its introduction in mid-May, with a fair proportion of Members (about 30%) currently using this method.

I am content to leave the time limits issue to the Committee to see what proposals arise from the inquiry. Members may wish to note the increasing volume of questions. The following figures compare Questions tabled during a 6-month period in 2001/02 with a similar period in 2007/08:

September 2001 to February 2002 September 2007 to February 2008
Oral Questions tabled 1013 2479
Written Questions tabled 2823 5403

Ministerial Responses to Written Questions

Following a series of complaints from Members about late answers to written questions I raised the issue with the Junior Ministers. Subsequently the Head of the Civil Service initiated a review involving six of the eleven Departments which I understand has revealed inconsistencies across Departments and recommendations for improvements.

Recent statistics suggest a significant improvement in the timeliness of answers in recent months on ordinary written questions, particularly for those Departments that had previously been identified as having the greatest number of late responses. While not as great as that shown for ordinary written questions, the timeliness of responses to Priority Questions has also improved.

The criteria for admissibility of priority written questions

At present there are no additional criteria for admissibility of priority questions. When tabling a Member may simply state that an answer is required within 2, 3, 4 or 5 days. It is suspected that a proportion of priority questions are being tabled because of the poor record of some Departments in answering ordinary written questions. Business Office staff have no grounds on which to challenge a Member on the urgency of a question. The Committee might wish to consider whether any rules or guidelines could be introduced to address this apparent deficiency.

The criteria for admissibility of Private Notice Questions (PNQs)

As set out in Standing Order 20, the following criteria are taken into account when I consider requests by Members to ask a Private Notice Question:

More PNQ requests are rejected than accepted. Most of those turned down are on the grounds that they are non-urgent and could receive a reply via a two-day priority written question. As such, I am satisfied that the current criteria are sufficient and effective.

The grammar, language and style of Standing Order 19

A review of Standing Orders will obviously depend on the findings and recommendations of the Committee’s Inquiry but I do believe that the opportunity should be taken to examine Standing Order 19 in order to make it simpler to understand.

Letter from Northern Ireland
Executive Committee

Letter from OFMdFM to Lord Morrow

Assembly Questions: Inquiry by the Committee on Procedures
Written Response to the Committee on Procedures from the Northern Ireland Executive Committee

1. We are very grateful to the Committee on Procedures for giving the Executive the opportunity to make this written submission outlining its views and proposals on the procedures and processes surrounding Assembly Questions.

Introduction

2. We fully acknowledge the important role of Assembly Questions in securing the accountability of Ministers to the Assembly and we recognise therefore the importance of according the handling of questions appropriate priority for the preparation of accurate and timely answers. Equally, it is essential that the process for Assembly Questions is as effective and efficient as possible, in so far as the discharge of this duty needs to be accommodated within the broad range of other departmental responsibilities.

Discussion

3. The following comments reflect the agreed view of Executive members and are set out in the same sequence as that contained in the Committee’s terms of reference for the inquiry.

Oral Questions

The methodology for selection of questions, the number of questions on the Order Paper and the number of questions answered during Question Time

4. We have no substantive comments to make on the selection of questions of oral answer, although it would be preferable if a mechanism was in place to identify and minimise repetitive questions. Experience over the last session of the Assembly has shown that a common feature of Oral Question Time is the small number of questions, as a proportion of those listed, which are capable of answer in the 30-minute period. This reflects both the need for Ministers to give comprehensive answers to questions and for the Speaker to allow Members to question the Minister on the response. While Members whose questions are not reached will receive a written answer, it must be recognised that the primary purpose of Oral Questions is the opportunity this affords Members to engage directly with Ministers, rather than to provide an additional channel for written answers. In addition, as Ministers, we must be mindful of the significant resources of time and staffing that are directed to preparing material for these sessions. While there may undoubtedly be scope for encouraging greater precision in questions and answers, we consider that the number of questions listed on the Order Paper should be reduced to a maximum of 15.

The rota for Ministers, including the frequency of questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister

5. At present, Oral Questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister takes place on a fortnightly basis and all other Ministers answer Oral Questions on a monthly basis. On these occasions the First Minister and deputy First Minister are appearing as departmental Ministers of OFMDFM and answer questions which focus primarily on their departmental business and not on issues which are the responsibility of other Ministers. The scheduling of fortnightly questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which originated during the previous Assembly, appears to reflect an assumption that they would perform a wider representative role as joint Chairs of the Executive and therefore be in a position to address issues beyond their departmental remit. It would, however, be inappropriate for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to answer questions relating to the responsibilities of other Ministers and, in practice, questions have focused on OFMDFM departmental business on a fairly limited range of topics. On this basis, the Executive believes there is therefore no obvious rationale for fortnightly questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister and, conversely, a strong practical argument for Oral Questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to be monthly, as for other Ministers.

6. We also consider that provision should be made for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to delegate to Junior Ministers responsibility for responding to specified questions.

Questions following recess periods

7. Ministers have on occasions been given inadequate time to prepare responses for their first session of oral questions immediately following Summer and Christmas Recess periods. The Executive considers that Assembly procedures should provide that on those occasions following Summer and Christmas Recess, Ministers are given at least 8 working days, as is normally the case, to prepare responses for Question Time and that the first session of Oral questions should be scheduled accordingly.

The time bands allocated for Question Time; length of ministerial responses and length of supplementary questions and response

8. We are content with the current time bands allocated to each Minister at Question Time, but we are keen to ensure that due attention is paid to the relevance and the length of supplementary questions asked by Members which, under Standing Orders, are to “elucidate" the original answer and not to introduce tangential or loosely connected issues. This could facilitate increased dialogue between Ministers and a greater number of MLAs and thereby increase the spontaneity of the exchanges.

Written Questions

Process for tabling written questions and assessment of Members’ limits for tabling

9. Assembly processes allow questions to be tabled on behalf of MLAs by their staff. The Executive does not wish to question the integrity of the questions asked, but believes that controls should be introduced to ensure that questions tabled on behalf of an MLA have been approved by the MLA and have not been tabled without his/her knowledge. This could help to ensure that questions are directly relevant to the Member’s needs; assist officials on those occasions where clarification needs to be sought from an MLA in respect of any question; and would also provide a level of quality assurance for questions being tabled. The Committee may wish to consider the benefit of introducing training for MLAs in the process of tabling questions. We are aware that such courses have been developed at Westminster for MPs.

10. Between May 2007 and February 2008 there were around 150 days available to MLAs for tabling. This generated just under 5,000 AQs and equated to an average of some 32 questions in total per day among the 93 MLAs entitled to table questions. This suggests that the current limit of 5 AQs per Member per day is entirely adequate and therefore the current limit should remain. We shall be making further comments below relating to limits for tabling Priority Written Questions.

Extent to which departments achieve the targets for answering questions

11. We recognise that, while many departments have a good record in meeting targets for answering questions, the percentage of questions answered by some departments has been lower than desired. Monitoring arrangements have been or will be put in place within these departments in an attempt to improve punctuality ratings. However, the proposals later in the submission in respect of the role of the Assembly Business Office should also assist with making improvements. We are also aware that there may be differences between Assembly statistics and those produced by departments and it is important that these discrepancies are resolved as soon as possible.

Priority Written Questions

Criteria for admissibility

12. While it is accepted that MLAs should have a facility to table Priority Written Questions, criteria should be introduced to ensure that their usage more closely aligns with the priority or urgency of the subject matter. Experience has shown to date that Priority Written Questions have been tabled on a wide range of issues, the urgency of which is not readily apparent, with subsequent impact on the capability of departments to answer other questions within the stated deadline. The Executive considers that, in particular, Priority Written Questions should not be used to obtain large amounts of statistical or other historic information from departments. Furthermore, consideration should be given to specifying, within the daily quota, the number of Priority Written questions that a Member can table, which would also assist in allowing Ministers to accord genuine priority questions their proper importance.

13. The Committee may wish to consider whether Members should be asked to provide a brief reason before a given question can be treated as a priority, and that this information could also be made available to departments to provide Ministers with a better insight into the Member’s concerns and assist in promoting more relevant answers. It may also benefit Assembly Business Office staff in ensuring a degree of uniformity of approach in the use of this type of question.

Private Notice Questions

Criteria for admissibility

14. Current practice dictates that 4 hours’ notice is required in relation to the tabling of a Private Notice Question. It would be helpful if the time criterion for admissibility could be revised from 4 hours to 6 hours to permit more time for Ministers to prepare full and comprehensive answers. It is also suggested that there may be merit in placing restrictions upon the types of issues that could be put forward for discussion under the Private Notice Question route, to ensure that only issues which are urgent in nature or matters of public importance can be dealt with through this route.

Additional Comments

Role of Assembly Business Office

15. We consider that, as part of its inquiry, the Committee on Procedures should take account of our observations and experiences in dealing with the Business Office. An enhanced role for the Business Office and improvement to some of the processes operated by that Office in processing questions would prove beneficial in terms of preventing nugatory or irrelevant work and in seeking to improve performance in respect of deadlines for answering questions. This role should include:-

Guidance for MLAs

16. We appreciate the importance of Ministers answering appropriately tabled questions, and the need for MLAs to receive authoritative answers from Ministers. There equally needs to be a recognition among Members that the time taken responding to questions means a reduction in resources dealing with some of the very issues being questioned. In this regard we suggest that there is a need to develop guidance for MLAs to: -

Conclusion

17. The Executive hopes that the Committee will find these comments helpful and that they will make a useful contribution to its deliberations on this important inquiry.

The Northern Ireland Executive Committee

27 November 2008

DARD Departmental Processes for Answering Written Questions

DARD Logo

Dundonald House
Upper Newtownards Road
Belfast BT4 3SB
Tel: 028 90524331
Fax: 028 90524884
Email: Joe.Cassells@dardni.gov.uk

Stella MacArdle
Clerk to the Committee on Procedures
Room 430
Parliament Buildings
Stormont Your reference
Belfast Our reference
BT4 3XX Date: 28 November 2008

Dear Stella

Assembly Questions: Dard Average Costs Statistics

Thank you for your letter of 21 November.

As requested, the Department conducted a brief exercise to determine the average costs of compiling a response to Assembly Written Questions.

Within the timeframe set by the Committee, the methodology adopted to conduct the exercise involved analysing a sample of 10 recently answered AQs and obtaining input on estimated costs from colleagues in the appropriate DARD business areas. The attached figures provide estimates based on “Average Salary" costs for administrative staff (not Ministerial/Special Adviser) and exclude any wider overhead costs e.g. heating & lighting; etc.

The average cost across the representative sample was £156. Projecting this average over the period of time focused on by the Committee (1 April to 31 July 2008) would produce an overall figure of £37,752 for a total of 242 AQs.

The Committee will wish to note the limited nature of the sample and that the overall costs shown above are based on an extrapolated figure.

Yours sincerely

Joe Cassells Signature

Joe Cassells
Departmental Assembly Liaison Officer

DARD Figures

DARD – Estimated Average Costs for Answering a sample of 10 Assembly Written Questions

Sample AQ Number Priority or Ordinary Written AQ? Estimated Cost
2128 Ordinary £71.53
2134 Ordinary £121.97
2137 Ordinary £116.53
2159 Ordinary £113.82
2170 Ordinary £116.53
2193 Ordinary £26.00
2238 Ordinary £61.53
2257 Ordinary £619.10
2410 Priority £38.03
2411 Priority £274.22
Total £1,559.26

Overall average cost to answer an AQ (£1,559 ÷ 10) = £156

Based on the above average, the projected costs for answering DARD Assembly Written Questions for the period 1 April to 31 July 2008 would be:-

£156 (Avg Cost) x 242 (total AQs)= £37,752

DE Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

DE Logo

Stella McArdle
Clerk to the Committee on
Procedures
Room 430
Parliament Buildings
Stormont
Belfast
BT4 3XX

02 December 2008

Dear Stella

Assembly Questions:

Thank you for your letter of 21 November.

As requested, the Department conducted a brief exercise to determine the average costs of compiling a response to Assembly Questions Written (AQW) and of the comparative costs between using the DCAL Translation Service and DE’s in-house Irish Language Officers. .

In relation to the average cost of responding to an AQW, the methodology adopted to conduct the exercise involved analysing a sample of 10 recently answered AQs and obtaining input on estimated costs from colleagues in the appropriate DE business areas. The attached figures provide estimates based on “Average Salary" costs for administrative staff (not Ministerial/Special Adviser) and exclude any wider overhead costs e.g. heating & lighting; etc.

The average cost across the representative sample was £299. Projecting this average over the period of time focused on by the Committee (1 April to 31 July 2008) would produce an overall figure of £192,297 for a total of 643 AQWs.

The Committee will wish to note the limited nature of the sample and that the overall costs shown above are based on an extrapolated figure.

In comparing the costs between DCAL Translation Service and DE’s Irish Language Officers we looked at an invoice received from DCAL for the part translation of 26 AQWs totaling £141.90. We estimate that DE’s Irish Language Officers would have cost £70.35 to translate the same request.

Yours sincerely,

R Davison Logo

R DAVISON

Estimated Average Costs for Answering a sample of 10 Assembly Written Question

DE – Estimated Average Costs for Answering a sample of 10 Assembly Written Questions

Sample AQ Number Priority or Ordinary Written AQ? Estimated Cost
7060 Ordinary £666.27
8309 Priority £197.63
1800 Ordinary £437.76
2324 Ordinary £194.79
2427 Ordinary £568.18
2349 Priority £121.43
2450 Ordinary £376.68
2494 Ordinary £74.30
2496 Ordinary £130.00
2734 Ordinary £223.34
Total £2990.38

Overall average cost to answer an AQ (£2990 ÷ 10) = £299

Based on the above average, the projected costs for answering DE Assembly Written Questions for the period 1 April to 31 July 2008 would be:-

£299 (Avg Cost) x 643 (total AQs)= £192,297

DFP Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

DFP Logo

Assembly Section

Craigantlet Buildings
Stormont
BT4 3SX
Tel No: 02890 529147
Fax No: 02890 529148
email: Norman.Irwin@dfpni.gov.uk

Mr Shane McAteer
Clerk
Committee for Finance and Personnel
Room 419
Parliament Buildings
Stormont

16 December 2008

Dear Shane

Committee on Procedures Inquiry into Assembly Questions

Please find attached my response to the Committee on Procedure’s Inquiry into Assembly Oral and Written Questions.

I would be grateful if you could pass this response on to Stella McArdle.

Yours sincerely,

Norman Irwin Logo

NORMAN IRWIN

(a) What systems are in place to ensure that questions are answered on time? (Please include a time-line of the process.)

The 10 day period for answering written AQs is outlined in guidance published on the Departmental intranet and is as follows:-

The Knowledge Network database used for registering AQs identifies those questions which are outstanding at the various stages of the process. Assembly Section staff maintain close liaison with business areas and Private Office to ensure minimum delays.

(b) What are the most common reasons for a response not being issued on time?

Due to the responsibilities of DFP, a number of AQs are received which require input from other Departments. This adds considerably to the turnaround time for these AQs.

Other issues which may delay answers are:-

(c) Are reports on performance/clearance times regularly considered by your Permanent Secretary or departmental Board?

Yes – each quarter the Departmental Board receives a report on the performance of the Department, broken down by business area.

The Permanent Secretary also considers the statistics provided by the Assembly Business Office.

(d) How does the department measure the quality of responses?

All AQ answers are approved by business area Grade 5s (or above). Also Assembly Section carries out a quality assurance role before issue to the Minister.

(e) How do you calculate the cost of answering a question?

If the information requested in the AQ is not readily available, a calculation is made based on average salaries per grade multiplied by the estimated time required to prepare the answer.

(f) What is the average cost of answering a question?

This information is not recorded.

(g) How many questions have been refused on the basis of cost to answer?

11 AQs since May 2007.

(h) What is the department’s approach to using references to websites within responses and placing documents in the Assembly Library?

The Departmental guidance is that where the information requested is

readily available (for example, on a departmental website), a reply along the following lines is given: “The details requested by the hon. Member are (published quarterly/annually etc) in (name of source and references) a copy of which is in the Library"

(i) Are there any changes to the admissibility of questions that the department would like to see introduced?

No

(j) Any additional comments, eg, suggested improvements?

The timescale for priority written questions puts considerable pressure on officials to compile a full answer particularly when a wide-ranging question is tabled for priority answer. It could be argued that the majority of PWQs are not time critical and therefore do not warrant this status. It would advantageous if selection criteria could be applied to ensure that only those requiring priority are permitted to be tabled as PWQs.

The Department has also found it necessary to request clarification on what information the MLA is seeking. It would also be advantageous if clarification could be sought by Assembly authorities before AQs are allocated.

DRD Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

Letter from Alan Doherty to Stella McArdle
Letter from Alan Doherty to Stella McArdle
Letter from Alan Doherty to Stella McArdle
Letter from Alan Doherty to Stella McArdle
Letter from Alan Doherty to Stella McArdle

DCAL Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

Letter from Declan McGeown to Stella McArdle
Letter from Declan McGeown to Stella McArdle
Letter from Declan McGeown to Stella McArdle
Letter from Declan McGeown to Stella McArdle
Letter from Declan McGeown to Stella McArdle

DEL Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

Question Departmental Comments
What systems are in place to ensure that questions are answered on time? (Please include a time-line of the process). The following systems are in place: Detailed Branch procedures; A Bespoke Management Information System (Knowledge Network) which is used across NICS. KN includes, for example, reminder screens to identify cases due; and Continuous liaison between DEL AQ Section and the Business Office, drafting officials and the Minister’s Office. In addition, we have provided the Business Office with a detailed list of DEL’s responsibilities to help ensure accurate allocation of questions. Please also see the attached timeline for answering an AQ, which is provided to officials at the time of issue of AQs.
What are the most common reasons for a response not being issued on time? Can be caused by difficulties allocating cases to officials within the Department due to lack of clarity in the questions. Holding replies often issued as a consequence of having to commission information from external bodies i.e. non-civil service organisations (e.g. universities, further education colleges).
Question Departmental Comments
Are reports on performance/clearance times regularly considered by your Permanent Secretary or departmental Board? Yes - reports given to Departmental Board on a quarterly basis.
How does the department measure the quality of responses? All AQs are cleared by Grade 5 to ensure quality. Also, templates and guidance on answering AQs, including the standards expected in compiling Ministerial replies, are attached to every question issued to officials for answer.
How do you calculate the cost of answering a question? Not currently calculated.
What is the average cost of answering a question? Not currently calculated.
How many questions have been refused on the basis of cost to answer? None.
Question Departmental Comments
What is the department’s approach to using references to websites within responses and placing documents in the Assembly Library? Ministerial preference is, where necessary, for annexes to be attached to the letter issued to Members. In this case, we arrange for the annexes to be placed in Assembly Library or on the DEL Website, and the response for Written Answers Booklet refers to where the information may be found.
Are there any changes to the admissibility of questions that the department would like to see introduced? The Business Office in the Assembly could challenge why questions justify a priority written question. The impact on the Department’s core business can be significant in terms of the effort required to turn around a priority question, and hence there should be established criteria that a Member has to fulfil in order to table a priority question. Also, the Business Office could challenge when it is clear that the information requested is already publicly available. For example, we have been asked “How many further education colleges are there in NI", “what courses are available at XYZ College" or “what are the responsibilities of your Department". The information to answer these questions (and others) is readily accessible on the internet. Finally, a number of repetitive questions are asked of Departments. If this is identified by Departments and relayed to the Business Office, the Business Office should be able to draw the previous answer to the attention of Members, and invite them to consider withdrawing the question.
Question Departmental Comments
Any additional comments, e.g., suggested improvements? Greater clarification on the wording of questions. Many questions can be answered by referencing material widely published and available from the Internet.

AQ - Ordinary Written - Timeline

AQ Process - Ordinary Written

Stage Working Day Action
Stage 1
Asked
0 AQ is tabled by MLA at Assembly Business Office
Stage 2
Allocated
1 Assembly Business Office allocate questions to DEL and issue Daily List via e-mail to DEL Assembly Business Unit (ABU) by mid-morning.
1 DEL AQ co-ordinators identify and contact relevant Lead Official for confirmation. AQ co-ordinator issues the daily list to all relevant officials.
1 AQs are issued to relevant DEL official to provide the answer.
Stage 3
Answered
1-4 Lead official should draft answer in correct format, proof read, arrange clearance through Grade 5 and return to DEL ABU via e-mail to AQS@delni.gov.uk
5 AQ coordinator checks format of answer.
5 Assembly Business Unit sends AQ answer to Special Adviser for clearance.
5-6 Answer returned from Special Adviser to Assembly Business Unit (Assembly Business Unit make minor amendments) and hard copy is passed to Minister for clearance. Drafting Officials may be required to amend.
6-7 Cleared AQ answer should be returned from the Minister.
7-8 AQ answer is then forwarded by DEL ABU to Assembly Business Office via e-mail and hard copy delivered to Parliament Buildings.
9 All AQs must be with Assembly Business Office by day 9 or they will be considered late. Assembly Business Office arrange for the approved answer to be entered in Written Answers Booklet.
Stage 4 Published 1-2 weeks Answer will be placed in Written Answers Booklet - http://archive.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/answer.htm It is the responsibility of the answering Branch to ensure that this version is the answer provided.

DOE Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

Stella McArdle
Committee Clerk
Committee on Procedures
Room430
Parliament Buildings
Stormont
Belfast
BT4 3XX

Room 614
Clarence Court
10-18 Adelaide Street
BELFAST
BT2 8GB
Telephone: 028 9054 1194
Email: Alex.boyle@doeni.gov.uk

Your reference:
Our reference

16 December 2008

Dear Ms McArdle

Departmental Processes for Answering Written Questions

I refer to your recent letter which sought details of the processes used by the Department to answer Written Assembly Questions (WAQs).

The Department’s response is as follows:

(a) The Department in line with all departmental Private Offices uses the Knowledge Network system to record, manage and track all WAQ’s. This ensures that set deadlines for replies are automatically flagged up to enable Private Office staff to track each individual WAQs and keep an accurate record of those which are recorded as late returns. The time line used is that upon receipt of the daily list of questions from the Business Office, Private Office issue them to the relevant business area to prepare an answer. All questions must be answered within 10 working days, officials are given 5 working days to reply to the Private Office and the Minister is given 5 working days for clearance and signature.

(b) The most common reasons for a response not being issued on time Include:

(c) The Department as part of a monthly Stewardship Report to the Permanent Secretary and Departmental Board reports on all aspects of inter-action with the Assembly including WAQs. This includes a breakdown of the number of questions received and the number recorded as late. The Committee may be interested to note that in October 2008 from a total of 147 questions received by the Department 10 were recorded as late representing 7% of the total.

(d) To ensure that the responses are both accurate and of a high quality each WAQ answer must go through an internal clearance procedure which involves:

It is also worth mentioning that to date the Department has received little by way of follow up from MLA’s who are in receipt of a response indicating dissatisfaction with either its content or quality.

(e) The department does not calculate the coast of answering a question and is therefore unable to help the Committee in this regard.

(f) Please see the answer to (e) above.

(g) Since the return of the Assembly in May 2007 the Department has applied the disproportionate cost criteria to 34 WAQs. This represents only 2.3% of questions from a total of 1505 received.

(g) The Department when it is considered appropriate will use references to websites within responses and does place documents in the Assembly Library.

I trust the Committee find this information helpful.

Alex Boyle

DETI Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

From: David McCune
DETI Assembly Liaison Officer

Date: 6 January 2009

To: Stella McArdle
Committee Clerk – Committee on Procedures

Committee on Procedures - Inquiry into Assembly Questions – DETI Response

a) What systems are in place to ensure that questions are answered on time?
(Please include a time-line of the process)

Questions are allocated by DETI Assembly Liaison Unit (ALU) to ‘lead officials’ first thing in the morning following receipt of the ‘Daily List’ from the Assembly Business Office. For Ordinary Written Questions, lead officials are allowed five working days to have answers drafted, signed off by relevant Head of Division/NDPB equivalent and returned to DETI Assembly Liaison Unit. This allows DETI Private Office four days to obtain the Minister’s clearance. For Priority Written Questions, the timescales are reduced accordingly.

DETI’s ALU has in place monitoring systems to track progress and effective follow up procedures with drafting officials and to try and ensure internal and external deadlines are met on each question.

Below is the DETI internal timeline for answering written Assembly Questions.

DETI Timeline for Assembly Written Questions

10 Working Days Action Required
Day 1 AQ list received by ALU, issued & reviewed. AQs issued to relevant Division/NDPB Divisions/NDPBs advise within first hour of receipt if not theirs or if Part Input is required
Day 2 Relevant Officials work on AQ
Day 3 Relevant Officials work on AQ Part Inputs due back c.o.p. if required
Day 4 Relevant Officials work on AQ
Day 5 Officials send to G5 or NDPB equivalent for clearance
Day 6 Return to ALU for any final quality assurance issues
Day 7 ALU send to Minister for consideration and clearance
Day 8 Minister’s consideration/clearance
Day 9 Minister’s consideration/clearance
Day 10 ALU send to Assembly Business Office and Assembly Hansard

b) What are the most common reasons for a response not being issued on time?

The following all contribute to questions not being issued on time – complexity eg multi part questions spanning a number of financial years; questions requiring part inputs from third parties ie departments and or NDPBs; need to seek clarity on substance of questions before being able to allocate question to lead officials; and relatively high number of Written Questions being tables as ‘Priority’.

c) Are reports on performance/clearance times regularly considered by your permanent Secretary or departmental Board?

DETI ALU agrees, with the Assembly Business Office, monthly statistics on performance/late returns and the number of the AQs answered. These statistics are broken down by DETI Division/NDPB and reported on a quarterly basis to the DETI Departmental Board. A monthly summary of AQ performance/trends is provided for DETI Top Management Meetings to highlight any trends in performance. Internal procedures are regularly reviewed and updated if necessary by DETI ALU.

d) How does the department measure the quality of the responses?

We measure the quality of responses received from officials by the number of answers returned to officials for redrafting. Responses are normally drafted at Head of Branch level and signed off at G5 level (Senior Civil Service/NDPB equivalent). DETI’s ALU carry out quality checks on the format, grammar, etc, of draft responses and using what knowledge they have, check that the question has been answered and that suitable background information has been provided. However, DETI’s Top Management and or the Minister may also ask for responses to be redrafted/amended to ensure the best possible answer is provided to the Member.

e) How do you calculate the cost of answering a question?

Presently, DETI do not routinely calculate the cost of each question, except on the very rare occasions where we seek the Ministers agreement to use ‘Disproportionate Cost’. In these circumstances a breakdown of staff time/costs is provided to the Minister.

f) What is the average cost of answering a question?

As above. This information is not available.

g) How many questions have been refused on the basis of cost to answer?

Since Devolution in May 2007, DETI officials have been unable to answer two questions on the basis that the answers could only be provided at considerable disproportionate costs. In one case it was costed at £18,000 and in the second £4,500.

h) What is the department’s approach to using references to websites within responses and placing documents in the Assembly Library?

DETI officials include references to website links within responses when it is helpful to do so. Where internet links are included in the answer officials are asked to ensure links are correct and working. Officials are also reminded that where a document is likely to be in heavy demand from Members, hard copies should be placed in the Library in addition to any reference to a website. Members, or the Library on their behalf, should not be expected to down-load documents of more than twenty pages. If an answer refers to a copy of a document being placed in the library, it is the responsibility of Departmental officials to ensure the document is in the Assembly Library before the answer is placed in the Member’s ‘pigeon hole’.

i) Are there any changes to the admissibility of questions that the department would like to see introduced?

As already covered in the Executive’s written response to Lord Morrow, criteria should be introduced to ensure that the usage of priority status more closely aligns with the priority or urgency of the subject matter.

j) And additional comments, e.g., suggested improvements?

None

OFMDFM Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

Stella McArdle
Committee Clerk
Committee on Procedures
Room 430
Parliament Buildings
Stormont
Belfast
BT4 3XX 19 January 2009

Dear Stella,

You recently sought information in relation to the processes within OFMDFM for answering written questions. I apologise for the delay in responding to you but, as I explained in my letter of 17 December, I only received the correspondence following the meeting of the OFMDFM Committee which was held on 12 December. The answers to the questions detailed in your correspondence are set out below.

(a) What systems are in place to ensure that Questions are answered on time (including a time-line of the process).

The process in OFMDFM for answering Ordinary Written questions within the 10 day deadline is as follows.

On receipt of the daily list of Questions from the Business Office, OFMDFM Assembly Section considers the questions for OFMDFM and allocates each question to the relevant policy or business area. The Section commissions a draft answer for each question from relevant lead officials to be provided within a 3 day deadline. Draft answers, when received by Assembly Section, are submitted to Private Office, through the Departmental Assembly Liaison Officer, for consideration by Advisers and Ministers. When the draft is agreed and signed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, a hard copy is forwarded to the relevant Member and, at the same time, an electronic copy is sent to the Business Office.

There are variations on this process to cover other circumstances such as (i) priority written questions in which the length of time for both the draft answers from officials and date for answer is reduced and (ii) those AQs which require the co-ordination of input from various divisions within the department or from other departments, in which cases it may be difficult for the lead co-ordinating officials to provide a draft answer within the normal 3 day deadline, particularly if it involves detailed information.

In light of the Department’s performance earlier this year in answering AQs on time, we have been reviewing our processes with a view to improving our performance in this regard. We have put in place various prompts and monitoring systems within the process for progressing AQs to ensure that the appropriate high level of priority continues to be given to answering AQs on time. These include

Additionally, the Departmental Board considers, on a quarterly basis, the performance of each Directorate in providing draft responses within the 3 day deadline as well as the performance regarding AQs answered on time.

These arrangements have assisted in achieving the improved performance of answering AQs on time which has been evident over the last few months.

(b) What are the most common reasons for a response not being issued on time?

The Committee will note from the response to question (a) that the process for answering AQs involves (i) receipt and allocation (ii) the preparation of a draft answer; (iii) referral of the draft answer for the formal approval of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Delays can occur at any stage of the process which may in turn result in the 10-day deadline being exceeded. Reasons for such delays can be administrative; related to the scope and complexity of the answer, particularly, for example, where large volumes of historic information are being sought; or caused by difficulties in resolving the attribution of the question to a Department.

(c) How does the department measure the quality of responses?

We continually review our departmental guidance to officials on how officials should draft answers to AQs to ensure that it covers any deficiencies identified in the quality of answers. We also conducted a series of seminars within the department which looked at the process and drafting of answers to AQs.

Draft answers must be approved at an appropriate level of seniority in the Department before referral to Ministers. The Departmental Assembly Liaison Office also scrutinises draft answers to ensure the appropriate cognisance has been given to Committee and Assembly involvement in the range of issues raised in the various questions.

(d) Are reports on performance/clearance times regularly considered by your Permanent Secretary or Departmental Board?

The Departmental Board considers, on a quarterly basis, the performance of officials in providing draft responses within the 3 day deadline as well as the performance regarding AQs answered on time.

(e) and (f) How do you calculate the cost of answering a question and what is the average cost of answering a question.

The preparation of responses to Assembly Questions is an intrinsic part of the responsibilities of civil servants and has therefore not traditionally been separated out from other duties for a separate estimate of cost. Such costs, which would reflect only the departmental phase of processing the questions, would also vary in line with, for example, the nature of the question, the number of individual members of staff involved in preparing the reply and the involvement of other Departments in providing information

We have not, to date, therefore calculated the cost of answering individual questions and can not therefore provide any detail regarding average cost. We are intending to examine, this month, the feasibility of carrying out an exercise which would aim to provide a very approximate cost of a sample number of questions on the basis of average hourly salary for each grade involved in processing the AQ. It is intended that any such exercise would span the wide range of formats and issues covered by questions, including those which require co-ordination. When this information is collated we would then consider its reliability, what use could be made of it and what value it adds to the process.

(g) How may questions have been refused on the basis of cost to answer?

We have never refused to answer a question on the basis of cost of answer. The Department will indicate where information is not available in the form in which it is requested but will aim to provide whatever relevant information is available.

(h) What is the Department’s approach to using references to websites within responses and placing documents in the Assembly Library?

We will include references to websites or documents which have been already been placed in the Library within responses to questions. We also consider placing information in the Library which we feel would be of interest to other MLAs or where it is of a voluminous nature.

(i) Are there any changes to the admissibility of questions that the department would like to see introduced?

While we work closely with the Business Office to identify the correct lead department prior to the allocation of questions this process could still be improved as there are occasions when tabled questions need to be transferred. This requires discussions with other departments which reduces the time available for preparing answers within the 10 day deadline.

(j) Any additional comments eg suggested improvements?

We believe it would also be useful if the role of the Business Office could be enhanced to identify duplicate or repeat questions and to ensure that the terms of the questions are unambiguous in setting out the precise nature of the information required. It would also be beneficial if the criteria for admissibility for Priority Written Questions could be introduced to ensure that their usage more closely aligns with the priority or urgency of the matter.

Yours sincerely

Signed Gail McKibbin

Gail McKibbin
Departmental Assembly Liaison Officer

DSD Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

Departmental Assembly Liaison Officer
Mr John Ball

4th Floor, Lighthouse Building
1 Cromac Place
Gasworks Business Park
Ormeau Road
BELFAST, BT7 2JB
Telephone: (028) 9082 9041
Fax: (028) 9082 9548
Email: john.ball@dsdni.gov.uk

22 January 2009

Ms Stella McArdle
Committee Clerk
Committee on Procedures
Room 430, Parliament Buildings
Stormont
BELFAST
BT4 3XX

Dear Ms McArdle

Departmental Processes for Answering Written Questions

Many thanks for your request for information on this department’s processes for answering written questions as part of the Committee on Procedures inquiry into Assembly Oral and Written Questions. In the attachment to this letter I have responded to each of your questions in the order they were asked and hope this proves helpful. If you need any further information please feel free to contact me.

JOHN BALL

DSD Processes for answering Written Questions

(A) What systems are in place to ensure that questions are answered on time?

The Assembly Questions process is coordinated centrally by the Department’s Assembly Unit. This unit logs questions on receipt on a database and allocates them to the appropriate business area for the preparation of advice to the Minister.

Each question is allocated a deadline for reply. For ordinary written questions the timescale would usually allow six or seven days for business areas to research the issue raised and provide advice and up to three days to allow for the internal clearance and approval process. For Priority Written Questions this timescale is compressed as necessary to meet the date for answer.

The Assembly Unit is also responsible for monitoring performance against the timescales set and, where necessary, chasing questions which breach the allocated deadline for reply and is also responsible for submitting the final reply to the Assembly. One of this unit’s key functions is to gather information on the Department’s performance in relation to meeting deadlines and these data are made available to senior management.

(B) What are the most common reasons for a response not being issued on time?

The most common factors for delay in the process, particularly in relation to Priority Written Questions, are the frequent need to source information from outside bodies to answer all or part of questions; delays caused by the complexity of the information required to answer questions and to a lesser extent delays in the clearance process.

Delays in a response issuing on time are commonly the result of a combination of two or more of these factors, for example where a delay in receiving information from an outside body eats into the time available for departmental officials to contribute on the issue and finalise advice which in turn eats into the time available for the Minister to consider the advice and determine the appropriate answer. This combination of factors is particularly common in Priority Written Questions.

(C) Are reports on performance/clearance times regularly considered by your Permanent Secretary or departmental Board?

Yes. The data is also available to business areas across the Departments to enable them to refine their processes and performance. Information on performance across departments is also made available centrally via regular reports to the Permanent Secretaries’ Group

(D) How does the department measure the quality of responses?

Staff in business areas have received guidance on how to respond to Assembly Questions and advice on the standards required of answers to members questions. Advice to the Minister is cleared and quality assured by senior managers in business areas before it is passed to the Minister. The Minister is the final arbiter on the quality of the answer provided.

(E) How do you calculate the cost of answering a question?

The Department does not routinely calculate the cost of answering individual questions. Providing advice on Assembly Questions is an intrinsic element of the role of officials and, as such, were we to estimate the cost of staff time it would be on the basis of the amount of time each official spent on a particular question multiplied by the cost of the officials’ time (estimated using a ready-reckoner of civil service staff costs).

(F) What is the average cost of answering a question?

Given our response at E above, we have not calculated an average cost.

(G) How many questions have been refused on the basis of cost to answer?

The Department’s default position is to provide answers to all questions. Our records show that there has been only one instance of a question being unanswered on grounds of cost. In that case the question sought a very specific piece of statistical information which the Department did not hold in the form requested and which would have required work by staff over a number of months in order to gather, analyse and validate the information requested. On that basis it was clear from the advice provided by the Department’s statisticians that the cost would be very significantly in excess of the disproportionate cost figure and the Minister was unable to provide an answer.

(H) What is the department’s approach to using references to websites within responses and placing documents in the Assembly Library?

The Assembly Standing Orders require that Ministers “shall cause an answer to be printed in the Official Report of Debates" but where references to websites or making documents available in the Assembly Library add to the clarity and fulsomeness of an answer or provide further relevant information the Minister will take such actions.

Further Letter from OFMDFM

OFMdFM Logo

Executive Services Directorate
Alan Rogers
Room SD.13
Stormont Castle
BELFAST
BT4 3TT
Telephone: 0289037 8241
Fax: 028 9037 8035 Email: alan.rogers@ofmdfmni.gov.uk

Jim Beatty
Committee on Procedures
Northern Ireland Assembly
Parliament Buildings
Stormont
Belfast
BT4 3XX
4 February 2009

Dear Jim

Assembly Questions – Inquiry by Committee On Procedures

1. I refer to your e-mails of 19 and 20 January seeking clarification on a number of issues raised during the Junior Ministers’ meeting with the Committee on Procedures on Tuesday 6 January.

Questions tabled to OFMDFM between September and December 2008

2. Junior Ministers advised the Committee of the number and types of Assembly Questions tabled to OFMDFM during the period September to December 2008. This was intended to illustrate for Committee Members the limited range of topics covered in the questions tabled for answer by OFMDFM and the relatively low number of questions, as a proportion of the twenty tabled, which were actually answered during Question Time. This information was collated by officials as part of the briefing material compiled for the Junior Ministers’ engagement with Committee and did not constitute a formal survey.

Costs of replying to AQs

3. The preparation of responses to Assembly Questions is an intrinsic part of the responsibilities of civil servants and has therefore not traditionally been separated out from other duties for a separate estimate of cost. Such costs, which would reflect only the departmental phase of processing the questions, would also vary in line with, for example, the nature of the question, the number of individual members of staff involved in preparing the reply and the involvement of other Departments in providing information. Only in fully justifiable circumstances would departments decline to answer a question on the grounds of excessive cost and all departments will normally endeavour to provide whatever relevant information is available.

4. You also asked about costs used within OFMDFM. As stated in the DALO’s response to the Clerk to the Committee on OFMDFM processes for answering written questions, OFMDFM has not yet, to date, calculated the cost of answering individual questions. However, OFMDFM officials are examining, at present, the feasibility of carrying out an exercise which would aim to provide a very approximate cost of a sample number of questions. As there is no template available for estimating costs this exercise is likely to be on the basis of average salary for each grade involved in processing each AQ.

Responsibilities of Junior Ministers

5. As stated previously in Hansard and confirmed by the Junior Ministers during their meeting with the Committee on Procedures, Junior Ministers have specific responsibility for liaising with the Assembly on the business of the Executive in the Assembly, co-ordination of policy for young people, children’s issues and older people’s issues. As they further indicated to the Committee, they also cover other issues, eg Equality issues, sustainable development and victims’ issues, on behalf of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but they do not have specific responsibility for these matters.

Oral Questions to be answered by Junior Ministers

6. While this is ultimately a matter for the First Minister and deputy First Minister to decide, of the 33 questions which the First Minister and deputy First Minister answered during Question Time in the Assembly in the session from September to December 2008, 4 of those questions could potentially have been allocated to Junior Ministers to answer in light of their specific responsibilities set out above. This number would be considerably greater if the areas they deal with on behalf of the First Minister and deputy First Minister were included.

Yours sincerely


[Signed]
Alan Rogers

DHSSPS Departmental Processes for
Answering Written Questions

Stella McArdle
Committee Clerk
Committee on Procedures
Room 430
Parliament Buildings
Belfast
BT4 3XX

17 February 2009

Processes for answering Written Questions

Thank you for your note of 8 January, enclosing one of 27 November (which, unfortunately, I did not receive at that time) asking about this Department’s processes for answering written Assembly Questions.

I attach responses to your questions below. I would, of course, be happy to respond to any further queries you may have.

JP Bill
Departmental Assembly Liaison Officer

(a) What systems are in place to ensure that questions are answered on time (Please include a time-line of the process)?

The general timeframe for clearance is as follows:

There are several additional factors which help to determine the timely return of questions. These include: Ensuring that most questions are allocated correctly; Vigilance when pursuing late answers; Guidance and assistance provided to officials re preparation of answers; and Private Office appraisal of draft answers and advice to officials re any that fall short of necessary standards. For the most part these are as a result of experienced Private Office staff having established beneficial working relationships with departmental officials.

(b) What are the most common reasons for a response not being issued on time?

The information requested cannot be supplied within the timeframe allowed. This is particularly likely to be the case when information must be collected from Health & Social Care Boards or Trusts.

Occasionally an answer will be late because Minister is unavailable to clear it within the deadline – for example, where the date for answer falls within recess.

(c) Are reports in performance / clearance times regularly considered by your Permanent Secretary or Departmental Board?

Statistics on department performance are collected by Business Office on a monthly basis and copied to the Office of the Permanent Secretary for review. Performance statistics are regularly compiled for circulation to officials within the department.

(d) How does the department measure the quality of the responses?

Answers are rigorously checked to ensure quality control and consistency. DHSSPS have received few if any complaints from MLAs re answers to AQs. To maintain this standard we liaise regularly with Business Office in order to ascertain the exact meaning of questions (where there is ambiguity) and we try to advise ahead of time whether information is available or not / or can be found in the public domain.

(e) How do you calculate the cost of answering a question?

Costs have not been routinely collected – however a recent small sample survey used the Staff Ready Reckoner to calculate an average cost of the time spent by officials, Private Office staff, Permanent Secretary, Special Adviser etc in answering questions. A wider assessment is scheduled for the near future.

(f) What is the average cost of answering a question?

Based on the small sample survey outlined above, the approximate average cost of answering an AQW has been calculated at £142 per question.

(g) How many questions have been refused on the basis of cost to answer?

This information is not routinely collected; however a search of the Knowledge Network (the system used to issue and record AQs) indicates that 135 questions were answered in this way. This represents 5% of the 2695 questions that had been tabled from May 2007 until the 9 January 2009.

(h) What is the department’s approach to using references to websites within responses and placing documents in the Assembly Library?

When the information requested by a member is considerable, officials are encouraged to place information in the Assembly Library and to refer to this in their answer (in line with advice from Business Office).

If the answer to a question can be found on the internet / Departmental website, officials are encouraged to answer the question by referring to the correct web page. Business Office is also encouraged to avoid unnecessary AQs by referring the member when the question is being tabled.

(i) Are there any changes to the admissibility of questions that the Department would like to see introduced?

(i) In the period from May 2007 until the end of December 2008, DHSSPS had answered 525 priority written questions. We would like to see stricter control of this facility – with responsibility on Members to justify the requirement for a shorter deadline and priority status.

(ii) It would also be useful if Business Office could advise members when they have asked a question that has been asked by another member. In dozens of cases DHSSPS have referred members to previous questions which have already been asked and answered on the same subject. Business Office have advised that they cannot refer a member to a question before it has been published in Hansard – this seems impractical when, by the time the latter question is due for answer, the first question will have been answered and will be in Hansard.

In the majority of these cases the latter question will refer to the answer given to the first.

(iii) As already noted in part (h), we would like Business Office to take more responsibility for referring Members to information already available in the public domain when tabling questions.

(iv) On several occasions Business Office has sought advice from this Department on the availability of information requested by a member. Often, after consultation with officials, we have advised Business Office that it will not be possible to answer a particular question – either because the information just isn’t out there, or because it is not held centrally and would incur disproportionate cost to collate it. Frequently in these cases we have been told that the member wishes to ask the question anyway – despite knowing that no answer can be provided. This seems a complete waste of time and some investigation into the appropriateness of this practice would be appreciated.

(j) Any additional comments, e.g., suggested improvements?

The practice of allowing Members to table AQs for answer during periods of Recess puts an unreasonable amount of pressure on Departments to provide answers during a period when the Assembly is not sitting and Ministers are unlikely to be available to clear papers.

Usually there is a higher volume of questions than normal due to the impending recess – resulting in dozens of questions which are due for answer a week or two after the recess period has begun. With the Assembly in recess it is accepted that Ministers will not be available during this time and yet they are expected to be clearing papers up to two weeks after recess has begun. Further to this – fewer members are around to collect answers and they are not published in Hansard until some time later.

A more realistic system would be to adopt the method used by Parliament in London and ask for any questions tabled for answer within Recess to be returned by the first day after recess and for any that meet this deadline to be considered ‘on time’.

Appendix 4

Research Papers

Research and Library Services

NIA Logo

Research Paper 10 September 2008

Comparative Information
on the Procedures of
Assembly Questions

Claire Cassidy

Research and Library Service

This paper is prepared for Members of the Committee on Procedures of the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly to facilitate their understanding of the procedures and practices of Assembly Questions both in the NI Assembly and other legislatures.

Library Research Papers are compiled for the benefit of Members of The Assembly and their personal staff. Authors are available to discuss the contents of these papers with Members and their staff but cannot advise members of the general public.

Summary of key points

This paper details the current procedures underpinning Questions in the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly and other Legislatures. By reviewing the procedures and practices in other Legislatures, a number of issues have been identified which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider further.

The following paragraphs provide a summary of those key issues:

The first issue relates to the five day notice period Members of the NI Assembly have to table an oral question. This notice period starts 14 working days before the Question Time in which the question is to be asked and ends 9 working days before the question is to be asked. The Committee on Procedures may wish to consider further the option of moving the five day notice period closer to the chosen Question Time to help improve topicality of Question Time.

Another issue which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider further is the method by which questions are selected. Under the current procedures, there will be a number of questions tabled which will not reach the Order Paper at all. The Committee on Procedures may wish to consider an alternative method for selecting questions for oral answer, for example choosing the name of Members who wish to pose a question.

This leads on to another issue which the Committee may want to consider further, that is the total number of questions published for answer. On several occasions during Question Time in Session 2007-08, over half of the questions on the Order Paper were not reached. Therefore the Committee may wish to consider reducing the number of questions chosen as this may improve the efficiency of Question Time and reduce the disappointment of Members when questions are not reached.

A final issue which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider further is the allocation of specific time limits on Ministerial responses and supplementary questions asked during Oral Question Time. Placing reasonable time limits on questions and responses may help to alleviate the issue of the majority of questions not being reached and may also challenge Ministers more in their responses.

Contents

Introduction

Section 1 – Northern Ireland Assembly

Questions for Oral Answer

Questions for Written Answer

Section 2 – Dail Eireann

2.1 Questions for Oral Answer

2.2 Questions for Written Answer

Section 3 – House of Commons, Westminster

3.1 Questions for Oral Answer

3.2 Questions for Written Answer

Section 4 – Scottish Parliament

4.1 Questions for Oral Answer

4.1.2 General and Themed question Time

4.1.3 First Minister Question Time

4.2 Questions for Witten Answer

Section 5 – The Parliament of Canada, Ottawa

5.1 Questions for Oral Answer

5.2 Questions for Written Answer

Section 6 – The Legislative Assembly of Ontario

6.1 Questions for Oral Answer

6.2 Questions for Written Answer

Section 7 – The Norwegian Parliament, the Storting

7.1 Questions for Oral Answer

7.2 Questions for Written Answer

Section 8 – Potential Issues For Consideration

Section 9 – Table of Comparative Information

Introduction

This briefing is prepared for Members of the Committee on Procedures to facilitate their understanding of the procedures and practices of Assembly Questions. The Committee is currently reviewing Assembly Questions in the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly and has agreed upon the Terms of Reference for it’s Inquiry. The aspects of Assembly Questions which the Committee will review are Oral Questions, Written Questions and Priority Written Questions. With regards to Oral Questions the Committee has agreed to examine the following:

The Committee on Procedures has also agreed to review the following aspects of Written Questions:

Section 1 of this briefing paper provides a summary of current procedures and practices of Assembly Questions within the NI Assembly. For comparative purposes Sections 2 to 7 concern practices and procedures of Assembly Questions in other Legislatures. Included in this comparative element are the procedures of another devolved administration, Dáil Éireann, the House of Commons at Westminster, the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and the Norwegian Parliament, the Storting. Section 8 identifies a number of potential issues which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider. Finally Section 9 of this paper provides a table containing comparative information on procedures of Assembly Questions in the NI Assembly and other legislatures.

Assembly Questions are an aspect of Assembly procedure which can be used by Members to seek information or press for action from the Government. Assembly Questions oblige Ministers to defend and explain the work, policy decisions and actions of their Departments. Within the NI Assembly at present, Members have the option to pose an oral question to the Government at the appropriate time during Chamber proceedings. Members may also request a written response to questions posed to relevant Ministers. The practices and procedures surrounding these two types of Assembly Question in the NI Assembly will be outlined in further detail.

Section 1 Northern Ireland Assembly

Subject to the provisions outlined in Standing Orders, Members of the NI Assembly may ask questions of a Member of the Executive Committee, or a Member representing the Assembly Commission. [1] Questions can either be tabled for oral or written answer and it is up to the Member to choose however, the procedures and practices for each type of question differ. This section outlines the procedures and practices in the NI Assembly for the following:

1.1 Questions for Oral Answer, and

1.2 Questions for Written Answer

1.1 Questions for Oral Answer

Questions for oral answer are taken in the NI Assembly from 2.30pm – 4.00pm on Mondays on which there is a sitting and Ministers from three Departments participate in Question Time each week. While other Ministers appear every fourth week, the First Minister and deputy First Minister answer questions every two weeks. Thirty minutes are allocated to each of the three Departments each week.[2]

If a Member of the NI Assembly wishes to ask an oral question during Question Time, it must be tabled in writing. A maximum of one question per Member per Department is permitted. Members have a period of five working days to table questions to relevant Departments. This notice period ends at 1pm on the penultimate Tuesday before it is due to be answered by the Minister in the Chamber. For example if a Member wishes to ask a question on Monday 22 September 2008, the five day notice period will start on the 2 September and end five working days later on the 9 September.[3]

The questions which are published on the Order Paper are randomly selected and shuffled by using computer software. A maximum of 20 questions for each Department are selected from all admissible questions tabled and those questions not selected will fall. Questions selected for answer will be published eight working days before that on which the answer is desired. In practice therefore, questions will be published on second Wednesday before the plenary session of the week in which the question is to be asked.

The sequence in which initial questions are taken during Question Time is determined by a ballot carried out on behalf of the Speaker. Once a Member has asked the initial question (by calling out the question number) and the Minister has responded, the Member may follow up with a supplementary question. The Speaker may also, at his discretion, take additional supplementary questions from other Members. Standing Orders of the NI Assembly do not specify time limits for oral questions and supplementary questions. When the Speaker considers that the matter raised in a question has been sufficiently explored, he will call the next question. If a question is published but is not reached during Question Time, the Member will receive a written answer.[4]

1.2 Questions for Written Answer

As mentioned previously, Members may choose to have a written response to their questions. Members can table questions for written answer Monday to Friday until 4pm with a maximum of five questions per Member per day permitted. The question will normally be due for answer by the relevant Minister, 10 clear working days after it is published. If it is a Priority Question, the Member can request that it be answered within two to five clear working days.[5]

Section 2 Dáil Éireann - The Houses of the Oireachtas

Members of the Irish Parliament (Deputies) can ask questions of Members of the Irish Government on matters relating to public affairs connected with their Departments. These questions can either be answered orally during a period of time during plenary called Question Time, or the Deputy can receive a written response. This section outlines the procedures and practices in the Dáil Éireann for the following:

2.1 Questions for Oral Answer, and

2.2 Questions for Written Answer

2.1 Questions for Oral Answer

Dáil Éireann allocates a specific time period for Deputies to ask questions of the Taoiseach and Ministers of the Government. Questions for oral answer to the Taoiseach are usually taken from 2.30pm to 3.15pm on Tuesdays and during Leader’s Questions on Wednesdays.[6] Questions for oral answer to other Members of the Government are usually taken from 3.15pm to 4.15pm on Tuesdays, 2.30pm to 3.45pm on Wednesdays and from 3.30pm to 4.45pm on Thursdays.[7]

Members of Dáil Éireann can table a question for oral answer four days before the question is to be asked. For example, if a Member wished to ask the Minister for Agriculture a question on a Tuesday, the Member would have to table the question before 11 am on the Wednesday before the Question Time. An exception to this deadline would be that for Priority Questions which have a deadline of three days. Priority Questions are oral questions normally tabled by the spokesperson of the opposition in that area, in the example above this would be Agriculture. A Member may only table two oral questions in his/her name to any one Minister, however there is no restriction on the number of oral questions to the Taoiseach. All questions which have been tabled on time will be placed on the Order Paper, the sequence of which will be determined by a lottery. This lottery is carried out on the fourth day before the questions are to be asked, the Order Paper is then published the night before each sitting day.[8]

Standing Orders of the Dáil Éireann stipulate the amount of time permitted for each question should be no longer than six minutes. In practice this six minute allocation starts when the Minister gives his reply, which has a time limit of two minutes. Two supplementary questions are permitted after the initial question, which are limited to one minute each. The Minister is permitted one minute to reply to each supplementary question, therefore the total amount of time allowed for supplementary questions and the replies is four minutes. This time allocation may be changed, however this is entirely down to the discretion of the Ceann Comhairle (the Speaker).[9]

2.2 Questions for Written Answer

Members of the Dáil Éireann also have the option to table a question to a Minister for a written response. Written Questions require three days notice and Members are not restricted in the number of questions which can be asked. Replies to written questions must be received on the same day as the question appears on the Order Paper.[10]

Section 3 The House of Commons, Westminster

Members of the House of Commons also have the opportunity to hold the Government to account, either in the form of oral questions to Ministers in the Chamber or in the form of written questions. Standing Orders outline in broad terms the procedures governing oral and written questions in the House of Commons. However in more recent years changes have occurred as to how these procedures are carried out in practice. This section outlines the procedures and practices in the House of Commons for the following:

3.1 Questions for Oral Answer, and

3.2 Questions for written answer

3.1 Questions for Oral answer

Oral questions are asked and answered on the floor of the House of Commons during a period of Chamber proceedings called Question Time. Standing Orders outline how questions will be taken during Question Time on Mondays from 2.30pm – 3.30pm, on Tuesdays from 2.30pm – 3.30pm, on Wednesdays from 11.30am – 12.30pm and on Fridays from 10.30am to 11.30am. The Prime Minister answers questions every Wednesday from 12 noon until 12.30pm. The Departments, Ministers and other members who answer such questions are organised on a rota by the Government, usually following consultation with the Whips of other parties.[11]

On the 25 October 2007 the House of Commons agreed to a new procedure recommended by the Select Committee on Modernisation, to provide time for Members to ask “topical" oral questions in the last 10 – 15 minutes of some oral Question Times from the beginning of the 2007-08 Session. The intention behind this new procedure was to create the opportunity for “topical and spontaneous questions" on issues of the day selected by Members. The amount of time allocated to each Department for Topical Question Time would depend on the overall amount of time that Department had for Oral Question Time. For example, the Departments of Business, Transport and Justice all have Oral Question Times of more than 40 minutes thus, Oral Question Time for these Departments and others would be made up of 45 Minutes on substantive orals and15 minutes on topical oral questions.

A Member may lodge a question for both Oral Question Time and Topical Question Time. When there is another Question Time held on the same day Members will be able to table a question for that Question Time also. Before the introduction of the new procedure of Topical Questions, if a Member wanted to ask a question during Question Time they had to follow certain procedures to do so. These procedures have not changed and Members can still table questions to be asked during Question Time. To accommodate the new Topical Question Time, a number of new procedures have been introduced for Members wishing to ask a question during this time. Before these new procedures are discussed however, an outline of the procedures for normal Question Time in the House of Commons is provided below.

Oral Question Time

Members wishing to ask a question during Oral Question Time are permitted to table one question for this period. All such questions must be tabled at least three days in advance of the Question Time (except those questions for the Prime Minister and Secretaries of States which are dealt with differently). All questions to a particular Department are then subject to a random computer ballot or shuffle to decide which questions will be published and in which order they will be taken. The successful questions are published the next day in the order in which they will be called.

Question Time will begin on the given day by the Speaker calling on the Member whose name appears first on the Order Paper and the Minister then answers the question. From this point on further exchanges are unscripted however the Member who asked the initial question is normally the first to be called to ask a supplementary question. The order in which supplementary questions are taken is entirely down to the discretion of the Speaker however he/she will usually alternate between the Government and the Opposition sides of the House. When the Speaker decides that enough supplementaries have been asked, he will call the Member who will be asking question number two. This process will be repeated until the end of the Question Time.[12]

Topical Question Time

Members wishing to ask a question during Topical Question Time may enter their names into a ballot which takes place at the same time as the ballot for ordinary Question Time. Those Members chosen to ask a Topical Question will be notified of this and will subsequently be called by the Speaker to ask their question in the Chamber during Topical Question Time.[13]

Within the House of Commons, there is also a special procedure for questioning Ministers on matters of urgency. These special questions are called Urgent Questions. A Member is not required to give advance notice of this kind of question, instead notice is given to the Minister concerned. In order to ask an Urgent Question, a Member must apply to the Speaker and the Department concerned is then informed. It is up to the Speaker to decide whether to allow an Urgent Question, where these questions are allowed they are taken immediately after Question Time. These Questions however must be of urgent public importance.

3.2 Questions for Written Answer

Questions for written answer are used by Members of Parliament to try and extract more detailed information from the Government than would be available from an oral question. Members may table a question for written answer but they do not, if they so wish, have to specify a date in which the question has to be answered. These types of questions are called ‘Ordinary’ Written Questions and the convention is that the Member can expect such a question to be answered within seven days of the question being tabled. Members may also specify if they wish, a date in which the question must be answered, these are referred to as Named Day Questions. Such questions must be published at least two days before the date named for answer.[14]

Section 4 The Scottish Parliament

Parliamentary questions in the Scottish Parliament provide a means for Members to obtain factual and statistical information from the Scottish Executive or the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB). There are two types of question used in the Scottish Parliament written and oral, written questions being the most common type of question. Oral questions are answered on one day each week and can be lodged for answer either at Question Time or at First Minister’s Question Time. Emergency oral questions provide an opportunity for Members to lodge an oral question to the Scottish Executive on a matter of such importance and urgency that it merits being answered on the day it is lodged. All questions, whether addressed to the Executive or the SPCB, are lodged in the same way. The procedures governing questions for oral answer are outlined below.[15]

4.1 Questions for Oral Answer

Subject to the provisions outlined in the Standing Orders, Question Time is held on a Thursday in the Chamber from 11.40am to 2.55pm. Question Time in the Scottish Parliament is divided into General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time and Themed Question Time. General Question Time takes place between 11.40am and 12 noon, First Minister’s Question Time takes place between 12 noon and 12.30pm and Themed Question Time takes place between 2.15pm and 2.55pm. All Ministers of the Scottish Executive are present for General Question Time, the First Minister is present for First Minster Question Time every week and the relevant Ministers are present for Themed Question Time.[16]

4.1.2 General and Themed Question Time

Members wishing to lodge a question for oral answer at General or Themed Question Time submit their names for random selection at any time from when General and Themed Question Time have ended (normally 2.55 pm) in the third week before the week in which the question is to be asked, until 12 noon on the Wednesday of the second week before the week in which the question is to be asked. After the names of those Members wishing to ask an oral question have been lodged, a random selection of names is carried out. This is done in the order that each Question Time takes place, beginning with General Question Time. Ten names are selected for each Question Time and a name, once selected, is excluded from any subsequent selections on that day. As soon as possible, three lists of names are prepared in the order determined by the random selection.[17]

In the Scottish Parliament Themed Question Time is divided into two themes or subject areas with 20 minutes allocated to each theme or subject area. These subject areas reflect the Scottish Executive Departments therefore the relevant Minister for that Department will be present during that particular Themed Question Time. Members may submit their names for selection in each subject area of Themed Question Time and for one question during General Question Time. As described above, in any given week the maximum number of times that a Member may be selected to ask a general or themed question is one.[18]

Once a Member of the Scottish Parliament has been notified of his/her name being selected, he/she may lodge a question but only for the Question Time for which they have been chosen. Oral questions may normally be lodged at any time from the time of the random selection of names to 12 noon on the Wednesday of the week before the question is to be asked. All questions are checked against the admissibility criteria, ensuring that they relate to the subject area for which the Member’s name has been selected. As soon as possible after the 12 noon deadline, a list is prepared of questions in the order determined by the random selection of names. The list is published on the Thursday one week before the relevant Question Time.[19]

In the Chamber when asking the question, the Member must repeat the full text of the question as printed in the Business Bulletin. The Member who asks the question may also ask one supplementary question. Additionally, at the discretion of the Presiding Officer, any Member, including the Member who asked the question may ask further supplementary questions. Oral questions not answered in the Chamber because of lack of time, or not asked because the Member is unable to be in the Chamber at the time, are treated as written questions.[20]

4.1.3 First Minister’s Question Time

The procedures and practices in place for Members of the Scottish Parliament to pose questions to the First Minister differ slightly to those of General and Themed Question Time. For example, Members do not lodge their names for random selection but each Member is permitted to lodge one question for First Minister Question Time. Oral questions for this Question Time may normally be lodged at any time from the end of the preceding First Minister’s Question Time until 2.00 pm on the third day before the First Minister’s Question Time for which the question is being submitted (normally the Monday of the same week). All admissible oral questions are then passed to the Presiding Officer’s Office. At this point in the proceedings the Presiding Officer will normally select six questions, the first two or three questions selected are normally from the leaders or representatives of non-Executive groups. Once the remaining questions are selected, the full list will be published the next day. At First Minister’s Question Time any Member may, at the discretion of the Presiding Officer ask a supplementary question, however these must be on the same subject matter as the original question.[21]

The Scottish Parliament has a provision to enable Members to ask emergency questions they feel are of an urgent nature. A Member lodging a question of this nature may, if it is lodged by 10.00 am on a day on which there is a meeting of the Parliament, request that it be answered that day. Once an emergency question has been lodged it is passed to the Presiding Officer, who decides whether the question is sufficiently urgent to allow it to be put as an emergency question and answered at that day’s meeting of the Parliament. If the Presiding Officer selects the question, the Member who lodged the question and the Executive will be notified immediately and all Members will be informed that an emergency question is to be taken.[22]

4.2 Questions for Written Answer

Members of the Scottish Parliament may also submit questions for written response. There is no limit to the number of questions for written answer that may be lodged. The Scottish Executive should normally give answers to written questions within 10 counting days[23] of the question being lodged.[24]

Section 5 The Parliament of Canada, Ottawa

Members of the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament may pose questions to the Government seeking certain information. Questions may be asked orally without notice or may be submitted in writing after due notice. It is worthy of note, for oral responses to questions the House of Commons has a section in its Daily Program called Question Time. Relatively little about Question Time is codified in rules, rather it has been practices, precedents and statements in the House that have helped to define how it is conducted.

5.1 Questions for Oral Answer

Question Time in the House of Commons occurs between 2.15pm and 3pm Monday to Thursday and from 11.15am to 12 noon on Fridays.[25] During question Time, only questions on matters of urgency may be addressed orally to Ministers of the Crown or to a member of the Board of Internal Economy. If in the opinion of the Speaker a question is not urgent, he/she may direct that the question be placed on the Order Paper. Questions, although customarily addressed to specific Ministers, are directed to the Ministry as a whole. There is no rota system in operation therefore it is up to the Government to designate which Minister responds to which question. Only one Minister may respond to each question and it need not be the one to whom the question is addressed. Oral questions asked during Oral Question Time are not tabled in advance.[26]

A Member cannot insist on an answer, nor may a Member insist that a specific Minister respond to his or her question. The Speaker does not have any authority to compel a particular Minister to respond to a question and a Minister’s refusal to answer a question cannot be challenged. A Member who is not satisfied with the response to a question asked during Question Time on any day, may give notice that he/she intends to raise the subject of the question on the adjournment of the House. Any Member wishing to do so must notify the Speaker in writing no later than one hour after the given Question Time.

Participation in Question Time is managed to a large extent by the various political parties and their Whips. There is no maximum number of questions per Member however, generally most Members will ask one question and one supplementary question and this is left to the discretion of the party. Each party decides daily which Members will participate and provides the Speaker with a list of names and the suggested order of recognition. Although the Speaker is not bound to follow these lists they generally do so.

A rotation system is negotiated among parties, outlining the order in which the parties will be recognised and how many questions they will each ask. The rotation is calculated based on the proportion of seats held by each opposition party. While the Speaker is not bound to follow this rotation, generally he/she accepts to do so. At the beginning of Question Period, the Speaker recognises the Leader of the Official Opposition, who will ask a question. This lead question is then usually followed by two supplementary questions. Each of the lead questioners of the other officially recognised opposition parties are permitted an initial question and one supplementary question after this. All questions and responses in the Chamber should be no longer than 35 seconds each.[27]

5.2 Questions for Written Answer

Members of the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament can also submit a question for written response, Standing Orders outline the procedures relating to these. A Member wishing to submit a written question must give 48 hours notice before it is placed on the Order Paper, a number is then assigned to the question upon submission. Before the question reaches the Order Paper it is examined by the Clerk of the House to ensure that it meets certain requirements before publication.[28]

Standing Orders also include a provision allowing a Member submitting a written question to indicate whether a written or oral response is desired. If an oral answer is sought, the question is asterisked; a question without an asterisk indicates the Member wants a written response. The Member may also request a response to the question within 45 days of its filing. On the day for which notice is given the question is placed on the Order Paper. Each Member is allowed a maximum of four such questions standing in his or her name on the Order Paper at any one time. All four can request a response in 45 days and at most, three can be asterisked for an oral answer.[29]

Section 6 The Legislative Assembly of Ontario

Members of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario have the opportunity to question the Government in House during Question Time. They also have the opportunity to receive a written response to a question addressed to the Government. Standing Orders and common practice both govern the procedures for oral and written questions in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. The procedures for oral questions are outlined below.

6.1 Questions for Oral Answer

Oral answers to Members of the Government are given on Monday to Thursday from 10.45am to 11.45am. Members wishing to ask the Government a question do not have to give notice beforehand, rather there is a fixed rotation the Speaker observes for selecting questioners. This fixed rotation is as follows:

The Order for questions 5, 6 and 7 is then repeated in rotation until the 60 minute time allotment has expired. Each initial question, supplementary question and Ministerial response can last no longer than 60 seconds. This rotation system is not a written procedure, rather it is based on a recommendation to the Speaker by the House.[30]

6.2 Questions for Written Answer

Members of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario may also table questions to members of the Government for written reply. Standing Orders stipulate Members may place up to a maximum of 10 questions on the Order Paper.[31] The Government must then respond in writing to these questions within 24 sitting days. As the Member’s questions are answered he/she may replenish these with new questions, up to the maximum number of 10 questions on the Order Paper at one time.[32]

Section 7 The Storting, Norwegian Parliament

Members of the Norwegian Parliament have the opportunity to pose questions to Members of the Government the responses to which can either be oral or in writing. The Norwegian Parliament or the Storting, has a period of time in plenary sessions during which Members can receive oral responses from Members of the Government. There are two periods of Question Time in the Storting, Oral Question Time which takes place every Wednesday from 10am to 11am and ordinary Question Time which takes place every other Wednesday after Oral Question Time. The procedures and practices of both Question Times are described further below.[33]

7.1 Questions for Oral Answer

A Member wishing to ask a question during Oral Question Time should notify the President of the Storting in advance however these questions are not lodged in writing and there is no set deadline for notification. Questions for ordinary Question Time must be lodged in writing with the President of the Storting by 10am on the Friday before the chosen Question Time. There are no written rules governing the sequence in which questions should be asked during Question Time. This is left to the discretion of The President of the Storting. However, the custom is that the leader of the largest opposition party asks the first question followed by the leader of the second largest opposition party and so on. The main question and the Ministerial response are both limited to two minutes, after which speaking time is then limited to one minute. The questioner is then allowed one further supplementary question after the initial question. Proceedings will continue in this order until the hour for Oral Question Time has expired.[34]

There is no set time limit for ordinary Question Time, this depends on the number of questions lodged, which varies. Standing Orders of the Storting do not stipulate the maximum number of questions which can be lodged for ordinary Question Time, however normal practice is between 20 and 40 questions. The order in which Members ask their questions is left up to the discretion of the President. During ordinary Question Time the Minister has three minutes to reply to a Member’s question. After the initial question and response the questioner and the Minister are then each permitted to speak two more times, limited to one minute. Although ordinary Question Time does not have a time limit, it must end before 3pm as this is the time party groups start their weekly meetings.[35]

7.2 Questions for Written Answer

Members of the Storting also have the option of submitting a question to a Member of the Government for written answer. Any Member of the Storting can submit a total of two questions per week for written answer. The Member of Government in which the question is addressed should submit a written reply to the President of the Storting six working days after the question was sent.[36]

Section 8 Potential Issues for Consideration

The first issue which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider further relates to the notice period for tabling oral questions. At present, the period of notice Members of the NI Assembly have to table an oral question is five working days. This notice period starts 14 working days before the Question Time in which the question is to be asked and ends 9 working days before the chosen Question Time. In practice therefore Members wishing to pose a question to a Minister must know exactly what they want to ask at least 9 working days before they have the opportunity to ask their question. This process calls into question just how spontaneous and topical questions posed to Ministers really can be.

In 2002 the House of Commons reduced the notice period for oral questions from two weeks to three days in a bid to improve topicality of oral questions. Under this notice period Members no longer have to decide what issues they want to raise ten sitting days in advance of a given Oral Question Time. There were however still occasions when issues of topical interest were not on the list of oral questions, where a relevant question was either not tabled or was unsuccessful in the ballot. To improve this situation further, during the 2007-08 Session part of the Oral Question Time was used for open questions to again improve topicality. The Committee on Procedures in the NI Assembly could therefore review the possibility of moving the five day notice period for tabling questions closer to the actual Question Time.

Another issue which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider further is the method by which questions are selected. Currently sixty questions in total are selected for Oral Question Time, 20 questions for each of the three Departments. On average there are approximately 140 questions tabled in the Business Office for each Question Time in total. Therefore there are a vast number of questions which are not selected at all and simply fall altogether. Whether questions are selected or not, all questions which are tabled in the Business Office must be checked for admissibility and formatted correctly. This means a lot of time and resources are used on a vast number of questions which will not be selected for Question Time.

In the Scottish Parliament if a Member wishes to table a question for oral answer, he/she must first submit his/her name. If his/her name is chosen he/she is then permitted to table a question for oral answer. The efficiency of this procedure may warrant further consideration as time and resources are not wasted checking the admissibility and format of questions which may not even be asked during the Oral Question Time.

This leads on to another issue which the Committee may want to consider further, that is the total number of questions published. Over the last Session of 2007-08 during each Oral Question Time, just under half of the total questions published for each Department were answered. Reducing the total number of questions published for each Department may increase the chance of questions being reached and therefore reduce the disappointment and frustration felt by Members whose questions are not reached.

Another issue which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider further is the allocation of specific time limits on questions, Ministerial responses and supplementary questions asked during Oral Question Time. Placing time limits on questions and responses may help to alleviate the issue of questions not being reached. For example, the Committee could consider placing a time limit on the total amount of time spent on each question, including the Ministerial responses and subsequent supplementary questions.

For example in Dáil Éireann, Standing Orders set a time limit of six minutes for each question in total. This is divided into two minutes for a Ministerial response, two minutes in total for two supplementary questions and two minutes in total for two further Ministerial responses. Due to the uniqueness of the NI Assembly and the need for party balance during Question Time, this strict time keeping may prove awkward to enforce. Therefore, the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider the option of placing a time limit on the Ministerial response. This could create more clear and concise responses and also reduce the time spent on each question, therefore increasing the likelihood of more questions being reached during Question Time.

[1] Standing Order 19 of the Northern Ireland Assembly
http://archive.niassembly.gov.uk/sopdf/2007mandate/Standing_Orders_July08.pdf

[2] Ibid, Pg 14

[3] Guidance for Members on Assembly Questions for Oral and Written Answer, 2007, Pg 7
http://assist.assemblyni.gov.uk/services/businessoffice/theniassembly07/Guidance/Members_Ques.pdf

[4] Ibid pg 8.

[5] Ibid

[6] The Speaker may permit at his/her discretion a brief question no longer than two minutes from each Leader in Opposition to the Taoiseach about a matter of topical public importance

[7] Standing Orders of the Dáil Éireann
http://www.oireachtas.ie/documents/proceduraldocuments/StandingOrders2007_English_and_Irish.pdf

[8] Information gained through correspondence with the Parliamentary Questions Office of the Dáil Éireann

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid

[11] Standing Orders of the House of Commons
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmstords/105/105.pdf

[12] Parliamentary Questions Factsheet, House of Commons Information Office
http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/P01.pdf

[13] Information gained through correspondence with the Table Office of the House of Commons, Westminster.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Guidance on Parliamentary Questions in the Scottish Parliament, 2007
http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/parliamentaryProcedure/g-pqs/dgpq.htm

[16] Chapter 13 of the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament
http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/so/sto-5.htm#13

[17] Guidance on Parliamentary Questions in the Scottish parliament, 2007
http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/parliamentaryProcedure/g-pqs/dgpq.htm

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Guidance on Parliamentary Questions in the Scottish Parliament 2007, Para 4.18
http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/parliamentaryProcedure/g-pqs/dgpq.htm

[22] Ibid, Section 5

[23] Counting days are those days when the office of the Clerk is open.

[24] Rule 13.5 of the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament
http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/so/sto-5.htm#13

[25] Chapter IV of the Standing Orders of the Parliament of Canada
http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/process/house/standingorders/chap4-e.htm

[26] Information gained through correspondence with the Clerk Assistant (House Proceedings) of the House of Commons of the Parliament of Canada.

[27] Ibid

[28] Standing Order 39 of the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament
http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/process/house/standingorders/chap5-e.htm

[29] Ibid

[30] Information gained through correspondence with the Clerk of Journals and Procedural Research of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

[31] Standing Orders of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario
http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/go2.jsp?Page=/house-proceedings/supporting-content/files/standing_orders&menuitem=dandp_proceedings&locale=en#dg78301_xviii._written_questions

[32] Information gained through correspondence with the Clerk of Journals and Procedural Research of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

[33] The Norwegian Parliament Rules of Procedure, January 2008. Section 53
http://www.stortinget.no/english/rules_of_procedure.pdf

[34] Information gained through correspondence with the Information Advisor of the Norwegian Parliament.

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid

Section 9 A Table of Comparative Information on Question Time in the Northern Ireland Assembly and other Legislatures.

Northern Ireland Assembly Scottish Parliament Dáil Éireann House Of Commons, Westminster
Outline of
Question Time
Questions may be directed to a Member of the Executive Committee or a Member of the Assembly Commission. A Rota system operates with Ministers from three Departments participating each week. Question Time is divided into General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time and Themed Question Time. All Ministers are present for General Question Time, the First Minister is present for First Minister Question Time and the relevant Ministers are present for Themed Question Time. Subject areas for Themed Question Time are based on a rota system, with two themes or subject areas each week. Members of the Dáil Éireann can ask questions of the Ministers of the Irish Parliament during Question Time. The Taoiseach answers questions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only, other Members of the Government answer Questions in turn in accordance with an agreed daily rota. The rota repeats itself every five weeks. Members of Parliament question the Prime Minister and Government Ministers during Oral Question Time. Oral Question Time is divided into two sections, Question Time and Topical Question Time. The length of time allocated to Topical Questions will depend on the total time for questions each Department is allocated.
Duration of Oral Question Time Monday 2.30pm – 4.00pm Thursday 11.40am – 2.55pm General Question Time
11.40am – 12 noon First Minister Question Time 12 noon – 12.30pm Themed Question Time 2.15pm – 2.55pm
Taoiseach – Tuesdays 2.30pm to 3.15pm and 45 minutes on Wednesdays Other Ministers - Tuesdays 3.15pm to 4.15pm Wednesdays 2.30pm to 3.45pm Thursdays 3.30pm to 4.45pm Monday 2.30pm – 3.30pm Tuesday 2.30pm – 3.30pm Wednesday 11.30am – 12.30pm Thursday 10.30am 11.30am
Frequency of Questions to
First Minster
The First Minister and Deputy First Minister answer questions every two weeks. The First Minister will answer questions once a week. The Taoiseach will answer questions twice a week. The Prime Minister answers questions once a week.
Question Time
rota for all other Ministers
Ministers from three Departments participate in Question Time each week. Thirty minutes is allocated to each Minister. All Ministers are present at General Question Time each week. The relevant Ministers are present for Themed Question Time each week which is based on a subject rota system. Members of the Government answer Questions in turn in accordance with an agreed daily rota which repeats itself every five weeks. Ministers are questioned on a rota agreed by the Government and Opposition parties. Departments will appear once in a four week cycle on a particular day of the week. By convention some Departments have the whole hour, the rest split the available hour in different ways.
Lodging Oral Questions A maximum of one question per Member per Department is permitted and the Member must indicate the day in which the question has to be asked. General and Themed Question Time Members wishing to lodge a question for answer at General or Themed Question Time submit their names for random selection first. Ten names are then selected for each Question Time and a name, once selected, is excluded from any subsequent selections on that day. Three lists of names in the order determined by the random selection are prepared. The lists are published in the Business Bulletin the next day. Only those Members whose names have been randomly selected for a certain Question Time can lodge a question. First Minister Question Time Only those Members randomly selected can lodge a question for First Minister Question Time. Only one question may be lodged per Member for answer at one First Minister’s Question Time. A member may table a maximum of two oral questions to any one Minister. There is no restriction on the amount of questions tabled to the Taoiseach. One question per Member may be tabled for each question time slot on a particular day.
Notice Period
for lodging
Oral Questions
A Member has a period of five working days to table a question for oral answer. General and Themed Question Time A Member has a period of five working days to lodge their name for random selection. This period starts three weeks before the question is to be asked and ends two weeks before the question is to be asked. After the names are randomly selected and published, named Members have a further five working days to lodge a question for the Question Time they have been chosen for. First Minister Question Time Oral questions for answer at First Minister’s Question Time may be lodged from the end of the preceding First Minister’s Question Time until 2.00pm on the third day before the First Minister’s Question Time for which the question is being submitted. Members can table questions for oral Question Time four days before the question is to be asked Questions must be tabled at least 3 days in advance of the session for that Department or Minister (excluding questions for the Prime Minister and Secretaries of State, which are dealt with differently).
Method for
Selecting Questions
20 questions for each Department are selected using computer software. Questions selected for answer will be published 8 working days before that on which the answer is desired. Questions not selected will automatically fall. General and Themed Question Time See above. First Minister’s Question Time After the named Members have lodged their questions for First Minister Question Time, the Presiding Officer will normally select six questions for answer at First Minister’s Question Time. All Oral Questions and all written questions which have met the deadline are placed on the Order Paper. All questions received up until the deadline for tabling questions for oral answer will be placed into a ballot. Members may enter their name into a ballot which will determine if they can ask a question at Topical Question Time.
Number of Questions on Order Paper 60 (20 for each Department) 30 (10 names are selected for each Question Time) This will vary. All Oral Questions and all written questions which have met the deadline are placed on the Order Paper. The ballot known as the “shuffle" is carried out to determine the order in which questions appear on the Order Paper. Once the questions have been shuffled they are numbered consecutively up to a quota.
How the sequence in which Questions are taken in plenary is determined Ballot carried out by Speaker Determined by the random selection of names. The sequence in which questions will appear on the Order Paper is determined by a lottery. This is carried out on the fourth day before the question is to be asked. The quota reflects the number of questions likely to be reached in the available time and a few extra to allow for withdrawals. The number of questions on the Order Paper is determined by how long the question period lasts for each Department. For example, if the duration of questions to a particular Department is approximately 55 minutes the quota for the number of questions will be 25. The shorter the duration of questions the fewer the number of questions on the Order Paper.
Length of Ministerial Response Ministerial responses are not time limited. No set time limit for Ministerial responses. 2 minutes. No time limit.
Allocation of Supplementary Questions The Speaker usually allows two supplementary questions but this is left to the discretion of the Speaker. Members who ask a question are permitted one supplementary question. At the discretion of the Speaker, other Members and the original questioner may ask further supplementary questions. Two supplementary questions are allowed for the initial questioner. Others Members may be allowed to ask a supplementary question but this is down to the discretion of the Speaker. Allocation of supplementary questions is down to the discretion of the Speaker.
The Norwegian Parliament Parliament of Canada, Ottawa Legislative Assembly, Ontario
Outline of Oral
Question Time
Members of the Storting question Members of the Government during Oral Question Time and ordinary Question Time. A Member may only ask one main question during each Question Time. Questions, although customarily addressed to specific Ministers, are directed to the Ministry as a whole. It is up to the Government to designate which Minister responds to which question. Only one Minister may respond to each question and it need not be the one to whom the question is addressed. A question may be asked of any Minister on any given day. However if a question is asked pertaining to the portfolio of a Minister who is absent, it may be answered by the Prime Minister, another Minister or a Parliamentary Secretary. A Member cannot insist on an answer, nor may a Member insist that a specific Minister respond to his or her question. The Speaker does not have any authority to compel a particular Minister to respond to a question. A Minister’s refusal to answer a question cannot be challenged. Members, usually Opposition Members, question the Government in the House during Question Time. Members can ask Cabinet Ministers on any item of public concern.
Duration of Oral
Question Time
Oral Question Time: Wednesday 10am – 11am Ordinary Question Time: Every other Wednesday 11am (length of time varies) Monday – Thursday 2.15pm to 3.00pm Friday 11.15am – 12 noon Monday - Thursday 10.45am to 11.45am
Frequency of Questions
to First Minster
N/A There is no rota system in operation. A question can be asked of any Minister on any given day. There is no rota system in operation.
Question Time rota
for all other Ministers
The Prime Minister informs the President of the Storting which Ministers will be taking part in Question Time. There is no rota system in operation. A question can be asked of any Minister on any given day. There is no rota system in operation.
Lodging Oral Questions Oral Question Time A Member wishing to ask a question during Oral Question Time should notify the President in advance however these questions are not lodged in writing. Ordinary Question Time Questions for ordinary Question Time must be lodged in writing with the President of the Storting. Oral questions asked during Oral Question Time are not tabled in advance. No questions lodged.
Notice Period for lodging Oral Questions Oral Question Time There is no notice period for lodging questions for Oral Question Time. Ordinary Question Time Questions for ordinary Question Time must be lodged in writing on the Friday before the chosen Question Time. There is no notice requirement for the posing of oral questions. Some members, as a courtesy inform the Minister of the questions they intend to ask. No notice required.
Method for Selecting Questions The President decides which Members are to ask questions and in which order. There are no written rules on how this is prioritised. Participation in Question Time is managed to a large extent by the various political parties and their Whips. Each party decides daily which Members will participate and provides the Speaker with a list of names and the suggested order of recognition. The Speaker is not bound to follow these lists, but generally does so. There is no maximum number of questions per Member. Generally most Members will ask one question and one supplementary question. This is left to the discretion of the party. There is a fixed rotation the Speaker observes for selecting questions (see next section).
How the sequence in which Questions are taken in plenary is determined The custom is that the leader of the largest opposition party asks the first question, the leader of the second largest opposition party asks the next question and so on. After each election, a rotation system is negotiated among parties, spelling out the order in which the parties will be recognised and how many questions they will each ask. The rotation is calculated based on the proportion of seats held by each opposition party. While the Speaker is not bound to follow this rotation, generally he/she accepts to do so. At the beginning of Question Period, the Speaker recognises the Leader of the Official Opposition, who will ask a question. This lead question is usually followed by two supplementary questions. Each of the lead questioners of the other officially recognised opposition parties are permitted an initial question and one supplementary question. Based on a fixed rotation system below: Question 1, with 2 supplementary questions – Official Opposition Question 2, with 2 supplementary questions – Official Opposition Question 3, with 2 supplementary questions –Third Party Question 4, with 2 supplementary questions –Third Party Question 5, with 1 supplementary question – Official Opposition Question 6, with 1 supplementary question – Third Party Question 7, with 1 supplementary question – Government Party 5, 6 and 7 are repeated in rotation until the 60 minute time allotment has expired. Each question or supplementary question can be no more than 60 seconds. The Speaker will terminate after this time period.
Number of Questions on Order Paper Oral Question Time Questions asked at Oral Question Time are not printed before hand. Ordinary Question Time There is no set number of questions which appear on the Order Paper but normal practice is between 20 and 40. There is no set number of questions each day. Questions will continue until the 45 minute period expires.
Length of Ministerial Response Oral Question Time The main question and the Ministerial response are both limited to two minutes. After the initial question and response, speaking time is limited to one minute. Ordinary Question Time During ordinary Question Time the Minister has three minutes to reply. Questions and responses should be no longer than 35 seconds each. All responses from Ministers must be no longer than 60 seconds.
Allocation of Supplementary Questions Oral Question Time A Member is allowed one supplementary question. Ordinary Question Time The questioner and the Minister are each permitted to speak two more times, limited to one minute. Generally most members will ask one supplementary question but this is left to the discretion of the party. See above.

Provision for Independent
Members During Question
Time in Other Legislatures

Claire Cassidy
Research and Library Services

Background

This supplementary briefing note is prepared for Members of the Committee on Procedures of the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly, to facilitate their understanding of provisions for Independent Members during Oral Question Time in other Legislatures. A number of Legislatures have been identified and their procedures are outlined below.

House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament, Ottawa

In the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament, the rotation of questions during Question Time is largely negotiated by the various political parties and depends heavily on the proportion of seats each party holds. Independent Members or Members from a political party not recognised in the House (a party must hold 12 seats to be officially recognised) also get to pose questions, but it is usually at the very end of question period and they do not get a supplementary question. As with the other opposition parties, a calculation is done to determine what percentage of the opposition is comprised of Independent Members. As they do not have a Whip to submit their names to the Speaker, they contact the Speaker directly when they wish to pose a question.

Nova Scotia House of Assembly

The Nova Scotia House of Assembly has three sessions of Question Time Per legislative week. The first question of Question Time is available to the Official Opposition and is usually asked by the Leader of the Official Opposition. By custom the second question goes to the other opposition party and is usually asked by the Leader thereof. From this point, questions are allotted on the basis of the mathematical ratio between the opposition parties. The Nova Scotia House of Assembly has one Independent Member and he is allowed to pose one question at the end of one of the Question Time periods.

Supplementary Information
on Parliamentary Questions

Claire Cassidy
Research and Library Services

Background

This supplementary briefing note is prepared for Members of the Committee on Procedures of the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly, in response to the following queries:

1. Is the new procedure of Topical Questions in the House of Commons working adequately?

2. What is the Advisory Cost Limit of Parliamentary Questions in the House of Commons?

3. Do Departments of the Irish Government direct Dáil Éireann Members to their website for information requested by Written Questions?

This briefing note is based on information received from the specific legislature in question and relevant supplementary information identified by Research Services.

1. Topical Questions

On 25 October 2007 the House of Commons agreed to a new procedure recommended by the Select Committee on Modernisation. This new procedure provides time for Members to ask “topical" oral questions in the last 10 to 15 minutes of some Oral Question Times from the beginning of the 2007-08 Session. The Modernisation Committee’s intention was to create the opportunity for topical and spontaneous questions on issues of the day selected by Members. Members wishing to ask a question during Topical Questions may enter their name into a ballot instead of lodging a specific question. Those Members chosen to ask a topical question will be notified of this and will subsequently be called by the Speaker to ask their question in the Chamber during Topical Questions.[1] In relation to how well the new procedure of ‘Topical Questions’ is working, the Table Office of the House of Commons provided this response,

As this procedure is still relatively new in the House of Commons, it is still being considered an ‘experiment’. Therefore, no formal evaluation has taken place to date however anecdotal evidence suggests that it has gone down well with backbenchers and has not caused Ministers any insurmountable problems.[2]

The Standing Order which governs Topical Questions will expire at the end of the current Parliamentary Session. If the House of Commons wish to extend this Standing Order a debate will be required which will most likely take place in October 2008. Therefore, the Committee on Procedures may wish to take into account the outcome of this debate when considering its current inquiry into Assembly Questions.[3]

2. Advisory Cost Limit

Within Government Departments there is an Advisory Cost Limit known as the Disproportionate Cost Threshold (DCT), which is the cost level above which Departments can refuse to answer a Parliamentary Question. At present there is no advisory cost limit for oral answers, however there is for written answers. The DCT per written answer is currently £700 which is based on eight times the average marginal cost of answering Written Parliamentary Questions.[4] Marginal cost is taken as the direct cost of civil servants’ time and the average cost is based on a sample of all Written Questions answered by those Departments with the highest volume of Questions. Such samples are taken on a quinquennial basis, the next being due in 2009.[5]

3. Directing Dáil Éireann Members to Department websites

There have been, on occasion incidents where Government Departments have directed Members of the Dáil Éireann to Departmental websites for information requested through written questions. However, this type of reply does not occur frequently and it would not be normal practice for Government Departments to reply in this manner. [6]

[1] ‘A Guide to Topical Questions in the House of Commons’, provided by the Table Office of the House of Commons

[2] Information gained through correspondence with the Table Office of the House of Commons.

[3] Information gained through correspondence with the Clerk of the Procedures Committee of the House of Commons.

[4] House of Commons Factsheet P1 Parliamentary Questions, March 2007 pg 14

[5] Questions for Written Answer, House of Lords January 2008
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldhansrd/text/80117w0003.htm

[6] Information gained through correspondence with the Parliamentary Questions Office of the Dáil Éireann.

Research and Library Services

NIA Logo

Research Paper 14 November 2008

Assembly Questions:
Survey Results

Claire Cassidy

Research and Library Service

This paper details the findings of three surveys carried out on the attitudes and opinions of: Members of the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly; members of the general public; and a group of AS level politics students on oral and written questions in the NI Assembly.

This research aims to facilitate the Committee on Procedures with its inquiry into Assembly Questions and how they can be improved.

Library Research Papers are compiled for the benefit of Members of The Assembly and their personal staff. Authors are available to discuss the contents of these papers with Members and their staff but cannot advise members of the general public.

Summary of key points

This paper details the findings of three surveys carried out by Research and Library Service. Survey One sought to gain the attitudes and opinions of Members of the Assembly on procedures surrounding oral and written questions. Survey Two investigated the attitudes and opinions of members of the general public on Question Time in the Assembly and Survey Three sought to gain the attitudes and opinions of a group of AS level politics students on Question Time in the Assembly.

Survey One

In total, a series of 25 interviews were conducted with Members of the Assembly. The following provides a summary of the key issues discussed.

Lodging questions for oral answer

Selection of Questions

Number of Questions on Order Paper

Rota for Ministers appearing at Question Time

Time allocation for each Minister

Length of Ministerial Response

Supplementary Questions

Written Questions

Survey Two

In total, nine completed questionnaires were returned by members of the public visiting Question Time. The following provides a summary of the key points.

Visiting Question Time

Structure of Question Time

Survey Three

In total, 33 questionnaires were returned from the group of politics students.

Visiting Question Time

Structure of Question Time

Contents

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Survey Method

2.1 Survey One

2.2 Survey Two

2.3 Survey Three

Part Three: Survey Results

3.1 Survey One

Lodging questions for oral answer

Selection of Questions

Number of Questions Published on Order Paper

Rota for Ministers Appearing at Question Time

Time allocation for each Minister

Length of Ministerial Response

Supplementary Questions

Written Questions

3.2 Survey Two

Visiting Question Time

Structure of Question Time

3.3 Survey Three

Visiting Question Time

Structure of Question Time

Appendix 1: Survey Two Results

Appendix 2: Survey Three Results

Part One: Introduction

This paper has been prepared for the Committee on Procedures by Research and Library Services. It details the findings of three surveys carried out on the attitudes and opinions of: Members of the Assembly; members of the general public; and a group of AS politics students on various aspects of Assembly Questions in the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly.

The inquiry

This research aims to facilitate the Committee on Procedures with its inquiry into Assembly Questions and how they could be improved.

The inquiry was initiated in May 2008 and the Terms of Reference were to review the following:

Oral Questions

Written Questions

Priority Written Questions

Priority Notice Questions

Standing Orders

As part of the review the Committee on Procedures commissioned Research and Library Service to conduct three surveys on the views of Members of the Assembly, members of the general public and a group of AS Politics students on various aspects of Assembly Questions in the Assembly.

Part Two: Survey Method

2.1 Survey One

Survey One was conducted via short, approximately 10-15 minute, one to one interviews with Members of the NI Assembly. Whips from each of the four political parties nominated Members to take part in the one to one interviews based on proportional representation. The target group for Survey One therefore contained 25 Members of the Assembly, including four party Whips and one deputy party Whip. The target group was made up of:

An interview schedule was devised by Research and Library Service and subsequently approved by the Committee. This survey covered the following issues:

The opportunity to voice any additional comments on any aspect of oral and written questions was also given to the interviewee.

Names of those Members nominated to take part in the one to one interviews were sent to Research and Library Service between 16 September and 9 October. Following this, Research and Library Service endeavoured to arrange appointments with all Members nominated. Interviews were conducted between the 29 September and the 7 November. During this period all 25 Members nominated to take part in the survey were interviewed.

2.2 Survey Two

Survey Two was in the form of a questionnaire which aimed to gain the attitudes and opinions of the public on Question Time in the NI Assembly. The target group for Survey Two therefore was members of the public viewing Question Time from the public gallery.

A survey was devised by Research and Library Service and subsequently approved by the Committee. This survey questioned participants on several areas of interest including:

A cover letter was included with the questionnaires explaining the nature of the survey and what the information obtained from the survey would be used for. It was emphasised any participation would be completely voluntary. Participants were provided with a pen and instructions were provided on where to leave completed questionnaires.

The questionnaires were placed at the front desk of Parliament Buildings to coincide with Question Time in the Chamber. The questionnaires were placed in this location every Monday from 2.30pm until 4.00pm between the 29 September and the 20 October. This location was chosen to distribute the questionnaires as a member of the public must obtain a visitors pass from this point to gain entry into the public gallery.

During the period between the 29 September and the 20 October nine completed questionnaires were returned by members of the public visiting Question Time.

2.3 Survey Three

Survey Three was in the form of a questionnaire which aimed to gain the attitudes and opinions of young people on Question Time. The target audience for this particular survey therefore was a group of AS politics students who were visiting the Assembly as part of an educational visit.

This survey took the same format as Survey Two however it was adapted slightly to suit the target audience of AS politics students. This survey was subsequently approved by the Committee.

Survey Three was administered on the 15 September when the group of students visited the Assembly as part of an educational visit. Prior to the students entering the public gallery, the Clerk to the Committee on Procedures and a researcher explained the background and the reasons for carrying out the research. The questions within the survey were explained to the students and any questions were answered prior to the students entering the public gallery. Thirty three of the students completed the questionnaire.

Part Three: Survey Results

3.1 Survey One

Survey One was conducted via short, 10-15 minute, one to one interviews with 25 Members of the NI Assembly. Included in this group were four party Whips and one deputy party Whip. Each interviewee was asked to give his/her opinion on a number of core issues relating to oral and written questions in the Assembly.

Before the core issues surrounding oral questions were discussed and to gain a more general view of Members’ opinions of Question Time, Members were asked to consider what they thought was the main reason for Question Time. A number of common themes emerged from the responses which are outlined below.

Interviewees were asked to what extent they believed Question Time in the Assembly fulfilled this role. Responses to this question varied in nature and a large proportion of interviewees were of the opinion Question Time only partially fulfilled its role. The majority of Members interviewed made reference to at least one aspect of Question Time which they believed was not working as well as it should and could possibly be improved on.

Aspects of Question Time which nearly all interviewees commented on were the length of Ministerial responses and the content of such Ministerial responses. Interviewees explained that very often it was perceived Ministerial responses did not adequately address the issues raised from the lead question. Even after posing a supplementary question, Members interviewed described how frequently they felt the issues being raised were still not sufficiently addressed. It was suggested, the lead questioner being permitted to ask more than one supplementary question would allow Members to probe Ministers further if they perceived the Ministerial responses as being inadequate. General comments on Question Time included:

“Question Time is very much a hit and miss scenario. On occasion the Minister does not answer the question."

“Limited role in this regard although it is a useful exercise, it would be strongly missed if it wasn’t there."

“Question Time in the Assembly is not working effectively. Firstly, time management and secondly questions placed on Order Paper aren’t answered adequately. That isn’t the purpose of them being there. It’s not working as an accountable democracy."

“Question Time is working to an extent."

Question time partly fulfils this role. There are certain aspects of Oral Question Time in the Assembly which do not allow Members to fully probe Departments thoroughly enough."

“Question Time is a good idea to have….I think we could all make better use of it."

“Question Time doesn’t really fulfil its role at the moment, its very stage managed and scripted."

“The Minister knows exactly what is going to be asked therefore there will be a pre planned answer for everything."

Another common aspect discussed by interviewees was how Question Time lacked spontaneity and at times was too stage managed and scripted. A number of Members discussed the possibility of having a section of Question Time specifically allocated for topical questions, where the questioner’s name would be selected and not the question. The rationale behind this suggestion being that this would help to create more spontaneity and possibly increase public interest.

During the period in which this research was conducted, steps have been taken to try and achieve more spontaneity and interest during Question Time. A new procedure during Question Time was provisionally agreed upon by the Speaker and party Whips, which would involve Members rising in their seats to indicate they wished to be called for a supplementary question. The start date for this new procedure has yet to be agreed and the Committee on Procedures may wish to monitor the progress of this new procedure.

The remaining sections of the interview sought Members’ opinions and attitudes on the core issues outlined in the Committee’s Terms of Reference. Each of the core issues are discussed in greater detail below.

Lodging questions for oral answer[1]

The first core issue interviewees were asked to comment on was, to what extent they believed the time frame for lodging questions for oral answer allowed Members to address current issues.

The majority of Members interviewed were of the opinion that although the time period for lodging an oral question did not have a dramatic adverse affect on the topic of questions they wished to lodge, it was agreed the level of topicality in general during Question Time may increase if the time frame was shortened. Comments included:

“If this [time frame] could be shortened it may bring an element of topicality which isn’t there at the moment. A lot of the questions anyway aren’t in the way of topical."

“It [time frame] does effect the topicality of questions but topicality sometimes is not the main point of a question."

“It might be beneficial if the time frame was moved. However it needs to allow for more topical questions but give Departments enough time to research the answers."

A number of Members felt this time frame restricted the level of topicality somewhat, however several Members pointed out the opportunity to raise a topical issue through a Private Notice Question (PNQ) was still available. Comments included:

“It [time frame] restricts the level of topicality but there is the opportunity to use PNQs. At times these can be on the restrictive side in terms of the amount of times they are allowed to be used."

“There is the possibility of closing the gap between tabling a question for oral answer and the Question Time as the questions lodged may be irrelevant by the time Question Time comes around. There is the option of the Private Notice Question which would cater for an issue that has come up suddenly which needs a quick response."

Contrasting to these opinions, a small number of Members indicated they favoured complete spontaneity during Question Time and therefore felt questions should not be tabled at all.

“I favour complete spontaneity. Members should be able to ask a reasonable question and get a reasonable answer which isn’t completely scripted."

Selection of Questions

The second core issue interviewees were asked to express their thoughts on was the selection process of questions for oral answer.

The majority of Members interviewed supported the random selection of questions and agreed this was a fair and proportional selection method. However, there were a number of issues of concern raised by several Members in relation to certain aspects of the selection process. One such concern was in relation to Members of a Minister’s own party tabling a large number of questions for their Minister’s Question Time. A number of interviewees voiced concerns that in doing so, misrepresentation potentially could occur in relation to how many questions from each party would be published on the Order Paper. Interviewees discussed how this could affect the scrutiny of a Minister and their Department. Comments included:

“Members from Ministers own party asking questions could be restricted so they don’t get into the first number of slots for Question Time."

“At times it seems the Ministers own party get a large number of the questions. If the whole idea is about scrutiny of Ministers and Departments it seems strange that the Ministers own Members gets to do it."

“I understand the selection process in random but what happens when a party overload the system with a large number of questions? That party is more than likely going to get a higher number of questions selected than another party with less questions lodged."

Number of Questions Published on Order Paper[2]

The third core issue interviewees were invited to express their views on, was the number of questions published on the Order Paper.

Almost all interviewees voiced concern regarding the number of questions reached during any one Question Time. For this reason over half of the interviewees suggested the number of questions per Department should be reduced. Those Members advocating such a change suggested either 12 or 15 as a more realistic number of questions to be chosen for each Department. A small number of interviewees suggested reducing the number of questions to 10 per Department. A number of reasons were given for such a viewpoint, with comments including:

“The number of questions could be reduced to twelve or fifteen because realistically we wouldn’t reach any more. Twenty questions gives Members false hope their question will be reached."

“If the number of questions selected was reduced, this would reduce the cost i.e. there would be less resources spent on those questions which more than likely will not be not answered in the chamber anyway."

Contrastingly, several interviewees believed the number of questions chosen for each Department should not be reduced and there were several arguments for such a viewpoint. A number of interviewees acknowledged that although all of the questions may not be reached on the Order Paper, at least those questions would receive a written response. A counter argument which several interviewees expressed was if Members had wanted a written response to a question they would have lodged a question for written answer and not a question for oral answer. Comments included:

“If you reduce the number of questions on the Order Paper does that mean more people will get their questions asked? Or would that mean you are more likely to get your question chosen? Most people realise that reaching question 7 is good and any questions which are not reached will be provided with a written answer."

“There is the issue of getting a written answer to a question that was not reached on the Order Paper. If you had wanted a written answer you would have tabled a written question."

An important point which a large number of interviewees commented on was that simply reducing the number of questions selected for each Department would not have a dramatic affect on the flow of Question Time. For interviewees advocating such a viewpoint, reducing the number of questions selected would only become effective when other issues surrounding Question Time were addressed. For example, issues surrounding the length of Ministerial responses and supplementary questions. Comments surrounding this particular viewpoint included:

“I don’t really think this [reducing the number of question for each Department] would make a difference. Those which are in the top twenty and are not reached will be given a written answer. It’s not going to affect the number of questions which the Minister gets through which I think is the problem."

“Even reducing the number of Questions per Department from twenty to fifteen, fifteen will most likely not be reached anyway, unless something can be done regarding the Ministers responses."

“Some Members make statements during supplementary questions rather than just asking the question."

Rota for Ministers Appearing at Question Time

The fourth core issue interviewees were asked to give their view on was the rota for Ministers appearing at Question Time.

The majority of interviewees were of the opinion the rota at present for the First Minister and deputy First Minister appearing every two weeks was adequate. The majority of interviewees also felt that the present rota for all other Ministers was working adequately also. However, there were a number of important points highlighted by several interviewees which the Committee on Procedures may wish to consider. Comments included:

“Having the First Minister and deputy First Minister up every week may increase public interest. Even at their Question Time at the moment it’s hard to get a full chamber."

“It’s difficult because in any Democratic society you should have the First Minister up every week but at the minute nothing is happening. Maybe the rota should stay as it is until the Assembly has bedded in properly."

Time allocation for each Minister

The fifth core issue interviewees were asked to consider was whether the thirty minute time allocation for each Minister during Question Time was adequate.

The majority of interviewees felt the thirty minute time allocation at present was adequate. However, a number of interviewees who held this opinion felt the questions during this time could be shorter and/or the Ministerial responses could be shorter and more concise. Comments included:

“Thirty minutes is long enough, particularly when there are three sessions one after the other but it could be tightened up a lot more, put less questions on the Order Paper if realistically they are never going to get to question fifteen. Also, address the length of responses by some Ministers…..I think maybe around fifteen questions and realistically try and achieve at least 12 of those questions."

“Question Time could be tightened up, shorten the questions and answers first."

The possibility of increasing this time allocation to forty minutes per Department was suggested by a number of interviewees whereas a small number of Members indicated they felt three sessions during Question Time was too many. Also, the possibility of splitting Question Time either during the one sitting day or over two sitting days was suggested by a small number of interviewees.

“There is the possibility of having 45 minutes for each Minister or two sessions spread over two days."

“Maybe there could be two sessions of Question Time, one in the morning and one in the evening. That would allow longer that thirty minutes per Minister and would take away the angst people may feel about not getting their question asked. A longer time over say, two days may be possible."

“Three sessions is a bit long, I would prefer two. Have a session on Monday and Tuesday, one Ministry each for about an hour or 45 minutes."

Length of Ministerial Response

The sixth core issue interviewees were asked to consider was the length of Ministerial responses and whether there should be a time limit imposed.

From the responses received from the interviewees, two common themes can be identified. Firstly a high proportion of Members interviewed were of the opinion many Ministerial responses are too lengthy. When asked whether there should be a time limit imposed on Ministerial responses, approximately one third of interviewees favoured this, however not all interviewees suggested a suitable time limit. The most popular suggestion by those interviewees who did comment on a time limit was three minutes. Comments from those interviewees favouring a strict time limit included:

“Ministerial responses should be under a time limit so Ministers can not give very long answers that take up a lot of time which could be spent on getting through the questions on the Order Paper."

“Some times it’s the answers to questions which are the problem. A time limit on Ministerial responses would be a good idea. Every Minister does it from time to time but it is very frustrating for Members not getting to ask their question."

“There should be a time limit in which Ministers should not be allowed to go over, for example 3 minutes."

Just under half of the interviewees commented there should not be a strict time limit imposed on Ministerial responses as Ministers may be addressing certain issues which require a more lengthy answer. However nearly all Members interviewed suggested that Ministerial responses could be regulated in some way. A common suggestion made was the Speaker may wish to encourage Ministers to give more concise answers. Comments received advocating this viewpoint included:

“I don’t think there should be a time limit because a Minister may need longer to explain a position however the Speaker could encourage Ministers to stay on topic."

“If there is a strict time limit Question Time could become quite artificial but in saying that the Chair or the Speaker could push the Minister towards a concise answer."

“I don’t really think this [time limit] would work. Some questions may require a reasonably lengthy answer and some of the supplementary questions in particular…….A major step forward would be for the Speaker/Chair to keep the Ministers on track with the question."

Another common theme identified from the responses to this question concerned the content of Ministerial responses during Question Time. One such interviewee stated:

“It doesn’t matter if the responses are shorter if the answers mean nothing."

Furthermore, when asked whether or not they believed a time limit should be imposed on Ministerial responses those interviewees concerned with the content of Ministerial responses stated:

“Yes, there should be however very often there are pre prepared answers from Ministers which do not answer the question."

“Not necessarily but Ministers must be more concise instead of filling out responses."

Supplementary Questions

The seventh core issue interviewees were asked to give their views on was in relation to supplementary questions during Question Time.

There were a variety of opinions received regarding the issue of supplementary questions during Question Time. For example, a number of interviewees were of the opinion that a Member asking the first question should be allowed, on occasion to ask more than one supplementary question. Members who voiced this viewpoint suggested this may allow a Member to probe further into a certain issue if they believe they have not received a satisfactory answer. Comments surrounding this issue included:

“Members should have the opportunity to place one supplementary question and another if necessary."

“Members should be allowed more than one supplementary question but there has to be a limit. This may be down to the discretion of the Speaker."

A small number of interviewees raised the issue of the length of some supplementary questions, commenting that on occasion supplementary questions have been rather lengthy. A small number of interviewees therefore suggested the possibility of a time limit being imposed on supplementary questions. Another aspect of supplementary questions which several interviewees highlighted was the lack of spontaneity during this time. One such interviewee suggested the following:

“Ministers should have no hint of the supplementary questions at all, this would increase spontaneity."

Several other interviewees felt quite strongly in relation to the spontaneity of supplementary questions and of Question Time as a whole. Comments regarding the issue of spontaneity during supplementary questions included:

“Supplementary questions should involve Members popping up and down, indicating that they wish to ask a question. Leading supplementary questions should be frowned upon, they should be responsive to the response given to the initial question. The whole process should be much more responsive rather than stage managed."

“The problem with supplementary questions is that you don’t actually get a chance to do the thrust and counter thrust necessary to develop a debate."

Several interviewees also expressed concern over how supplementary questions were allocated.

Written Questions

The final core issue interviewees were asked to consider were the procedures surrounding written questions.

Just under half of the interviewees found the procedures surrounding written questions satisfactory. However, a relatively large proportion commented on the notable difference between Departments in the time taken to respond to a question. Comments from individuals of this opinion included:

“On the whole the procedures work fine although some Departments take longer than others to get back with a response."

“The time it takes Departments to respond is sometimes very long. Other Departments are better than others."

I don’t really have any problems with written questions or the procedures behind them apart some Departments are quicker than others at responding."

“Procedures in general are working fine, occasionally Departments take an extremely long time to respond."

“Responses from Departments are often delayed, in some instances there is a large gap between submitting a written answer and getting a response."

This interviewee explained how it was sometimes easier to gain information from other sources due to the slow response times of several Departments,

“Departments tend to be slow for a response. As such it is sometimes easier to find out information from other areas."

A number of interviewees discussed how they perceived written questions as not being used in the right manner and were, they felt at times, over used. Many individuals also commented on the cost of providing a written response by Departments. The idea of placing a limit on the number of written questions political parties are allowed to lodge was discussed by a number of interviewees.

When discussing their concerns over the information requested by some written questions, one individual commented that Members could potentially look to research and to Committee reports first of all before placing questions to Departments. Comments from interviewees who voiced concerns regarding aspects of written questions included:

“Written questions are over used and this puts undue burden on Departments and staff, to no gain. Some questions require vast amounts of statistical info and you wonder what this is for."

“It seems sometimes Members may submit written questions just for the sake of submitting written questions. There should maybe be a limit on the number of questions each party is allowed to submit."

“There is a situation where Members table a huge number of written questions to be seen as doing just that. It has nearly turned into a competition. Written questions also cost a lot of money. You don’t want to get into a situation where you are gagging Members from asking questions but there has to be a sensible balance."

Another aspect of written questions which was an issue of concern for a large number of interviewees was Priority Written Questions. Many individuals discussed how they perceived Priority Written Questions as often being used incorrectly and at times, they perceived this as an abuse of the system. A number of individuals voiced their concerns and confusion over what constituted a priority question and reiterated priority questions should be used only in extreme circumstances. Some of the comments included:

“Questions can go through the priority system which are not priority questions. Often questions are about on going issues and are not urgent matters. Members should have to justify a question for priority."

“I can’t see the difference between Priority Written Questions and ordinary Written Questions. I would prefer a smaller number of questions which genuinely get priority and are used sparingly."

“I have a concern with the system of Priority Written Questions. Some questions which Members put in as Priority should be ordinary written questions."

“Priority Written Questions should be used only in extreme circumstances."

3.2 Survey Two

Survey Two was in the form of a questionnaire which aimed to gain the attitudes and opinions of the public on Question Time in the Assembly. The target group for Survey Two was members of the public viewing Question Time from the public gallery. During the survey period nine completed questionnaires were returned by members of the public visiting Question Time. The results of these questionnaires are discussed in greater detail below. (See also Appendix 1)

Visiting Question Time

Of the nine respondents visiting Question Time, 5 indicated that it was their first visit while 2 said that they had visited 8 times or more. Only one of the 9 respondents came as part of a group while the other eight were there in an individual capacity. Four people had attended specifically to see Question Time while another 4 were there for another reason but knew that Question Time was on. Among the reasons given for attending, 5 people indicated that it was to hear a specific issue or question raised while one said it was for general interest and another said they were there to support their local MLA. Two respondents stayed for less than 30 minutes, 2 stayed for between 30 minutes and an hour and 4 stayed for between an hour and an hour and 30 minutes. When asked about the quality of the session, 6 people felt that it was informative and 6 found it easy to understand what was happening.

Structure of Question Time

When asked about the structuring of Question Time, 5 of the 9 respondents felt that 30 minutes was the right length of time for each Minister to be questioned and 3 respondents said that they would prefer longer. When asked to agree or disagree with a number of statements, 6 respondents agreed that Question Time allowed MLAs to gain information about a subject while 5 agreed that it allowed them to investigate Ministers work. Five respondents also agreed that it allowed MLA’s to give their views on Departmental policies.

Only two respondents felt that the quality of questions was high compared to 6 who felt that the quality of answers was high.

3.3 Survey Three

Survey Three was in the form of a questionnaire which aimed to gain the attitudes and opinions of young people on Question Time. The target audience for this particular survey therefore was a group of AS politics students who were visiting the Assembly as part of an educational visit.

This survey took the same format as Survey Two however it was adapted slightly to suit the target audience of AS politics students. This survey was subsequently approved by the Committee. There were 33 completed questionnaires returned from this group of politics students. Results of these questionnaires are discussed in greater detail below. (See also Appendix 2)

Visiting Question Time

Of the 33 students, 20 said that they could clearly hear proceedings while 7 said that it was not loud enough, 2 felt that members did not speak clearly and 3 were prevented from hearing the proceedings due to an echo in the Chamber. Twenty two of the students felt that they had a clear view of MLAs and Ministers, while 6 said that they could only see one half of the Chamber. When asked if the session was informative 28 said that it was. However when asked if they found it easy to understand what was happening 16 said yes.

Structure of Question Time

When asked if they thought 30 minutes was an appropriate length of time to question Ministers, 23 students felt that it was while 2 would have preferred a longer time period and 4 would have preferred a shorter period. All 33 students believed that Question Time allowed Members to gain information on a subject, while 30 felt that it allowed them to investigate the work of Ministers and 22 felt that it gave MLAs the opportunity to give their views on policies.

When asked if the quality of questions was high, 24 said that it was while 21 felt that the quality of answers was high.

Appendix 1: Survey Two Results

Question 1: How many times have you attended a session of Question Time?

Frequency
Today is first visit 5
2-4 times 2
5-7 times 0
8 times or more 2

Question 2: Was seeing Question Time your main reason for visiting the Northern Ireland Assembly today?

Frequency
Yes 4
No- although I knew it was happening today 4
No- I didn’t know it was happening today 1

Question 3: Did you come today as part of a group?

Frequency
Yes 1
No 8

Question 4: What was your main reason for watching Question Time today?

Frequency
General Interest 1
To hear a specific question or issue 5
To support my local MLA 1
Had no choice 1
Other 1

Question 5: Each Minister is questioned for 30 minutes by Members of the Assembly. Do you think this is an appropriate length of time?

Frequency
Prefer longer 3
Prefer Shorter 0
30 minutes is the right length 5
Don’t know 1

Question 6: How long did you stay to listen to Question Time?

Frequency
Up to 15 minutes 2
15 - 30 minutes 0
30 - 60 minutes 2
60 - 90 minutes 4
Missing value 1

Question 7: Question Time allowed MLAs to gain information about a particular subject.

Frequency
Agree 6
Disagree 0
Don’t know 2
Missing value 1

Question 8: Question Time allowed the Assembly to investigate what Ministers are doing.

Frequency
Agree 5
Disagree 0
Don’t know 3
Missing value 1

Question 9: Question time allowed MLAs to give their views on the policies of certain Departments.

Frequency
Agree 5
Disagree 2
Don’t know 1
Missing value 1

Question 10: I found it easy to understand what was happening.

Frequency
Agree 6
Disagree 2
Don’t know 0
Missing value 1

Question 11: I found the session informative.

Frequency
Agree 6
Disagree 1
Don’t know 0
Missing value 2

Question 12: The quality of questions was high.

Frequency
Agree 2
Disagree 4
Don’t know 1
Missing value 2

Question 13: The quality of answers was high

Frequency
Agree 6
Disagree 0
Don’t know 1
Missing value 2

Appendix 2: Survey Three Results

Question 1: Has your study group attended Question Time before?

Frequency
Yes 0
No 33

Question 2: Have you previously attended Question Time not as part of your study group?

Frequency
Yes 1
No 32

Question 3: Was seeing Question Time the main reason your study group visited the Northern Ireland Assembly today?

Frequency
Yes 3
No, part of an educational visit 29

Question 4: Each Minister is questioned for 30 minutes by Members of the Assembly. Do you think this is an appropriate length of time?

Frequency
Prefer longer 2
Prefer Shorter 4
30 minutes is the right length 23
Don’t know 3
Missing value 1

Question 5: Could you clearly hear what was being said during Question Time?

Frequency
Yes 20
No, volume wasn’t loud enough 7
No, Members did not speak clearly 2
No, echo in Chamber 3
No, could hear other Members moving 1

Question 6: Could you clearly see from the public gallery the Members and Ministers taking part during Question Time?

Frequency
Yes 22
No 1
Yes, due to screens 1
No, view blocked 2
No, could only see one half of the Chamber 6
Missing value 1

Question 7: Question Time allowed MLAs to gain information about a particular subject.

Frequency
Agree 33
Disagree 0
Don’t know 0
Missing value 0

Question 8: Question Time allowed the Assembly to investigate what Ministers are doing.

Frequency
Agree 30
Disagree 0
Don’t know 3
Missing value 0

Question 9: Question time allowed MLAs to give their views on the policies of certain Departments.

Frequency
Agree 22
Disagree 6
Don’t know 5
Missing value 0

Question 10: I found it easy to understand what was happening.

Frequency
Agree 16
Disagree 14
Don’t know 3
Missing value 0

Question 11: I found the session informative

Frequency
Agree 28
Disagree 2
Don’t know 2
Missing value 1

Question 12: The quality of questions was high.

Frequency
Agree 24
Disagree 1
Don’t know 7
Missing value 1

Question 13: The quality of answers was high.

Frequency
Agree 21
Disagree 2
Don’t know 9
Missing value 1

[1] The period for lodging a question for oral answer is 5 working days. This period ends on the second Tuesday (9 working days) before the Question Time in which the answer is to be given.

[2] Using computer software, 20 questions for each Department are selected therefore, 60 questions in total are published on the Order Paper for Question Time.

Appendix 5

Other Papers

1. Analysis of Tabled Assembly Oral Questions by Department

Table 1. Oral Questions (May 2007 - end Sept 2008) by Department

No. Tabled No. Listed No. Answered % Listed % Answered
OFMDFM 753 400 119 53.1 15.8
DARD 328 200 75 61.0 22.9
DCAL 360 198 86 55.0 23.9
DE 408 200 52 49.0 12.7
DETI 398 200 60 50.3 15.1
DOE 403 200 69 49.6 17.1
DFP 413 200 62 48.4 15.0
DHSSPS 414 180 56 43.5 13.5
DEL 309 194 57 62.8 18.4
DRD 384 180 60 46.9 15.6
DSD 409 180 53 44.0 13.0
Commission 16 16 11 100.0 68.8
All Depts. 4595 2348 760 51.1 16.5

Tabled Oral Questions Chart

Tests for Statistically Significant Differences

The probability of a tabled oral question being listed or answered differs significantly between Departments (P<0.001, chi-squared test). This is simply due to the fact that more questions are tabled for some Departments than for others.

2. Analysis of Tabled Assembly Oral Questions by Political Party

Table 2. Oral Questions (May 2007 - end Sept 2008) by Party

No. Tabled No. Listed No. Answered % Listed % Answered
Alliance 575 313 110 54.4 19.1
DUP 1096 540 191 49.3 17.4
SDLP 892 439 125 49.2 14.0
SF 1112 564 186 50.7 16.7
UUP 891 476 144 53.4 16.2
Other 29 16 4 55.2 13.8
All Parties 4595 2348 760 51.1 16.5

Tabled Oral Questions Chart

Tests for Statistically Significant Differences

The probability of a tabled oral question being listed or answered does not differ significantly between political parties (P>0.05, chi-squared test). As would be expected, given the random selection system employed for listing oral questions, differences between outcomes for different political parties can be explained by chance alone.

Statistical Information

Number of Written Questions submitted by parties Session 2007 - 2008

Party Written Questions Submitted
Alliance Party 461
Democratic Unionist Party 3708
Green Party 88
Independent 17
Independent Health Coalition 2
Progressive Unionist Party 5
Sinn Fein 1682
Social Democratic and Labour Party 1406
Ulster Unionist Party 1250
Total 8619

Number of Questions submitted to each department for Written Answer Session 2007 - 2008

Department Number of Written Questions
The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister 546
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development 587
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure 483
The Minister of Education 1290
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment 573
The Minister of the Environment 807
The Minister of Finance and Personnel 459
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety 1455
The Minister for Employment and Learning 411
The Minister for Regional Development 1027
The Minister for Social Development 896
The Assembly Commission 85
Total 8619

Number of Questions for Written Answer Tabled per Member (Highest to Lowest)
Session 2007 - 2008

Full Display Name Count of tbl Written Question
Mr Shannon 590
Mr Weir 304
Mr Easton 269
Mr Storey 256
Mr Hamilton 246
Mrs I Robinson 239
Mr McKay 220
Mr Savage 217
Miss McIlveen 216
Mr W Clarke 206
Mr Butler 188
Mr Elliott 186
Mr Ross 178
Mr Burns 168
Mr G Robinson 166
Mr K Robinson 162
Mr Simpson 162
Mr O’Loan 152
Mr P Ramsey 149
Dr Farry 149
Mr Moutray 141
Ms Ní Chuilín 138
Mr Beggs 135
Dr McDonnell 133
Mr McGlone 125
Mr Bresland 120
Mr S Wilson 117
Mr D Bradley 116
Mr P J Bradley 110
Mr McCallister 107
Mr Doherty 100
Mr McNarry 97
Ms S Ramsey 96
Mr Durkan 91
Mr Wells 89
Mr Dallat 88
Mr Spratt 88
Mr B Wilson 88
Ms Anderson 85
Mr O’Dowd 80
Mr Ford 79
Mr Buchanan 74
Mrs D Kelly 73
Ms J McCann 73
Mr McElduff 66
Mr Gallagher 63
Mr McCartney 60
Mr Lunn 60
Mr Hilditch 59
Mr McCarthy 58
Mr Boylan 57
Mr Cree 56
Mr Kennedy 54
Mr I McCrea 54
Mr McLaughlin 51
Mrs O’Neill 49
Mr Attwood 48
Lord Morrow 47
Ms Lo 47
Mr Craig 46
Mr McCausland 45
Mr B McCrea 43
Mrs Long 42
Mr A Maskey 41
Mr McQuillan 41
Mrs McGill 40
Mrs Hanna 39
Mr Brady 38
Mr McClarty 37
Mr Newton 37
Mr Armstrong 36
Mr Irwin 36
Mr Cobain 30
Mrs M Bradley 29
Mr Burnside 28
Mr Campbell 27
Mr T Clarke 27
Mr Neeson 26
Mr A Maginness 22
Mr McFarland 22
Rev Dr Robert Coulter 21
Lord Browne 21
Mr P Maskey 21
Mr Brolly 20
Mr Gardiner 19
Mr F McCann 19
Mr Adams 18
Mr McHugh 17
Mr Molloy 16
Mr Donaldson 10
Ms Purvis 5
Dr W McCrea 2
Dr Deeny 2
Mr Paisley Jnr 1
Total 8619

Assembly Questions tabled 1 April 08 to 31 July 08

Department / Office Ordinary Written AQS Priority Written AQS All Written AQS
Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late
OFMDFM 128 62 66 51.6% 35 6 29 82.9% 163 68 95 58.3%
DARD 215 215 0 0.0% 27 27 0 0.0% 242 242 0 0.0%
DCAL 158 137 21 13.3% 28 19 9 32.1% 186 156 30 16.1%
DE 523 158 365 69.8% 120 3 117 97.5% 643 161 482 75.0%
DEL 123 120 3 2.4% 16 16 0 0.0% 139 136 3 2.2%
DETI 191 174 17 8.9% 33 24 9 27.3% 224 198 26 11.6%
DFP 158 117 41 25.9% 25 14 11 44.0% 183 131 52 28.4%
DHSSPS 535 513 22 4.1% 144 118 26 18.1% 679 631 48 7.1%
DOE 286 268 18 6.3% 70 29 41 58.6% 356 297 59 16.6%
DRD 377 342 35 9.3% 65 38 27 41.5% 442 380 62 14.0%
DSD 339 302 37 10.9% 94 70 24 25.5% 433 372 61 14.1%
Assembly Commission 42 31 11 26.2% 21 17 4 19.0% 63 48 15 23.8%
Total 3075 2439 636 20.7% 678 381 297 43.8% 3753 2820 933 24.9%

Assembly Questions tabled 1 April 08 to 30 April 08

Department / Office Ordinary Written AQS Priority Written AQS All Written AQS
Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late
OFMDFM 23 6 17 73.9% 9 1 8 88.9% 32 7 25 78.1%
DARD 62 62 0 0.0% 8 8 0 0.0% 70 70 0 0.0%
DCAL 44 42 2 4.5% 16 9 7 43.8% 60 51 9 15.0%
DE 126 33 93 73.8% 18 1 17 94.4% 144 34 110 76.4%
DEL 38 36 2 5.3% 9 9 0 0.0% 47 45 2 4.3%
DETI 43 41 2 4.7% 11 8 3 27.3% 54 49 5 9.3%
DFP 41 34 7 17.1% 14 8 6 42.9% 55 42 13 23.6%
DHSSPS 136 135 1 0.7% 39 37 2 5.1% 175 172 3 1.7%
DOE 72 66 6 8.3% 17 5 12 70.6% 89 71 18 20.2%
DRD 107 96 11 10.3% 17 5 12 70.6% 124 101 23 18.5%
DSD 70 68 2 2.9% 31 27 4 12.9% 101 95 6 5.9%
Assembly Commission 17 11 6 35.3% 7 7 0 0.0% 24 18 6 25.0%
Total 779 630 149 19.1% 196 125 71 36.2% 975 755 220 22.6%

Assembly Questions tabled 1 May 08 to 31 May 08

Department / Office Ordinary Written AQS Priority Written AQS All Written AQS
Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late
OFMDFM 28 13 15 53.6% 17 2 15 88.2% 45 15 30 66.7%
DARD 77 77 0 0.0% 6 6 0 0.0% 83 83 0 0.0%
DCAL 44 32 12 27.3% 5 4 1 20.0% 49 36 13 26.5%
DE 132 30 102 77.3% 35 0 35 100.0% 167 30 137 82.0%
DEL 29 28 1 3.4% 5 5 0 0.0% 34 33 1 2.9%
DETI 59 52 7 11.9% 10 6 4 40.0% 69 58 11 15.9%
DFP 42 19 23 54.8% 3 2 1 33.3% 45 21 24 53.3%
DHSSPS 150 145 5 3.3% 25 20 5 20.0% 175 165 10 5.7%
DOE 83 80 3 3.6% 14 6 8 57.1% 97 86 11 11.3%
DRD 116 103 13 11.2% 15 8 7 46.7% 131 111 20 15.3%
DSD 99 86 13 13.1% 41 29 12 29.3% 140 115 25 17.9%
Assembly Commission 6 6 0 0.0% 1 1 0 0.0% 7 7 0 0.0%
Total 865 671 194 22.4% 177 89 88 49.7% 1042 760 282 27.1%

Assembly Questions tabled 1 June 08 to 30 June 08

Department/ Office Ordinary Written AQS Priority Written AQS All Written AQS
Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late
OFMDFM 26 17 9 34.6% 8 2 6 75.0% 34 19 15 44.1%
DARD 44 44 0 0.0% 7 7 0 0.0% 51 51 0 0.0%
DCAL 31 27 4 12.9% 4 3 1 25.0% 35 30 5 14.3%
DE 156 45 111 71.2% 60 2 58 96.7% 216 47 169 78.2%
DEL 25 25 0 0.0% 0 0 0 0.0% 25 25 0 0.0%
DETI 56 52 4 7.1% 10 8 2 20.0% 66 60 6 9.1%
DFP 39 30 9 23.1% 7 3 4 57.1% 46 33 13 28.3%
DHSSPS 137 136 1 0.7% 56 45 11 19.6% 193 181 12 6.2%
DOE 72 69 3 4.2% 26 16 10 38.5% 98 85 13 13.3%
DRD 77 72 5 6.5% 22 17 5 22.7% 99 89 10 10.1%
DSD 97 87 10 10.3% 16 12 4 25.0% 113 99 14 12.4%
Assembly Commission 10 5 5 50.0% 3 3 0 0.0% 13 8 5 38.5%
Total 770 609 161 20.9% 219 118 101 46.1% 989 727 262 26.5%

Assembly Questions tabled 1 July 08 to 31 July 08

Department/ Office Ordinary Written AQS Priority Written AQS All Written AQS
Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late Total Tabled On Time Late % Late
OFMDFM 51 26 25 49.0% 1 1 0 0.0% 52 27 25 48.1%
DARD 32 32 0 0.0% 6 6 0 0.0% 38 38 0 0.0%
DCAL 39 36 3 7.7% 3 3 0 0.0% 42 39 3 7.1%
DE 109 50 59 54.1% 7 0 7 0.0% 116 50 66 56.9%
DEL 31 31 0 0.0% 2 2 0 0.0% 33 33 0 0.0%
DETI 33 29 4 12.1% 2 2 0 0.0% 35 31 4 11.4%
DFP 36 34 2 5.6% 1 1 0 0.0% 37 35 2 5.4%
DHSSPS 112 97 15 13.4% 24 16 8 33.3% 136 113 23 16.9%
DOE 59 53 6 10.2% 13 2 11 84.6% 72 55 17 23.6%
DRD 77 71 6 7.8% 11 8 3 27.3% 88 79 9 10.2%
DSD 73 61 12 16.4% 6 2 4 66.7% 79 63 16 20.3%
Assembly Commission 9 9 0 0.0% 10 6 4 40.0% 19 15 4 21.1%
Total 661 529 132 20.0% 86 49 37 43.0% 747 578 169 22.6%

Oral Questions - Statistics on Supplementary Questions from 6 May 2008 to 30 Jun 2008

Date
Tues 6.5.08
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 12
SF 11
UUP 6
SDLP 12
ALL 7
Date
Mon 12.5.08
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 9
SF 10
UUP 11
SDLP 11
ALL 2
Date
Mon 19.5.08
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 12
SF 12
UUP 11
SDLP 13
ALL 3
Date
Tues 27.5.08
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 11
SF 9
UUP 11
SDLP 10
ALL 6
Date
2 June 2008
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 12
SF 11
UUP 9
SDLP 10
ALL 8
Date
9 June 2008
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 18
SF 13
UUP 11
SDLP 11
ALL 4
Date
16 June 2008
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 9
SF 7
UUP 11
SDLP 8
ALL 4
Date
23 June 2008
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 9
SF 10
UUP 9
SDLP 5
ALL 7
Date
30 June 2008
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 15
SF 6
UUP 10
SDLP 8
ALL 3
Date
Totals for May 2008
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 44
SF 42
UUP 39
SDLP 46
ALL 18
Date
Totals for June 2008
Party Number of Supplementaries
DUP 63
SF 47
UUP 50
SDLP 42
ALL 26
Total lead questions from
6 May to 30 June 2008 (9 weeks)
Party Total Supplementaries
43 DUP 107
40 SF 89
24 UUP 89
32 SDLP 88
22 ALL 44

NIA Logo

Guidance for Members
on Assembly Questions for
Oral and Written Answer

(Revised September 2008)

Guidance for Members on Assembly Questions for Oral and Written Answer

Contents

Introduction

Background to Assembly Questions

Admissibility of Questions

Declarations of Interest

Tabling Questions - General

Questions for Oral Answer

Private Notice Questions

Questions for Written Answer

Annex A: Wording of Questions – Conventions and Examples

Annex B: Form for Submission of Assembly Questions

Annex C: Good Practice Pointers for Members and Party Support Staff when tabling Questions

Introduction

1. This guidance is intended to support the Assembly’s Standing Orders and the conventions outlined in the Assembly Companion. The guidance is for Assembly Members and their staff and it explains how Assembly questions are tabled, processed and, for oral questions, how they are dealt with in the Assembly Chamber.

2. The guidance has been issued by the Business Office, which has responsibility, under the Speaker’s authority, for provision of support to plenary meetings of the Assembly and the operation of effective tabling processes. This includes administering questions.

3. The Business Office is located in Room 32 of Parliament Buildings, and is open Monday to Friday from 9.00am to 5.00pm, or up to 30 minutes after the Assembly rises, whichever is later. Members are welcome to seek advice on any aspect of Assembly questions from the Business Office team. The Clerks of Business can be contacted as follows:

Kevin Shiels Tel: (028 905) 21398

Mairead Mageean Tel: (028 905) 20348.

The Assistant Clerk responsible for the Business Office Table Section can also provide advice:

Paul Stitt Tel: (028 905) 21257.

Business Office Fax number: (028 905) 21962

Questions may be e-mailed to: members.questions@niassembly.gov.uk

Background to Assembly Questions

4. A Member may ask questions of:

a) a member of the Executive Committee; or

b) a member representing the Assembly Commission (Standing Order 19(1)).

5. Members decide whether they would like oral or written responses to their questions.

6. There are 4 types of Assembly question. These are as follows:

a) Oral Questions (AQOs);

b) Private Notice Questions (PNQs);

c) Written Questions (AQWs); and

d) Priority Written Questions.

Admissibility of Questions

7. The purpose of Assembly questions is to ask for information or press for action.

8. Standing Orders 19(2) and (3) clearly set out the rules concerning what is not in order in asking questions. These sections are reproduced here:

19(2) Questions should not contain:

(a) statements of facts or names of persons, unless they are strictly necessary to make the question intelligible and can be authenticated;

(b) arguments, inferences or imputations;

(c) adjectives, unless they are strictly necessary to make the question intelligible;

(d) ironical expressions; or

(e) hypothetical matter.

19(3) Questions should not ask for an expression of opinion, legal or otherwise.

Annex A gives some examples of appropriate wording of Assembly questions.

9. If a Member is in any doubt about the admissibility of a question, advice may be sought from Business Office staff prior to submitting the question.

10. The Business Office may make minor changes to the wording of a question to regularise its drafting, for example, in relation to grammar and punctuation. More significant changes will be referred back to the Member for consideration and approval.

11. A question will not be accepted if it repeats in substance a question which has been tabled and answered within the previous three calendar months. However, if a question has been tabled but not yet answered, another Member may table the same or a similar question.

12. In any instances where agreement on admissibility cannot be reached, a Member may refer the question to the Clerk Assistant, the Director of Clerking and Reporting, the Clerk/Director General and, ultimately, to the Speaker. The Speaker’s decision on the admissibility of questions is final.

Declarations of Interest

13. Members should familiarise themselves with the Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members. Paragraphs 43-45, 52, 55 and 56 of the Guide are particularly relevant in terms of questions.

14. Essentially, Members must declare any relevant interests, and take account of the Advocacy Rule[1], when they table a question. ‘Relevant interests’ include any interest which the Member is required to register in the Register of Members’ Interests, or which the Member should declare in debate. It is the responsibility of the Member to judge whether the interest is sufficiently relevant to the subject matter of the question to warrant a declaration. In making this judgement, however, Members may wish to seek advice from the Clerk of Standards and Privileges (Tel: 028 905 20333).

15. If an interest is declared, the symbol “[R]" is printed after the Member’s name on all published lists of questions.

Tabling Questions - General

16. Questions should be tabled over the counter in the Business Office at any time when the office is open, except during recess. They should normally be tabled by the Member in whose name they are to appear, but they may also be tabled on behalf of a Member by one of his/her staff, provided that person has been authorised by the Member through completion of an authorisation form ABO/1 (available from the Business Office or on AssISt). Only one person can be authorised by each Member.

17. The Business Office will, on request, provide copies of form ABO/2 (attached at Annex B) on which a notice of an Assembly question may be made. This form is also available on AssISt. Use of the form is not compulsory, and any hand-written or typed notice will suffice.

18. All notices of questions, whether for oral or written answer, or Private Notice Questions, should be signed (except questions e-mailed from authorised accounts) and delivered by a Member or a person authorised by the Member. Delivery can be in person, or by post, by fax (028905 21962), or by email.

19. Business Office staff will record the time and date on Assembly Questions that they receive over the counter or by fax.

20. Questions by e-mail should be sent to members.questions @niassembly.gov.uk

21. When Business Office staff open an e-mailed question the sender will automatically receive a notification of receipt by return e-mail.

22. All e-mailed questions must provide the same information as a question tabled in hard copy on the standard form (ABO/2) apart from the Member’s signature. The following information must be included:

23. Members and/or party support staff are responsible for ensuring that questions sent by e-mail are received by the Business Office before the relevant deadlines (for orals 1.00pm on a Tuesday; for writtens 4.00pm Monday to Friday). The Business Office cannot be responsible for questions e-mailed very close to the deadlines and not received before the deadlines because of IT or Internet problems.

Questions for Oral Answer

24. Questions for oral answer are taken in the Assembly from 2.30 – 4.00pm on Mondays on which there is a sitting (Standing Order 19(5)). There is a Question Time rota to allow Members to scrutinise the work of each Department in turn. Ministers from three Departments participate in Question Time each week. Thirty minutes is allocated to each Department. A Member representing the Assembly Commission answers questions every 12 weeks.

25. Members wishing to table a question for oral answer should be aware that:

a) Members have a period of 5 working days to table questions to relevant Departments. This period ends at 1.00pm on the penultimate Tuesday before it is due to be answered by the Minister in the Chamber (e.g. for a Question Time on Monday 13 October, the period would begin at 1.00pm on Tuesday 23 September and end at 1.00pm on Tuesday 30 September). The rota showing which Departments are on each week, and the deadlines for tabling questions, is available from the Business Office or can be accessed on AssISt or on the Assembly website.

b) A maximum of one question per Member per Department is permitted for each Question Time. The Member should clearly identify the Minister to whom the question is directed and the date of the relevant Question Time.

26. It is recommended that Members/authorised party staff table Assembly Questions as early as possible and avoid tabling large numbers shortly before the 1.00pm Tuesday deadline.

27. If clarification has to be sought from a Member about any aspect of a question, and the Member cannot be contacted, the question may not go forward into the ballot/shuffle. The earlier that questions are tabled, therefore, the easier it will be to ensure that they are cleared on time.

28. After a question has been tabled:

a) Fully admissible questions or questions requiring minor sub-editing are cleared by the Business Office;

b) Questions which are admissible but require re-drafting are cleared with the Member’s approval;

c) A Question deemed inadmissible under Standing Order 19(2) or 19(3) will not be accepted. The Member will be informed if this is the case.

d) Appeals against inadmissibility may ultimately be lodged with the Speaker, whose decision is final.

29. Using computer software, a maximum of 20 questions for each Department is selected from all admissible questions tabled. Questions not selected fall, and there will be no requirement on the Department concerned to provide an answer. The relevant Members may re-table their questions for oral or written answer at a later date.

30. Questions selected for answer will be published on the Assembly website (archive.niassembly.gov.uk) and AssISt by 8.30am each Wednesday. This list is also available in the Business Office from 9.00am each Wednesday.

31. During Question Time, a Member whose question has been selected for answer will rise and call the number of the question (rather than reading the question out). The Minister will answer the question, at which point the Member may follow up the Minister’s response with a supplementary question. At his/her discretion, the Speaker may take additional supplementary questions from other Members. The full text of each question and supplementary and the Minister’s responses to them will appear in the Official Report (Hansard) for that day.

32. The Speaker shall seek to balance the need to explore an issue satisfactorily with the need for Ministers to answer as many tabled questions as possible. Members are encouraged to be brief in their supplementary questions. When the Speaker considers that the matter raised in a question has been sufficiently explored, he/she shall call the next question.

33. Ministers may group together questions on the same subject for answer. Members whose questions have been grouped will be able to ask supplementary questions in the order in which their questions are listed.

34. If a question is published but not reached during Question Time, the Member will receive a written answer. This answer, signed by the Minister, will be available to the Member who tabled the question in his/her pigeon hole. A copy of answers to all questions not reached is sent to the Business Office for publication in the Written Answers Booklet (available at 9.00am on Mondays from the Business Office, AssISt and the Assembly website).

Private Notice Questions

35. Private Notice Questions (PNQs) are questions that are of an urgent nature and relate to matters of public importance.

36. Proposed PNQs can be tabled in the Business Office by 10.30am on any day on which there is a sitting.

37. Once a PNQ has been received in the Business Office, it will be subject to the same admissibility checks as all other questions (see paragraph 8). If it is deemed admissible, it will be passed to the Speaker.

38. If the Speaker is satisfied that the question is of an urgent nature, relates to a matter of public importance, and that adequate notice has been give to the relevant Member(s) of the Executive Committee, it will be accepted. The Member tabling the question will be informed of this and details of the question will be communicated to Members (via pigeonholes and the Annunciator).

39. PNQs do not appear on the Order Paper. They are normally taken immediately before the Adjournment Debate, but the Speaker has discretion to take a PNQ at a time convenient to both the Member asking the question and the Minister responsible for providing a substantive reply.

40. In the Chamber the Speaker, at the appropriate time, will refer to the PNQ and will simply call the Minister to provide an answer (the Member is not called to read the question). Normally, a PNQ will be allocated 20 minutes for discussion in plenary. The Speaker will normally call the Member who tabled the PNQ to pose a supplementary question, followed by the Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson (but not both) of the relevant Statutory or Standing Committee. Other Members will be permitted to pose supplementary questions only in the most exceptional circumstances. Supplementary questions without a direct and clear relationship to the original question will be ruled “out of order". If the PNQ relates to a particular constituency, the Speaker may permit questions from other Members representing that constituency.

Questions for Written Answer

41. Members can table questions for written answer in the Business Office Monday to Friday until 4.00pm. Questions received after 4.00pm will be treated as having been received on the next working day.

a) The question will normally be due for answer ten clear working days after it is published.

b) If it is a priority question (i.e. where the Member decides that an urgent reply is needed), the Member can request that it be answered within two, three, four or five clear working days of publication.

c) A maximum of five questions per Member per day may be tabled.

42. Rules regarding admissibility are the same as those for questions for oral answer (see paragraphs 8 and 22).

43. Questions cleared for answer will be published on the Assembly website (archive.niassembly.gov.uk) and AssISt by 8.30am the next day. This list is also available in the Business Office from 9.00am each day.

44. A consolidated list of questions is published at the end of each week, showing all questions that have not been answered or that have not yet reached the date for answer. A copy of this list is posted in Members’ pigeonholes each Monday morning.

45. Departments will send written answers directly to the Member who tabled the question. A copy is sent to the Business Office for inclusion in the Written Answers Booklet (available at 9.00am on Mondays from the Business Office, AssISt and the Assembly website).

46. If, exceptionally, it is not possible for the Minister to answer a question by the due date, a holding answer will be issued to the Member. The Business Office will also receive a copy of holding answers.

47. It is expected that all questions for written answer will be answered before any Recess.

48. An answer to a question may occasionally be refused by the Minister if the information sought is not readily available, and may only be obtained at disproportionate cost. The present limit for Assembly questions is £700.

Annex A

Wording of Questions – Conventions and Examples

To ask the Minister of/for..........

To ask the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister..........

Future Plans/timescales

when he/she plans to meet ..........to discuss..........

when he/she will publish/report to the Assembly on..........

what is the proposed timetable for..........

what plans he/she has to..........

Current position/provision

what ..........provision is available in..........

what the current position is in regard to..........

Assessment of need, events etc

what assessment he/she has made of the needs of adults with

what assessment he/she has made in relation to..........

for his/her assessment of..........

Policy/legislation

what policy he/she will pursue in relation to..........

if he/she will make it his/her policy to..........

if he/she will introduce legislation to cover..........

Action/progress etc

what action is being/ has been/will be taken to..........

what progress has been made on..........

what steps have been/will be taken to..........

to detail..........

if he/she would outline..........

if he/she could confirm that..........

Funding issues

what funding his/her Department provides for..........

what funding will be made available for..........

how much his/her Department is spending in 2008-09 on..........

what financial provision he/she is making available in 2008-09 to support..........

Ministerial plans

what plans he/she has to..........

if he/she will [when he/she plans to] bring forward legislative proposals to..........

to explain what he/she intends to do to ..........

if he/she will undertake to..........

Statistics

the number of..........

how many..........

Breakdown of statistics etc

broken down by parliamentary constituency

broken down by Health and Social Care Trust area

broken down by district council area

Timeframes

In/for the last financial year

in/for each of the last .......... academic years

in/for each of the last .......... calendar years

In/for each of the last .......... financial years

ABO/2 NIA Logo
Annex B

Assembly Question

Please indicate type of question to be tabled by ticking the appropriate box below

Oral Written Priority Written Private Notice

Member’s Name: (in BLOCK CAPITALS)

Date for answer

To ask the

(TITLE OF MINISTER/ASSEMBLY COMMISSION)

(AUTHORISED SIGNATURE)

Please tick box if you wish to declare a relevant interest as required by the
Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members.

For Business Office use only

(Initials) (Date)

Checked for admissibility

Registered and numbered

Ref No:

Questions for Oral Answer [SO 19]:

An oral question may be tabled in the Business Office up to 1:00pm on a Tuesday. The rota for Question Time is available from the Business Office, on the Business Office Home Page on the intranet (AssISt), and on the Assembly website.

Questions for Written Answer [SO 19]:

A written question may be tabled in the Business Office up to 4:00pm Monday to Friday.

Private Notice Questions (PNQ) [SO 20]:

A PNQ must be tabled in the Business Office no later than 10:30am on the day of the Plenary session at which an answer is required.

All questions must comply with the admissibility criteria set out in Standing Orders 19(2) and 19(3). Further information and guidance on questions is contained in the ‘Guidance for Members on Assembly Questions for Oral and Written Answer’, available from the Business Office or on the Business Office Home Page of AssISt. If you require any further information on the tabling or content of questions, please contact:

Kevin Shiels Business Office (905) 21398

Mairead Mageean Business Office (905) 20348

Paul Stitt Business Office (905) 21257

Fax Number Business Office (905) 21962

Annex C

Good Practice Pointers for Members and Party Support Staff when
Tabling Questions

Keep it brief, clearly worded, and address specific points

Fact or opinion

Superfluous Words

Possible Disproportionate Cost to Provide an Answer

An answer to a question may occasionally be refused by the relevant Minister/Department if the information sought is not readily available, and may only be obtained at disproportionate cost. The present limit for Assembly questions is £700.

Avoiding Common Errors

1. Adjectives (e.g. ‘disgraceful’ situation or ‘tragic’ deaths) – should only be included if strictly necessary to make a question intelligible – see SO 19(2) (c).

2. Questions asked about reserved or excepted matters are inadmissible – see schedules 2 and 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Examples of reserved/excepted matters include:

3. Questions asking for an expression of opinion – a Minister cannot be asked to give an expression of opinion on a matter. Questions can however be phrased to ask for a Minister’s assessment of a situation or issue.

4. Questions asking about a statement a Minister has made outside the remit of his or her office – questions can only ask about the work of the Department for which the Minister is responsible.

5. Questions including arguments, inferences and/or imputations - these are inadmissible (SO 19(2) (c)). Dictionary meaning of “impute" is “to attribute something dishonest or dishonourable to a person".

6. Questions including background information on the issue referred to – statements of facts are inadmissible unless strictly necessary to make the question intelligible and can be authenticated (SO 19(2) (a)).

7. Questions including the names of persons – these are inadmissible under SO 19(2) (a) unless they are strictly necessary to make the question intelligible and can be authenticated.

8. Questions where the category is not specified – oral, written, priority.

9. Questions marked for priority written answer, but the number of working days within which the answer is needed is not specified – Standing Orders state that this can be within 2-5 working days. The number of days within which the answer is required should be specified (e.g. 2 working days), as opposed to the date, as the latter is calculated by the Business Office and does not include the date on which the question is tabled. Members are encouraged to think carefully about using the priority written question facility. For example, its use would be appropriate if the information is needed, in less than the normal 10 working days, for a meeting.

10. Questions which are illegible – Members should ensure that handwritten questions are easy to read, and, in particular, should pay special attention to legibility of names of places and/or organisations, avoiding acronyms and spelling names in full where possible.

Note:

If Members are unavailable to answer any queries regarding questions tabled, the Business Office will make every effort to resolve the issue, but if this proves impossible, the question may be held until the next day. This is most likely to occur when questions are tabled close to the 4.00pm deadline (for written questions) and it is not possible to contact the Member. The issue is even more critical in relation to oral questions. If a Member cannot be reached to clarify a query relating to the admissibility of an oral question, the question may not be included in the ballot/shuffle and will fall.

[1] Further information on the Advocacy Rule can be found in Section 3 of the Code of Conduct and Guide Relating to the Conduct of Members.

Functions of OFMDFM

1. Outlined below are the range of functions of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

(a) Coordinating the Executive’s policies and monitoring the effectiveness of public spending in achieving the administration’s goals.

(b) Setting targets and coordinating government action plans.

(c) Setting priorities for improving investment in infrastructure.

(d) Building equality, good relations, social cohesion and eliminating poverty and social exclusion.

(e) Meeting the requirements of Ministers and Departments for legal advice, services and representation.

(f) Promoting and monitoring implementation of cross-cutting policy and strategy in key areas including:

(g) Taking forward work on the key future strategic challenges.

(h) Providing an effective external and internal communication service to Ministers and Departments, co-ordination of corporate communication messages and centralised management of Government advertising.

(i) Management of the Integrated Development Fund.

(j) In partnership with the Department of Finance and Personnel providing advice and guidance to the Northern Ireland Civil Service on governance issues.

(k) Working with ministers and officials in Departments to draft Northern Ireland Bills and adapt Westminster Bills extending to here.

(l) Providing advice and guidance to Ministers and officials on constitutional matters.

(m) Providing the services of the Statutory Publications Office.

(n) Coordinating the implementation of Review of Public Administration cross cutting themes.

(o) Developing the Programme for Government.

(p) Providing advice and guidance to Ministers and secretariat functions to ensure effective operation of the Executive and the North South Ministerial Council.

(q) Co-ordination of the NI contribution to British Irish Council and the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference.

(r) Supporting Ministers on the work of Assembly and Westminster committees.

(s) Providing advice and guidance to the Northern Ireland Civil Service on Parliamentary/Assembly procedures, questions and committees.

(t) Providing advice and guidance to the Northern Ireland Civil Service on maximising the benefits the European Union and from international relationships.

(u) Improving the policy making capacity of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

(v) Monitoring the type and level of threat to Northern Ireland, advising on appropriate response measures and putting suitable structures in place to facilitate action as required.

(w) Undertaking a range of central functions and providing advice and support to Departments on a range of issues including Freedom of Information, Public Appointments and Honours.

(x) In partnership with the Department of Finance and Personnel, arbitrating and deciding on competing funding demands.

(y) Working with other government departments to implement the Reform Programme to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

(z) Providing a range of corporate services to staff in OFMDFM.

Extract From Official Report
– 11 June 2007 –
Oral Question to FM and DFM

Junior Ministers

3. Mr Burns asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on the appointment of junior Ministers. (AQO 37/07)

9. Mr McGlone asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make a statement on the role of junior Ministers in the Executive. (AQO 34/07)

The First Minister: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer question 3 and question 9 together. The Deputy First Minister and I appointed junior Ministers to OFMDFM on 8 May, under the authority of a determination made in December 1999, which, as it did in the previous Assembly, provided for two junior Ministers, whose functions would be to assist the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the exercise of their functions in OFMDFM.

The junior Ministers are assisting the Deputy First Minister and me in dealing with the enormous workload associated with all those functions. In addition, they have particular responsibility for liaising with the Assembly on Executive business, for co-ordination of policy for young people and children’s issues, and for older people’s issues. In order to discharge those responsibilities, they need to attend Executive meetings and to participate in them as appropriate. They are not members of the Executive, so they cannot vote on any issue for which a vote is required in Executive meetings.

The Deputy First Minister and I consider junior Ministers essential to improving relationships and communication with the House, to facilitating the business of the House and the Executive, and to taking forward the work areas that have been assigned to them.