Inquiry into Topical Questions
Committee: Committee on Procedures
Date: Tuesday, 19 March 2013
Reference: NIA 105/11-15
Mandate Report Number: Second Report
Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Written Submissions
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 the power to:
- Consider and review, on an ongoing basis, the Standing Orders and procedures of the Assembly;
- Initiate inquiries and publish reports;
- Update the Standing Orders of the Assembly for punctuation and grammar;
- Republish Standing Orders annually; and
- Call for persons and papers.
This report marks the completion of the Committee’s inquiry into Topical Questions (TQs), which it agreed to undertake in February 2012. The inquiry aimed to ascertain whether there was merit in introducing Standing Orders (SOs) to facilitate Topical Questions in the Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) and, if so, how these could best be managed in practice.
To inform its consideration of these issues, the Committee considered written submissions from the Speaker, the Scottish Parliament, the Dáil, the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland Executive Committee and political parties from within the Northern Ireland Assembly who responded to the Committee’s request for written submissions. Comparative research was also commissioned into best practice in other jurisdictions.
Members considered the views of stakeholders and agreed that the introduction of Topical Question Time (TQT) to the NIA would provide an additional opportunity for Members to scrutinise Ministers and hold them to account on more immediate issues. The Committee therefore recommends the introduction of such a facility.
The arrangements for managing this process within the NIA were then considered, with the Committee using comparative research to further inform its deliberations. The Committee considered it essential that Standing Orders facilitated a robust process during TQT, that was in line with best practice while ensuring the specific requirements of the NIA were met.
The Committee asks that the Assembly agree this report and give its approval to proceed with drafting Standing Orders to implement the findings and recommendations set out within it.
Summary of Recommendations
Standing Orders (SOs) are drafted to introduce a procedure to enable enhanced scrutiny of the work of departments and to hold Ministers to account, enabling issues to be raised when they are topical.
In terms of this recommendation a number of Standing Order process recommendations were derived which are detailed below:
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1a)
That Ministers are informed, three working days in advance of their Topical Question Time (TQT), of ONLY the NAMES of the Members selected to ask questions. No notice of the content of the question itself need be provided in advance.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1b)
That Topical Questions may relate to constituency or regional issues and must relate to a Minister’s official responsibilities.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1c)
That Topical Questions form part of the existing Question Time rota, with Ministers required to answer Topical Questions on the same day as they are scheduled to answer Oral Questions.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1d)
That an additional fifteen minutes be allocated to the Question Time to each Minister to answer Topical Questions.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1e)
That Topical Questions should be taken in the fifteen minutes preceding the Minister’s regular Question Time slot.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1f)
That questions to the relevant Ministers, including Topical Questions and Oral Questions, run for 45 minute slots, from 2.00 – 3.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays when the Assembly is sitting.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1g)
That answers to Topical Questions should not be debated and that each Member who asks a Topical Question should be entitled to a supplementary question, which should contain no more than one enquiry.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1h)
That no other Members (including committee Chairpersons) should be offered the option to ask supplementary questions.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1i)
That the time limits applied to Topical Question Time reflect those already established in Standing Order 20(8A) whereby the Minister has up to two minutes to respond, which may be extended at the discretion of the Speaker.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1j)
That NO automatic opportunity to ask a Topical Question be afforded to committee Chairpersons.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1k)
That should a Member not be present when their turn is called, the Speaker will move on and that no one will be allowed to ask a Topical Question on another Member’s behalf.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1l)
That all Members wishing to be considered for Topical Question Time on a particular day should submit their names to the Business Office, where they will be included in a ballot and then a shuffle in order to determine who, and in what order Topical Questions will be put to the relevant Minister.
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1m)
That Members should submit their names before 10.30am three working days in advance of the relevant TQT. (This would mean a deadline of 10.30am on Wednesday for TQT on Monday the following week, and before 10.30am on Thursday for TQT on Tuesday the following week).
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1n)
That the top ten successful NAMES and the order in which they will be called for Topical Questions will be provided to the Minister and the successful Members before 1.00pm on the same day as the ballot and shuffle are held (i.e. Wednesday or Thursday as appropriate).
Standing Order Process Recommendation 1o)
That no screening process would be required in advance of TQT, but rather that the broad admissibility criteria will be applied at the Speaker’s discretion, in the Chamber.
This type of question is referred to as a Topical Question.
The Assembly Commission is excluded from the Topical Questions rota.
The proposed process run for a trial period of six months, following which a review of the process and practices should be undertaken by the Committee on Procedures.