Review of Topical Questions
Date: 25 November 2014
Reference: NIA 209/11-16
Mandate Number: Mandate 2011/16 Fourth Report
Review-of-Topical-Questions.pdf (1.72 mb)
Download the full report here.
When the introduction of Topical Questions was agreed on 15 April 2013, the Assembly also agreed that the Committee on Procedures (the Committee) undertake a review of the process after a six month trial period.
A single issue review, carried out by the Committee in November 2013, resulted in Topical Question Time being moved to the 15 minute slot after Assembly Questions to each Minister. However, this did not preclude the need for a full review of the process and this report sets out the findings of that full review.
Having considered statistical information and evidence provided, the Committee concluded that Topical Question Time was perceived to have provided a valuable additional opportunity to hold Ministers and departments to account and should be retained largely unchanged.
However, one area, that of the balance of time set aside for Topical Questions and Assembly Questions, was highlighted as needing further consideration and the Committee therefore agreed that this matter would be subject to a further review after a further six month period.
Summary of Recommendations
The Committee recommended that Topical Question Time (TQT) be retained.
The Committee recommended that no change be made to the existing order of Question Time (QT).
The Committee recommended that no change to the overall allocation of time for QT be made.
The Committee recommended that the current breakdown of time allocated within QT be retained, but that a further review of this issue be carried out in six months.
The Committee recommended that no change to the current procedures in respect of advance notice for TQT be made.
The Committee recommended that no additional admissibility criteria or definition of topicality be introduced.
The Committee recommended that Standing Orders be amended to reflect the requirement in Standing Order 20(7) that the first question may not be asked by a Member of the same party as the Minister.
The Committee recommend that no changes be made to the current procedures in respect of supplementary questions permitted during TQT.
When the introduction of Topical Questions (TQs) was agreed on 15 April 2013, the Assembly also agreed that the Committee on Procedures (the Committee) would undertake a review of the process after a six month trial period.
A single issue review was carried out by the Committee in November 2013, after a number of comments were received, expressing concern over the impact Topical Question Time (TQT) was having on Question Time (QT). Comments centred on the positioning of TQT i.e. TQT before Assembly Questions (AQs). This review resulted in TQT being moved to the 15 minute slot after Assembly Questions to each Minister, but did not preclude the need for the Committee to undertake a full review of the process. This report sets out the findings of the Committee’s full review.
TQT has been in operation since 9 September 2013. From this date until the start of the summer recess in July 2014, 792 TQs and 764 supplementaries had been asked of Ministers. Initial fears that Ministers would be unable to respond effectively to this type of spontaneous questioning have not been realised.
Data to inform the Committee’s review has been collected throughout the review period, both as quantitative data from TQT1 itself and qualitative data from the Committee’s call for evidence2 as part of this review and through collation of comments received by the Assembly’s Business Office from individual Members over the period3.
Consideration of Key Issues and Analysis of Evidence
Quantitative data suggested that attendance at the start of QT has remained consistent over the period of the review, with an average of 44 Members in attendance. Figures did not differentiate between attendance at TQT and AQs within this period, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of Members do leave the Chamber after completion of AQs and begin to re-enter at the end of the initial TQT.
Evidence also shows that there were 85 occasions on which Members were not in their place to ask a question and supplementary, equivalent to 10% of opportunities missed. On a further 49 occasions names were withdrawn after the ballot, giving a total of 17% of possible TQs and supplementary questions not being asked over the entire period.
The Committee noted that, on average, 6 questions and supplementaries were asked during the 15 minutes of TQT, with only one instance of all 10 TQs on the list being reached.
In examining submissions from the BBC4, the Speaker5, the SDLP6 and the UUP7, as well as comments collected over the pilot period, the Committee noted that the majority of respondents were in favour of the continuation of TQT.
Only one respondent (UKIP8) suggested the process was less than successful, suggesting it had only achieved an extension of Question Time and that in order to be truly effective a topicality test should be introduced and TQT only held if questions passing such a test were received.
Having considered both the statistical information and evidence provided, the Committee concluded that the practice of TQT was perceived to have provided a valuable additional opportunity to hold Ministers and departments to account. The Committee recognised that further examination of data and evidence was needed to identify any opportunities which might exist to fine tune the process, but recommended that Topical Question Time be retained.
From further consideration of submissions received and data available the Committee identified the following elements of the TQT process for review in order to identify any enhancements possible:
a. The order in which TQs and AQs are taken within QT;
b. The total time allocated to QT;
c. The balance of time allocated to AQs and TQs;
d. Provision of advance notice of the topic or content of TQs;
e. Introduction of any further admissibility criteria;
f. Introduction of a definition of topicality;
g. Introduction of restrictions to who can ask TQs; and
h. Introduction of opportunity for further use of supplementary TQs.
Order of AQs and TQs within Question Time
The Assembly had approved the Committee’s recommendation that TQT be taken after Assembly Questions to the Minister following the interim review in November 2013 and the Committee now considered it had sufficient data to ascertain how effective the revised process had been.
During oral evidence provided on 23 September 2014, junior Ministers9 advised that all Ministers were broadly content with current procedural arrangements for TQs and confirmed the revised order of QT was seen as an improvement. This view mirrored comments submitted by the Speaker10, the UUP11 and the SDLP12, as well as Committee Members in their comments.
Statistical data did not contradict stakeholder comments, showing no change in attendance during TQT in the chamber following the November 2013 change and therefore the Committee were content to recommend that no change be made to the existing order of Question Time.
Total Time Allocated to Question Time
On examination of stakeholder submissions, the Committee noted general agreement that the existing 45 minute duration was appropriate for Question Time to each Minister.
Opinions were explicitly expressed by the SDLP and the Speaker, who both suggested that a further extension of Question Time was not desirable. The UUP did not comment specifically on the length of QT. However, in their discussion on the balance of time allocated to TQT and AQs the Committee noted no reference to changing the 45 minute duration of QT as a whole, a factor which the Committee was content suggested no issue with the overall time allocated to QT.
The UKIP response, which is critical of the current processes of TQT in other ways, does not highlight any concerns about the length of QT.
Having considered available opinion and having found no contradictory statistical data, the Committee recommended that no change to the overall allocation of time for QT be made.
Balance of Time Allocation with Question Time
The Committee noted that all stakeholder responses included comments in respect of the balance of time allocated to TQT and AQs.
During their presentation, junior Ministers stated13 that the opinions they would present in terms of this topic had not been collectively agreed by the Executive Committee (the Executive). However, they confirmed that a number of Ministers had expressed a neutral view in this regard, or would be content if time allowed for TQs was increased, while others had strong objections to any change in the current balance.
All other stakeholder submissions noted they were in favour of an increase in the length of time given to TQs within QT, but offered a variety of suggestions on how this should be achieved.
The Speaker refers to suggestions he received from individual Members that TQT should be extended and confirms he sees merit in this. However, no further detail as to the nature of this extension within the 45 minute time period was offered.
A similar view was expressed in the SDLP response, which suggested that the TQT time portion of QT be extended, but gave no further detail on how much of an extension was deemed appropriate. The BBC on the other hand was quite clear, suggesting that QT should be split in half. The UUP view was broadly in agreement with the BBC view, suggesting 25 minutes for AQs and 20 minutes for TQ’s.
The only suggestion that there should be a reduction in the time allowed for TQT was received from UKIP, who proposed that TQT should not be a weekly occurrence at all, but rather only be scheduled when a question is received that passes a topicality test.
Quantitative data was not able to add anything to this consideration and having taken into account the balance of opinion expressed, the Committee recommended that the current breakdown of time allocated within QT be retained, but that a further review of this issue be carried out in six months.
Advance Notice of Content or Topic
Between 9 September 2013 and 1 July 2014, 1556 TQs and supplementaries have been put to Ministers during TQT. Initial fears that Ministers would be unable to respond to TQs have not been realised and, while no quantitative data is available, the occurrence of Ministers not answering a TQ in the Chamber has been rare enough that no Member has logged comment with the Business Office in this regard. The Committee was content that this indicated no issue in terms of advance notice existed.
The only stakeholders to suggest anything different were the junior Ministers who, during their oral evidence session on 23 September 2014, indicated that advance notice of the topic to be raised might prove helpful in enhancing answers. However, as the matter had not been raised as a concern in any other submissions, the Committee was content to recommend that no change to the current procedures in respect of advance notice for TQT be made.
Admissibility and Definition of Topicality
In considering admissibility, the Committee acknowledged the interdependence with the issue of defining topicality, and agreed to consideration of both issues under one heading.
Both admissibility and topicality were areas considered at length by the Committee in its initial inquiry into the introduction of TQT. The topics were referred to again in submissions and comments received as part of this review. These highlighted a clear difference of opinion between views expressed by Ministers and those of other stakeholders.
In his response, the Speaker suggested that he was not in favour of any definition of topicality since it would be difficult for him to be aware of every emerging departmental or constituency issue and therefore would be hard pressed to rule on admissibility in the Chamber.
The Committee acknowledged the Speaker’s view and suggested that if this was agreed any screening for admissibility against a definition of topicality would therefore need to be done in advance of TQT. The Committee agreed that if this was to be done, knowledge of the content of questions would be required, which would adversely affect the spontaneity of TQT.
The Committee noted that several relevant points had been covered when the decision to move TQT to the end of QT was made. One of the reasons for making the move was to allow Members to probe further on any AQs where they were not satisfied with the response, and another, to allow Members to ask a question from the oral list that had not been reached. Therefore, since oral questions can be followed up during TQT, and since orals have no topicality test, it follows logically that there should be no topicality test introduced.
While UKIP had expressed its preference for admissibility criteria to be introduced, the Committee, having taken into account the balance of opinion and that one of the aims of TQT was to achieve spontaneity , recommended that no additional admissibility criteria or definition of topicality be introduced.
This heading was used to cover stakeholder opinions which suggested limiting which Members or parties should be permitted to ask TQs of specific Ministers.
Again, stakeholder opinion was mixed. The Executive did not offer an agreed opinion, with junior Ministers again reporting a variety of Ministerial views. These included some who were content, or would actively support the introduction of a partial restriction similar to that in force for AQs under Standing Order 20(7). However, others were strongly opposed to any restriction, suggesting it would inhibit the rights of Members from certain parties to hold ALL Ministers to account.
One informal comment, logged by the Business Office during the period under review, suggested that a partial restriction as for AQs would be beneficial as it would limit the risk of Ministers being advised in advance of the content of TQs, while another went so far as to suggest that no names from the Minister’s party should be entered into the ballot for that QT at all.
Only one other formal submission was received on this topic and that was from the UUP. This suggested a partial restriction should be introduced, but that its format should be different to that of AQs, with the first TQ allocated to the Chairperson of the relevant Committee, the second to the deputy Chairperson and no more that 40% of the remaining questions to be allocated to Members of the same party as the Minister.
The Committee weighed the feasibility of views and agreed that while some value in introducing restrictions could be found, an overly prescriptive approach would be counterproductive. It believed that a suitable balance could be achieved by mirroring the restrictions in place for AQs and recommended that Standing Orders be amended to include a restriction for TQs that mirrors SO20(7).
Enhanced use of Supplementary Questions
The final aspect of TQT considered by the Committee was the use of supplementary questions.
The Committee considered whether enhanced scrutiny could be achieved by allowing Members, other than the Member who had posed the initial TQ, to ask additional supplementaries in a manner similar to that used in AQs. In this arrangement, Members rise in their place to indicate they wish to be called to ask a supplementary at the Speaker’s discretion15.
Junior Ministers reported that, on this occasion, a majority of Ministers would be content if such a change were introduced, but highlighted that such a step would likely reduce the number of TQs covered in the time permitted. The Speaker, who was also broadly in favour of such a step, raised a similar concern.
The view of the SDLP was that it would be beneficial to permit more than one supplementary question to each TQ, and that the Speaker’s discretion could be used to allow certain lines of questioning to develop, rather than using a complex method of apportioning supplementaries, such as use of the d’Hondt formula.
Two further informal comments were received by the Business Office during the review period, and both these suggested there would be value in permitting additional supplementary questions.
The Committee considered the matter; particularly in terms of the benefit afforded other Members if extra supplementaries were permitted against the detriment to Members drawn in the ballot should their questions not be reached. This was then weighed against the general view that TQT was proving successful in its current format. After discussion, the Committee recommended that no changes be made to the current procedures in respect of supplementary questions permitted during TQT.
1 Statistical Data at Appendix 4
2 Written Submissions can be found at Appendix 3
3 Table of Comments received in the Business Office can be found at Appendix 5
4 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
5 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
6 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
7 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
8 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
9 Hansard of 23 September 2014 at Appendix 2
10 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
11 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
12 Written Submission included at Appendix 3
13 Hansard of 23 September 2014 – Appendix 2
14 Standing Order (SO) 20(7), which states, “………However, the first question may not be from a member of the same party as the Minister to whom it is addressed, unless all the questions (drawn out of the ballot) are from members of that party”.
15 Speaker’s Rulings and Conventions – 3.6 Assembly Questions (3.6g).
Please refer to full report for Appendices.