Guide for Witnesses appearing before Assembly Committees
1. This guide provides information and advice that will be of benefit to witnesses appearing before committees of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
WHAT IS A STATUTORY COMMITTEE?
2. Statutory committees have been established under Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and Standing Order 46. There are twelve statutory committees, each of which is associated with a government department. Their purpose is to advise and assist ministers in the formulation of policy. Committees have a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role in respect of the department with which each is associated and also have a role in the initiation of legislation.
3. Committees have power to:
- consider and advise on departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- consider relevant secondary legislation and take the committee stage of relevant primary legislation;
- call for persons and papers;
- initiate inquiries and make reports; and
- consider and advise on matters brought to them by their minister.
WHAT IS A STANDING COMMITTEE?
4. Standing committees are permanent committees of the Assembly, established under Standing Order 50. There are six standing committees:
- Committee on Procedures - to consider and review on an ongoing basis the Standing Orders and procedures of the Assembly.
- Business Committee - to make arrangements for the business of the Assembly.
- Public Accounts Committee - to consider accounts, and reports on accounts, laid before the Assembly.
- Committee on Standards and Privileges - to consider specific matters relating to privilege and to oversee the work of the Assembly Clerk of Standards.
- Audit Committee - to agree with the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland the operating expenses of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, and to lay before the Assembly the estimate of those expenses.
- Assembly and Executive Review Committee – to consider matters relating to the functioning of the Assembly or the Executive Committee as may be referred to it by the Assembly; consider the operation of Sections 16A to 16C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and, in particular, whether to recommend that the Secretary of State should make an order amending that Act and any other enactment so far as may be necessary to secure that they have effect, as from the date of the election of the 2011 Assembly, as if the executive selection amendments had not been made; and make a report to the Secretary of State, the Assembly and the Executive Committee, by no later than 1 May 2015, on the operation of Parts 3 and 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
WHAT IS AN AD HOC COMMITTEE?
5. Ad hoc committees are established under Standing Order 53 to deal with any specific time-bound terms of reference that the Assembly may set.
6. Most committees have 11 members including a chairperson and a deputy chairperson. Exceptions are the Business Committee, which has 13 members and the Audit Committee, which has 5 members.
HOW DOES A COMMITTEE GO ABOUT ITS WORK?
7. A committee proceeds by way of scrutiny of a matter or matters within its terms of reference. This may be done by a formal inquiry, the subject of an inquiry being determined by the committee itself. Having sought and received written evidence in the form of memoranda, reports, papers, etc., from interested parties, the committee holds a meeting or series of meetings at which certain witnesses are invited to present evidence. Witnesses will often be selected from among those who have submitted written evidence. The selection of witnesses is a matter for the committee itself. There is no right of appearance before a committee.
HOW SHOULD WRITTEN EVIDENCE BE SUBMITTED?
8. All organisations and individuals are welcome to submit written evidence. Committee staff will make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities to enable them to submit evidence in an alternative format. Organisations and individuals wishing to submit evidence in an alternative format should advise the committee office in advance – contact details can be found at paragraph 37.
9. Written evidence should give a brief introduction to the persons or organisations submitting it (perhaps stating their area of expertise, etc.). It should set out any factual information they have to offer from which the committee might be able to draw conclusions (or which could be put to witnesses for their reactions). It is also helpful to include any recommendations for action by departments or others that the individual or organisation would like the committee to consider for inclusion in its report.
10. Written evidence should be in the form of a brief, self-contained memorandum with numbered paragraphs but without page numbers, and should be prefaced with a 1-2 page summary plus, if appropriate, a table of contents. Colour printing should be avoided.
11. Submissions should be structured so that each of the issues/concerns specified in the terms of reference is addressed in turn.
12. If possible, written evidence should be emailed to the committee as a 'word document'. Alternatively fifteen copies of the material should be submitted. Memoranda should be stapled rather than bound so that further copies can easily be made.
13. Witnesses should be aware that if they decide to publish the evidence that they provide to the committee, the publication would not be covered by Assembly privilege. Witnesses who nevertheless decide to publish their evidence should provide the committee with advance notice of their intentions.
14. Unless indicated otherwise it will be assumed that those submitting written evidence have no objections to it being made public by the committee. If witnesses give oral evidence, copies of their written evidence will usually be made available to the press and public at the hearing and treated as being in the public domain thereafter. Written evidence in an alternative format can be requested on the day of the evidence session and a copy will be forwarded by the committee office thereafter. Written evidence submitted by those not giving oral evidence will usually be made public by the committee at the end of the inquiry, by publication or other means.
15. Where a date has been set for an evidence session, any written evidence should, where possible, be forwarded to the committee clerk at least two weeks in advance.
HOW SHOULD WITNESSES PREPARE FOR THE MEETING?
16. To assist witnesses to prepare for their appearance before a committee, a member of the committee staff may provide some general briefing to witnesses by telephone. This briefing may indicate the order in which it is expected particular matters might be addressed in the course of the meeting, and, in cases where some research or gathering information or views might be necessary, may give a more precise indication of certain questions which are likely to be asked. Witnesses can expect to be given the briefing some time in the week prior to their appearance before a committee. Witnesses will not normally be briefed in writing. Witnesses should also prepare themselves to answer questions not covered by the briefing and should note that committee members may choose to illustrate points of interest by reference to their constituencies.
17. The Assembly can provide an interpreter or other forms of communication support service if required. Induction loops are installed in the committee rooms in the Assembly for witnesses with hearing difficulties.
18. To avail of any of these services, or to advise of additional adjustments, please contact the committee office as soon as possible to discuss your requirements.
19. Witnesses may wish to familiarise themselves with the work of the committee by browsing the relevant committee web pages. People with disabilities experiencing difficulties accessing information on the website should contact the committee office – contact details can be found on the committee web pages.
WHERE DO COMMITTEES MEET?
20. Most sittings of committees are held in one of the committee rooms at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. When coming to Parliament Buildings, witnesses should park in the large car park to the right (east) of the building (please see attached map). Access to committee rooms is via the main entrance to Parliament Buildings. Before entering Parliament Buildings witnesses are obliged to pass through security, which includes x-ray examination of bags and briefcases, and will need to obtain a visitor's pass. It is therefore advisable to allow at least ten minutes for access to one of the committee rooms. A doorkeeper or a member of the committee staff will escort witnesses from the reception area to the appropriate committee room. Briefcases or large bags are not permitted in the committee room. Secure storage for any briefcases or large bags is available in the Great Hall, subject to availability. Any items left outside the committee room are left entirely at owners' risk.
21. Parliament Buildings has parking for people with disabilities in the Upper East Car Park. If you wish to avail of this parking, inform the committee office and the necessary arrangements will be made for you – contact details can be found at paragraph 37. Wheelchair users and those people with mobility difficulties can access the building at the East door.
22. Where meetings take place away from Parliament Buildings, witnesses will be notified of alternative meeting arrangements. Witnesses should advise the committee office of any specific needs/special requirements they may have, which would facilitate attendance at a committee meeting. Staff will endeavour to arrange a venue which is accessible and suitable for all.
HOW IS A COMMITTEE ROOM ARRANGED?
23. The room will be so arranged that the committee members and the committee clerk sit around one or more tables, with witnesses seated at a table facing them. Access for wheelchair users is available, and induction loops are installed in all committee rooms (setting T). Induction loops do not cover the public gallery in some of the committee rooms. Therefore, if you have hearing difficulties, you should contact the committee office if you intend to sit in the public gallery to listen to other evidence sessions – contact details can be found at paragraph 37.
24. Members of the public will sit behind the witnesses under the guidance of doorkeepers who will ensure that good order is kept throughout. Notes may be taken, but no form of tape recording may be made, no photography is permitted and no refreshments may be consumed. The passing of notes or papers to members or witnesses during meetings is not permitted. A committee may make available, to the press and public, copies of any written evidence already submitted by the witnesses attending a committee meeting. Written evidence in an alternative format can be requested on the day of the evidence session and a copy will be forwarded by the committee office thereafter. Committee staff and advisers sit behind or to one side of the committee table.
25. Assembly Hansard staff attend some meetings to record details of committee proceedings. They are seated at the table near the chairperson.
WHAT HAPPENS AT A COMMITTEE MEETING?
26. Witnesses will be informed of the date and time of evidence sessions in advance by committee staff. The committee will try to ensure that witnesses are taken as close as possible to their allocated time. Committee staff should be given at least one week's notice of the names of the witnesses appearing before the committee and their titles within their organisation. It is normal practice for the number of witnesses giving oral evidence from any one organisation to be restricted to a maximum of four people, including aides. However, witnesses in need of assistance due to a disability will be permitted an additional aide who shall not be considered in the group number. Witness names will be published.
27. Committees of the Assembly have an important scrutiny, policy development and legislative role and proceedings are, therefore, relatively formal. Committee members, however, will often encourage a more informal and participative approach.
28. The committee chairperson will open the meeting by asking the lead witness to introduce his/her team to the committee, and may provide an opportunity for a witness to make a brief opening statement before inviting fellow committee members to ask questions. Where more than one individual appears before a committee, a question may be answered by any witness present, unless it is directed to a particular witness. Witnesses should refer to the chairperson as "chairperson" and to other committee members by their surname. Nameplates identify committee members and witnesses and chairpersons call committee members to speak using their full name.
29. A witness invited to appear before a committee will be expected to answer detailed and probing questions on the subject under consideration but may also, for the purpose of placing facts or opinions on the record, be invited to respond to some very straightforward questions. In answering either type of question, succinct, clear and unequivocal responses should be given. Where a witness does not know the answer to a question, an indication to that effect is preferable. If necessary, a witness may offer to provide a note, which will answer a question, especially if the information requested is very detailed. If, due to time constraints, not all questions can be asked by the members during the evidence session, witnesses may be given a list of the outstanding questions so that they may subsequently provide replies in writing.
ARE THE PRESS AND PUBLIC ALLOWED INTO MEETINGS?
30. Yes. There is a presumption that evidence sessions will be held in public. Committees may decide, in certain circumstances, to take evidence in closed session.
31. Witnesses should also be aware that, when a committee is in public session, the proceedings are transmitted throughout Parliament Buildings on an internal audio network and are regularly televised. Members of the press can tune into committee proceedings via this network.
ARE MEETINGS OF ASSEMBLY COMMITTEES PROTECTED BY THE RULES OF PRIVILEGE?
32. Yes. Under Section 50 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, for the purposes of the law of defamation, absolute privilege applies to statements made to or in the report of a committee of the Assembly. This privilege covers all evidence given by a witness to a committee whether in oral or in written form. It means that no action may lie in defamation against a witness in respect of such statements.
33. Witnesses should be aware that if they decide to publish the evidence that they provide to the committee, the publication would not be covered by Assembly privilege in relation to the law of defamation. Witnesses who nevertheless decide to publish their evidence should provide the committee with advance notice of their intentions.
WHAT RECORD IS MADE OF A MEETING?
34. All public meetings of a committee are recorded. Many recordings are then transcribed by Hansard staff and a verbatim transcript of the evidence is prepared. The transcript will be forwarded to each witness following the meeting for a check of the accuracy in the printing or reporting of the evidence. Amended transcripts should be returned without delay. Transcripts of evidence may be included in the published report of a committee. Persons requiring transcripts in alternative formats should contact the Editor of Debates on Tel: 028 9052 1135.
35. On some occasions recordings will be made for later broadcast on radio or television. If a meeting is to be televised, witnesses will, if possible, be notified in advance. Increasingly, committee meetings are live streamed on the Assembly Website.
CAN WITNESSES CLAIM EXPENSES FOR APPEARING BEFORE A COMMITTEE?
36. Witnesses may be able to recover expenses necessarily incurred in attending a committee meeting. This should be discussed in advance of attendance with the committee office. A witness who is required to travel to a committee meeting from outside Northern Ireland should always contact the committee clerk before making the travel arrangements to discuss/agree the level of expenses that will be met. Following attendance at the committee meeting, a summary of the expenses necessarily incurred with receipts should be forwarded to the committee clerk. Payment will be made direct to the witness by the Assembly's Finance Office.
HOW CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION ON THE OPERATION OF ASSEMBLY COMMITTEES?
37. If you would like further information on the operation of Assembly committees, you should contact the relevant committee office. Contact details are available on the committee web pages.