Assembly Sitting Wednesday 7 December 2022
Letter from the Speaker to MLAs
A number of issues arose at the Assembly sitting on Wednesday 7 December 2022. In the absence of having the opportunity in the Assembly Chamber, I am writing to all Members to deal with these matters.
Before I do so, I want to thank Alan Chambers MLA and Stewart Dickson MLA for overseeing the attempts there have been to elect a new Speaker thus far as Acting Speaker. It has only been necessary for them to perform, what is supposed to be a very limited and infrequently used role, as a result of the Assembly’s ongoing failure to elect a Speaker. The Acting Speaker only has responsibility for that item of business. While a Speaker elected by the Assembly has the opportunity to deal with the full breadth of issues over time, including the detail of the Assembly’s standards of debate, the same cannot be expected of the Acting Speaker.
Remarks Made by Doug Beattie MLA
In the Chamber, and subsequently, a number of Members have requested a ruling on comments made by Doug Beattie MLA. The entitlement of Members to freedom of expression, including to make points forcefully in a way which others might disagree with, is important to enable full and frank debate on important issues. However, Members have to use that privilege within the standards of debate expected in the Assembly, and they still have a responsibility to exercise care in the language they use.
While Standing Order 65 provides for the Speaker to deal with contributions in the Assembly Chamber, including unparliamentary language, the detail of the expected standards of debate have been defined and developed by various Speakers’ Rulings over the years. These rulings set out that the concept of unparliamentary language is not used in the Assembly in the sense of purely considering words in themselves. It is the tone and context of which the Speaker must take account.
The rulings also set out that the general standards of debate expected in the Assembly Chamber are courtesy, good temper, moderation and respect. Mr Beattie’s remarks clearly fell well short of those standards. Having had to address similar issues in the Assembly on a previous occasion, it is disappointing that a Party Leader, who should be expected to know better, made remarks of this nature in the Chamber.
I am conscious that this is a new Assembly with a number of Members elected for the first time. I am attaching correspondence which I issued to all Members of the then Assembly in April 2021. That letter attempts to translate the Assembly’s standards into 10 practical principles of debate to guide Members. I would encourage Members to take account of that guidance before any future sitting.
I appreciate that there are deep frustrations and tensions at the current time. However, I would ask all Members to reflect on whether they think Wednesday’s proceedings would have served to only further diminish public confidence in the Assembly.
I would ask all Members to take account of the points in this letter for future sittings.