Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence



1.   Questions

  1.1  Standing Order 19(1) provides for Assembly Members to ask questions of a Member of the Executive Committee relating to public affairs with which his/her Department is officially connected or to any matter of administration for which he/she is responsible. In addition questions may be asked of a Member representing the Assembly Commission in relation to any matter or matters for which the Commission carries responsibility.

2.   Purpose of Assembly Questions

  2.1  Ordinarily, the purpose of a question is to obtain information or press for action; it should not be framed to convey information or to suggest its own answer or convey a particular point of view. [4]

  2.2  Assembly questions and answers are published in the Assembly's official record of proceedings and are therefore important ways in which Members can hold Executive Ministers and the Assembly Commission to account. Members use these mechanisms when they wish to put issues into the public domain or to have a clear statement of policy on the record. The culture of the Assembly is to encourage a free flow of information between the Executive and other Assembly Members, so that formal mechanisms are not needed simply to acquire factual information. The Library can sometimes be the most accessible, and efficient, source of factual information.

3.   Categories of Questions

  3.1  Standing Orders 19 and 20 provide three avenues for tabling questions:

    —  questions for oral answer which are tabled with the intention that they should be given an oral answer in the Assembly during designated Question Time in Plenary Meetings;

    —  questions for written answer to which the answers are sent in written form directly to the Assembly Member;

    —  questions for urgent answer (Private Notice Questions) which can only be asked if the matter is judged by the Speaker to be sufficiently urgent and a matter of public importance. Private Notice Questions are answered orally in the Assembly.

4.   Procedures

  4.1  Role of the Speaker and Business Office.

  The Speaker is responsible for facilitating the tabling of questions and has discretion as to the admissibility, content and length of questions. In practice the Speaker has delegated these functions to the Business Office, though he remains the final authority on such matters.

  Sections (2) and (3) of Standing Order 19 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.

  4.2  Assembly Members are responsible for drafting, tabling and the form and content of their questions (minor editorial points will be made by the Business Office if necessary). Business Office staff offer help and advice on such matters, and where a question has been ruled inadmissible, will explain the reasons why it was ruled out of order, and where possible, provide assistance with amendments to bring the question in order.

5.   Tabling

  5.1  Questions are tabled in English.

  5.2  A Questions Form is available on the Intranet and from the Business Office. Members can table the question in person at the Business Office, by post or fax (but not by e-mail). In addition questions can be submitted on behalf of a Member by his/her staff provided that person has been authorised by the Member. Only one person can be so authorised by each Member. A Member wishing to allow another person to take questions on their behalf must complete an authorisation form.

  5.3  Members are required to declare any relevant interest when tabling and before asking an Oral, Written or Private Notice Question, and the question will be annotated with an [R] on the Notice Paper to draw attention to the declaration of interest.

6.   Questions for Oral Answer

  6.1  Questions for Oral Answer are taken in the Assembly between 2.30 pm and 4.00 pm on Mondays on which there is a sitting [SO 19(5)]. A rota is arranged for questions to allow Members to scrutinise the work of each of the departments in turn—three departments each week (30 minutes each) with the exception of the twelfth week when the Assembly Commission is added to the rota. The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister appear on the rota every second week.

  6.2  Oral Questions cannot be tabled more than two weeks before the question is due for answer [SO 19(8)], but must be tabled before 3.00 pm on the penultimate Tuesday before it is to be answered. A maximum of one question per Member per department for each Question Time is permitted. From questions submitted for each department a maximum of 20 questions is randomly selected by computer. Questions selected for answer are published on the Assembly website ( by 8.30 am each Wednesday and are available in printed form from that time from the Business Office.

  6.3  Questions not selected are regarded as fallen and the Member is informed accordingly. The question may be re-tabled for written answer or for oral answer at a later date.

7.   Procedure for Question Time

  7.1  At the start of each session the Speaker will rise and call the name of the first Minister named on the Notice Paper. When called, the Member need only call the number of his/her question. After the Minister has answered, the Member will be called to pose a supplementary question. At his discretion the Speaker may take additional supplementary questions from other Members, seeking to balance the need to explore an issue satisfactorily with the need for Ministers to answer as many tabled questions as possible. Answers and any supplementary questions must relate specifically to the subject matter of the original question. In the interests of ensuring that all Assembly Members have a reasonable opportunity for their questions to be called, the Speaker considers it important that replies and supplementary questions are kept as succinct and relevant as possible, without debate or pre-emptive comment.

  7.2  Ministers may choose to give a single reply to more than one question where they are on the same or on a closely related topic. The grouping of oral questions is a matter for the Minister answering the questions to propose in the first instance, but ultimately for the Speaker to agree. Members whose questions have been grouped will be called to ask a supplementary question in the order in which their questions are listed.

  7.3  If a question is published and not reached during Question Time, the Member will receive a written answer. This answer, signed by the Minister, should be available to the Member who tabled the question immediately on completion of the period for questions. In addition questions which have been transferred to another Department will receive a written answer. A copy of answers to all questions not reached is sent to the Business Office for publication in a weekly answers booklet.

  7.4  Where a Member is not in his/her place when the question is due to be called, it will be passed over and will receive a written answer unless the Member withdraws the question. A Member has a right to withdraw the question during Question Time. In such circumstances he must advise the Table Clerks accordingly who will, in turn, inform the Business Office and Ministerial support staff to ensure that the Member does not receive a written response.

  7.5  If at the time for questions a Minister is not available, the Assembly suspends until the Minister is available or the next period of questions is reached. In the event that Question Time in respect of either of the first two question periods finishes before the end of the 30 minute period, then the Assembly suspends until the time for the next period of questions. In the event that this occurs at the end of the third period then the Speaker will move directly on to the next item of business.

8.   Questions for Written Answer

  8.1  A Member can table up to five written questions up to 4.00 pm each day, Monday to Friday. Questions received after 4.00 pm are treated as having been received on the next working day. A question should be tabled 10 clear working days before it is due for answer. For a Priority Written Question, the Member can request that it be answered within two to 10 working days of publication. Written Questions cleared for answer are published on the Assembly website ( by 8.30 am on each following day. They are also available on printed form at this time from the Business Office.

  8.2  A consolidated list of questions is also published at the end of each week, showing all questions whose date for written answer has not yet been reached or which have not been answered. A copy of this list is posted in Members' pigeonholes each Monday morning.

  8.3  Departments send written answers directly to the Member who tabled the question. A copy is sent to the Business Office for inclusion in a Booklet of answers, which is published on a weekly basis. On occasions answers which require detailed tables are more appropriately addressed by the placing of information in the Assembly Library, with appropriate reference in the answer provided to Members.

  8.4  If exceptionally, it is not possible to answer a question by the due date a "holding" answer is given to the Member, with a copy to the Business Office. Information concerning "holding" answers is published in the Consolidated List of Questions booklet.

  8.5  Substantive answers to questions may not be provided where the cost of doing so is considered by the Executive to be disproportionate. The current cost limit established by the Executive for written answers is £500. The Member is informed if this is the case.

9.   Private Notice Questions

  9.1  Private Notice Questions (PNQs) provide for a special form of oral question [SO 20]. These questions are normally taken immediately before the start of the adjournment debate, however, the Speaker has discretion to take a PNQ at a time that is convenient to the Member asking the question and the Minister who has to provide a substantive reply. The criteria governing acceptance of PNQs are the same as for other questions. In addition the Speaker needs to be satisfied the subject is:

    (a)  sufficiently urgent;

    (b)  relates to matters of public importance; and

    (c)  that the Member of the Executive Committee will have adequate notice, to justify waiving the normal requirements for notice of questions and to allow the Minister to provide a substantive reply.

  9.2  PNQs can be tabled at any time, but not less than four hours' notice is required. Thus, a PNQ must be tabled by not later than 10.30 am on the day of the Plenary session at which an answer is required. After the Minister answers, he/she may be asked a number of supplementary questions. The number of questions and the duration of the time available is at the Speaker's discretion. The convention is that the Speaker will 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 Departmental or Standing Committee. The Speaker will rule "out of order" any question without a direct and clear relationship to the original question.

10.   Motions

  10.1  Members can table a motion for debate at any time by submitting (tabling) a motion to the Business Office. Motions may be proposed by an individual Member; they do not require a seconder. Motions can be submitted in the names of any number of Members but only the name of the proposer and up to three seconders will appear on the Order Paper. Members may wish to discuss draft motions with the Clerk of Business to regularise drafting.

11.   Amendments to Motions

  11.1  Up to 9.30 am on each Sitting Day, Members may propose amendments to any motion listed on the Order Paper. Such amendments are tabled through the Business Office to the Speaker. Under the Speaker's authority accepted amendments are circulated to Members on a "Marshalled List" as soon as practicable.

  11.2  The Clerk of Business may make minor changes to the text of an amendment to regularise its drafting. More significant amendments are always referred back to the Member in whose name they are placed. The Speaker's decision on all such matters is final.

  11.3  All motions before the Assembly are determined by simple majority except in circumstances specifically provided for in law or in Standing Orders or, more specifically, where a Petition of Concern has been lodged; in these cases a motion may only be passed with cross-community consent.

4   Erskine May p296. Back

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Prepared 26 June 2002