ADMINISTRATION OF QUESTIONS/MOTIONS WITHIN
THE NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
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. 
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
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
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
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
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.
5.1 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 turnthree 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 (www.niassembly.gov.uk) 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
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
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 (www.niassembly.gov.uk) 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:
(b) relates to matters of public importance;
(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
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.
10.1 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