Questions

Questions

To fulfil its function to scrutinise the Executive, it is important for the Northern Ireland Assembly to question Ministers about their areas of responsibility. These questions ensure that Ministers explain their decisions and the actions of their Departments. Questions to Ministers also help MLAs to fulfil their representative role, by raising issues that concern their constituents. Questions seek information or press the Minister for action on particular issues.

There are four types of question:

  • Questions for Oral Answer;
  • Questions for Urgent Oral Answer (to Ministers in the Chamber);
  • Written Questions; and
  • Priority Written Questions.

You can find out what questions have been asked at: www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/questions/

Oral Answer

Questions for Oral Answer

Ministers must reply to Questions for Oral Answer during a plenary meeting of the Assembly in the Assembly Chamber. This meeting is known as Question Time. It is a very public way for Ministers to explain what they and their Department are doing.

Question Time takes place in the Assembly Chamber between 2.00pm and 3.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays.

A rota is agreed in advance to determine which Ministers are due to answer questions on a particular day. Each Minister has 45 minutes to answer questions. The first 30 minutes are for traditional Oral Questions and the last 15 minutes are for Topical Questions, introduced in September 2013. Four Departments answer questions each week. The First Minister or deputy First Minister answer questions once a fortnight. They can also ask a Junior Minister to answer the question if it concerns the Junior Ministers’ area of responsibility.

Oral Questions: Members who wish to question a Minister in the Chamber submit their names to the Business Office by Tuesday at 1pm. Members' names are put into a random ballot and 15 Members are selected to ask Questions. They have until Thursday lunchtime to submit their questions. The questions are then shuffled to determine the order in which they are asked. The list will be published on the Friday and will be answered in the Chamber 11 days later (Monday sitting) or 12 days later (Tuesday sitting). Therefore, Ministers have just under 2 weeks to prepare answers. While 15 will be listed for each Minister, it is unlikely that more than 10 will be answered on the day. The rest receive written answers. The first question to each Minister must not be from a Member of the same party as the Minister.

The Member asking the question will be allowed to ask a Supplementary Question. This is a follow-up question which is not known by the Minister in advance.The Speaker decides whether further supplementary questions will be allowed (usually no more than 2). Members must rise in their places to indicate that they wish to ask a supplementary question. Members can use supplementary questions to further scrutinise a Minister in more detail on a particular issue. They must be relevant to the original question. The Minister needs to be very well briefed to deal with every possible question that might arise from the original. Ministers must answer questions as clearly and as fully as possible. Answers to original and supplementary questions may be no longer than two minutes, but this may be extended to three minutes at the discretion of the Speaker.

Topical Questions: Ministers will be informed 3 working days in advance of the names of Members selected to ask Topical Questions. However, there is no requirement on the Member to inform the Minister of the content of the Question. A topical question can be about any current constituency or regional matter. The Minister will need to be well briefed. No supplementary questions are allowed during Topical Question Time.

Speaker at Question Time

The Role of the Speaker at Question Time

The Speaker controls the pace of Question Time. After each question, if he/she allows MLAs to ask a lot of supplementary questions, there will be less time to cover different topics; the Minister will be under close scrutiny on just a few subjects. If the Speaker allows too few supplementary questions, they will be able to deal with more topics in the time allowed, but in less detail. The Speaker has to try to find the right balance.

When selecting who can ask supplementary questions, the Speaker will try to ensure a cross-community balance during the 30 minutes the Minister is subject to questioning.

The Speaker will also try to control the progress of Question Time by appealing to Members to keep their supplementary questions short. He/she may check a Member for being too lengthy or for engaging in debate across the Chamber.

Try the Question Time challenge in MLA for a Week to see if you can ask the right question to the right Minister.

Written

Written Questions

Most questions asked by MLAs are written questions. These can be longer than oral questions. They require more detailed answers from Ministers.

MLAs can table up to five written questions per day. Departments will have up to 10 working days to answer written questions.

Priority Written Questions

A Member may table one Priority Written Question per day. The Minister must answer this question between two and five working days later. These questions should not request large amounts of historical or statistical information.