To fulfil its function of scrutinising 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 five types of question:
- Questions for Oral Answer
- Topical Questions
- Questions for Urgent Oral Answer
- Written Questions; and
- Priority Written Questions.
Questions for Oral Answers and Topical Questions are more high profile as they are asked and answered in the Assembly Chamber, and are broadcast live. We just have to think of Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons to understand how important it is for Ministers to be able to answer questions well. Ministers are informed about questions in advance for the standard Question Time but, since 2015, they must now also answer Topical Questions - on recent and current issues. While they are informed three days in advance of which MLAs have been selected to ask a Topical Question, they do not know what the questions will be. Ministers need to be well informed and up-to-date on all the issues within their areas of responsibility.
Print out the resource, 'Questions to Ministers' for your file.
Find examples of questions at: www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/questions/
Questions for Oral Answer
Ministers must reply to Questions for Oral Answer during a plenary meeting of the Assembly in the Chamber. This is known as Question Time. It usually takes place between 2.00pm and 3.30pm on both Mondays and Tuesdays. This is a very public way of holding Ministers to account for their decisions.
Four Ministers answer questions each week. A rota is agreed in advance to determine which Ministers are due to answer questions on a particular day. Ministers are usually on the rota once every 3 weeks, although either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister takes questions once a fortnight. Each Minister has 45 minutes to answer questions. The first 30 minutes are for traditional Oral Questions, of which the Minister has had almost 2 week's notice. This is followed by 15 minutes of Topical Questions, of which the Minister has no notice (except from members of his or her own party) and could be about something which has happened that day. Topical questions were introduced in September 2013 to improve Question Time as a means of scrutinising the Executive.
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 the questions will be answered in the Chamber 11 days later (Monday sitting) or 12 days later (Tuesday sitting). Therefore, Ministers have just under two weeks to prepare answers. Civil servants will draft answers for review by the Ministers. While 15 questions are listed for each Minister, it is unlikely that more than 10 will be answered within the allocated time on the day. The rest will receive written answers. The first question to each Minister must not asked by an MLA from the same party as the Minister.
The Member asking the question will also 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 any further supplementary questions will be allowed (usually no more than 2) and who will be picked to ask them. Members must rise in their places to indicate that they wish to ask a supplementary question. It must be relevant to the original question. Ministers need to be well briefed to deal with every possible question that might arise, as they will want to be seen to be on top of their portfolios. MLAs from another party to the Minister might want to catch the Minister out. 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 can be extended to three minutes at the discretion of the Speaker.
Topical Questions: Ministers are not informed of the questions in advance. They will be told three working days before Question Time which MLAs have been selected to ask Topical Questions, but the MLAs do not have 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, fewer of 15 Oral Questions on the list will be answered and the Minister will be under close scrutiny on fewer issues. If the Speaker allows too few supplementary questions, more topics will be dealt within the time allowed, but in less detail. The Speaker has to try to find the right balance.
When selecting who can ask supplementary questions to a Minister, the Speaker will try to ensure a cross-community balance.
The Speaker will also try to control the progress of Question Time by appealing to Members to keep their supplementary questions short. He will admonish MLAs if they make statements or ask questions which are not relevant.
Most questions asked by MLAs are written questions. These can be longer and Ministers are expected to provide more detailed answers.
MLAs can table up to five written questions per day. Departments will have up to 10 working days to answer written questions.
There was a significant increase in the number of written questions since the introduction of an Official Opposition. During the 2011-16 Mandate, on average, 65 daily written questions were tabled in the Business
Office. In the first 9 weeks of the 2016-17 mandate, it received 4900 questions, which equates to an average of 108 written questions per day. Therefore, the two opposition parties were using written questions as a means of getting information on what Ministers were doing and also to hold them to account for their decisions and actions. There was no official opposition in place during the 2017-22 mandate. During the Covid-19 crisis, the number of questions MLAs were allowed to ask was reduced because of the pressure Ministers and Departments were under at that time.
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.