“general consensus that the question time isn’t sufficiently engaging or relevant..”

BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport, along with “fellow hacks Eamon Mallie of Downtown Radio and Billy Graham from the Irish News”, was in the dock yesterday, in Stormont’s Room 101 152 in front of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee on Procedures. There they were asked for some suggestions to improve the Assembly’s question time.

There seemed to be a general consensus that the question time isn’t sufficiently engaging or relevant. Our thoughts, boiled down, included more topical questions (currently MLAs have to table their questions a fortnight in advance) a ban on reading (if you have to read out a question, surely it must be too long) and possibly splitting the current Monday question time (instead of three ministers appearing in a row, you could have two ministers on a Monday and another two on a Tuesday).

He’d also like to hear if anyone has any other suggestions..

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  • slug

    Its as much the answers as the questions. Some ministers are incredibly boring – very scripted. Surely the style should be more informal, less scripted?

  • slug

    Also, I think the Committee chair should begin the questions, and be allowed to ask more than one, so that a sense of coherent opposition can be developed.

  • Carson’s Cat

    There’s no doubt that the reading of questions is the first thing that has to be dealt with (I doub’t that the reason is that they’re reading it because the question is too long. They’re reading it because they’re too stupid to remember it) – frankly there should be a look taken at extending it to debates also.

    Having notes to refer to is one thing, but just reading (badly) a pre-prepared speech is another thing. All parties have some suspects who are guilty of this so there isn’t any party political agenda here and it would certainly give people an idea of who actually knows what they’re talking about, and certainly would help make the “best MLA” Slugger award a little more interesting next year.

    Of course, the “reading” issue should also apply to Ministers also, unless they’re referring to notes for specific details or to quote something necessary for accuracy.

    Part of the problem too of course is this necessity to “rotate” the supplimentary questions where you have all the parties taken in order. It would be much better if there was the need to “catch the speakers eye” in order to get your question in.

    Unfortunately the usual suspicions that someone’s not going to have had their “equality” and eaten it will probably mean that suggestion will never happen.

    Whilst there wouldn’t actually be any benefit in a totally ‘open’ question time – i.e. members able to ask anything off the cuff, there might be some merit in apportioning a section of time to “open” questions to the Minister at the end where Members could raise current issues or just ones the Minister can’t have anticipated. This of course would require some level of sense that Members don’t just raise party political rubbish or subjects completely outside the competency of the Minister. It would also require the “catching the speakers eye” idea again which could help moderate things so that a member would be full in the knowledge that if they did stray outside the acceptable they could find it very difficult to get themselves called again at question time for the foreseeable future.

    There are other issues which no committee can manage to eradicate – that’s when Members insist on thinking they’ve been invited up to make a speech instead of asking a question. Mind you, there are occasions where the Speaker/Deputy Speaker has taken it too far the other way as well and has cut people off for only making a brief comment before coming to the point. Some level of sense is required from all sides on that one, but I don’t hold out much hope.

    It has to be said, and again some people won’t like it, that answering in Irish/Ulster Scots and English both doesn’t help question time. Given that you have to answer in both languages the same then obviously there is a prepared answer there. People have the right to use Irish/Ulster Scots in the chamber in debates but it only takes up time which could be used to put more questions when used during question time and it also makes it very obvious that there are some prepared answers and it clearly shows the Minister is then reading them. (Mind you, I’m not actually aware of U-S ever being used in questions) (I also await the predictable MOPE that I’m only suggesting this as some attack on the Irish language)

  • Andrew M

    Easy way to liven things up. Have a public vote to evict a MLA once a month.

    Or, if that is too risky, allow MLAs to ask Ministers questions having only previously registered the topic, rather than word by word. We need a higher standard of scrutiny – especially since most of the parties are in bed with the executive anyway.

  • terry

    Well hook them to a lie detactor when they have to answer. That would help the public in understanding that our mla,s are telling us the truth every time. Silly public.

  • Danny O’Connor

    The longer each answer is the fewer they have to give,a nice long answer to a planted question or supplementary lets the minister dictate the pace,and makes a mockery of accountability,out of 20 listed questions ,usually about 6 or 7 are taken.
    It is possible to get through them,Carmel Hanna used to be able to get through them,If a minister knew that all 20 had to be answered and they simply had no alternative,they might cut the waffle,questions also should not be speech making opportunities.

  • jivaro

    This is beyond parody.

    The Assembly – that grouping which insisted on legislative devolution without the faintest idea of what legislation it wanted to pass that was different to what we either already had or would get from London or Brussels – is now asking < > how to make its debates and question time interesting and engaging?

    Honestly, it would make a cat laugh. The Stormont Assembly apparatus is now simply ridiculous. and for journalists to get involved in advising how to shape it instead of reporting on its idiocies only intensifies the absurdity.