“that is clearly unparliamentary language..”

Mark Devenport picks up on the unparliamentary language directed at the First Minister [and some abuse of the hired help? – Ed] in the heated debate on the Financial Assistance Bill in the NI Assembly yesterday. This one could rumble on..Firstly the reference by the First Minister to the Deputy Speaker’s Clerk after a ruling went against the First Minister.

The First Minister: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can I ask you to look at the unparliamentary comments of the Member? To accuse me of deceit is unparliamentary, and the comment should be withdrawn.

12.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: It is my understanding, First Minister, that the Member did not accuse you of deceit. However, I will certainly look at the Hansard report.

The First Minister: Further to that point of order, maybe you will tell your Clerk to listen more carefully before he gives you such advice, because the person who is bringing forward this measure is myself, and if a deceit is being perpetrated, it can only be by the person who is bringing it forward.

Mr Deputy Speaker: First Minister, I am making an offer to review the Hansard report. Please continue, Mr O’Loan.

And then the charge of misleading the House from the SDLP’s Mark Durkan

Mr Durkan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the course of the debate, the First Minister claimed that the Minister for Social Development had misled her Executive colleagues to such an extent that she indicated, even after the Executive had started to meet again, that she had legislative cover and, therefore, the power to issue payments. I have been provided with an extract of a paper that was circulated by the Minister for Social Development to her Executive colleagues. It was sent to all Ministers on 2 October 2008, when the Executive were not meeting. The paper stated:

“DSD does not have legislative authority to make such payments and therefore Executive approval will be sought to take forward the necessary legislation in the Assembly through use of the accelerated passage procedure.”

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am asking you to ask the First Minister to withdraw his earlier statement, which was misleading to the House and misrepresented a ministerial colleague.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member clarify whether he is claiming that the remarks were misleading?

Mr Durkan: Yes. I am saying that the First Minister’s claims during the course of this debate were misleading the House. He was leaving the House with the clear impression that the Minister for Social Development had never signalled that she did not have legislative cover and had in fact been signalling — including in December when the Executive were meeting again — that she did have. I have an extract of a paper that I believe was circulated to all ministerial colleagues at a time when the Executive were not meeting, which made that clear. The First Minister would have been in possession of that paper and would know about it. He was speaking in contradiction of that today. That is misleading the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker: First Minister.

The First Minister: I am not sure whether I am being asked to reply to the point of order, which I thought was your role, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Sorry; I apologise if it was not clearly understood that I need to establish from you whether you accept the Member’s claim.

The First Minister: No.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Following that, I will refer the matter to the Speaker.

The First Minister: A number of matters will have to be referred to the Speaker. For a Member to indicate that a Minister is misleading the House is unparliamentary and needs to be dealt with.

As far as the general accusation is concerned, I stand by the position that I indicated earlier: when the Executive dealt with the issue of fuel poverty at their first meeting back, the Minister was questioned at the Executive table as to her legal competence, and she was still arguing that she may have that legal cover and she was still trying to clarify the position.

When there is a leak inquiry, it will be interesting to find out how the Member for Foyle came to be in possession of those Executive papers. That is a further issue that will have to be dealt with. It would be a breach of the ministerial code for any Minister to have disseminated such papers.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. In response to Mr Durkan’s point of order, the Speaker will review what has been said and report back to the Assembly.

The First Minister: I think that we will all be interested in that.

Mr Attwood: I have a simple question to ask the First Minister: did you or did you not receive a paper referred to by my colleague Mr Durkan in and around —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The matter is in the hands of the Speaker. We must move on.

And at the end of the debate the ruling from the Speaker

Mr Speaker: Before we move on, Members will be aware of the substantial number of points of order that were raised during proceedings yesterday and today. A number of the issues that Members raised appeared to be more points of business than points of order. In any case, I will consider all the matters that were raised and return to the legitimate points of order as appropriate in due course.

Several of the points of order that were made were not points of order, but there are two points of order that I wish to address without delay. The first relates to a reference that was made earlier today to an official. I remind all Members that it is not in order to refer to Assembly officials at any time in the House.

The second point of order relates to unparliamentary language. During this afternoon’s debate, Mr Durkan accused the First Minister of misleading the House. Members should be aware that such language is clearly unparliamentary. Therefore, I will call on Mr Durkan to withdraw that remark at the earliest opportunity. We will now move on.

Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I note that you named Mr Durkan, but you did not name Mr Peter Robinson, who was the Member —

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member is out of order, and he knows that he is out of order. I have made a clear ruling on the two issues on which I felt I could make a ruling. I am speaking about the language that has been used in the House today.

Mr Attwood: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You indicated that Mr Durkan should take some action further to the comments that he made. Further to your ruling, is there no responsibility on any other Member to take any action in respect of comments that they made about officials of the House?

Mr Speaker: Order. As I said earlier, several points of order were raised yesterday and today, and I am extremely happy to come back to them. However, let me be absolutely clear about the issue of unparliamentary language: when a Member accuses another Member or a Minister of misleading the House, that is clearly unparliamentary language, and it must be dealt with.

Mr Attwood: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you saying that you intend to come back to the issue of Mr Robinson’s treatment of staff of the House? Is that the case, or is the matter closed as far as you are concerned?

Mr Speaker: The Member is sailing very close to the wind on challenging the authority of the Speaker.

I ask the Member to please not go there. My ruling is absolutely clear; I am happy to respond to points of order. [Interruption.]

Order. I am happy to consult the Hansard report on whatever any Member says in the House. When referring to a Member or a Minister — as Mr Durkan did — the use of the phrase “misleading the House” is a clear example of unparliamentary language. I have told the Member already that I will deal with the issue when Mr Durkan is next in the House. [Interruption.]

Order. I will be happy to speak to the Member about all those issues.

Adds It’s probably worth noting what the First Minister had said during the debate.

The First Minister: It is also nonsense. [Laughter.]

The Member claims that her party has not engaged in a rant. However, representatives of her party have touched on everything from the St Andrews Agreement to Mussolini. In a press conference today, she claimed that a crime was being committed against the nationalist community in the activities that we were engaging in. Let us be clear: the SDLP has been involved in a rant, as has the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Member knows my views on the delay in having Executive meetings. If I could, I would point the finger at Sinn Féin and say that this difficulty was caused by the delay in having Executive meetings; but that is not the case.

I will tell the Member why there is a delay. The Minister from her party told Executive colleagues that she already had appropriate power and that legislation was not required. Therefore, the legislative draftsmen were not alerted because the Minister argued that there was no need for additional legislation because she had the power to make fuel-poverty payments. I am happy for anyone to challenge that assertion; that position is clearly on record.

And when challenged on that point

Mrs D Kelly: I thank the First Minister for giving way. Does he now acknowledge the fact — which he did not do earlier — that Minister Ritchie, when bringing forward her paper on tackling fuel poverty, put into that paper the point that she did her not have the necessary powers, that there was a need to introduce such legislation, and that she suggested ways in which that could be done?

The First Minister: That statement is totally inaccurate. Until the Executive was back in action, the Minister for Social Development argued that she had the legal competence to take the necessary steps.