Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Question Time cuts ‘a snub to Assembly’

Proposals to cut First Ministers’ Question Time in the Assembly by half came under fire last night.

At present, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy FM Martin McGuinness take it in turns to take written questions, and follow-up queries direct from MLAs.

The half-hour exchange takes place twice a month and the co-equal First Ministers usually only get to answer about seven or eight of the 30-plus questions put.

Now, however, there are suggestions that they could reduce their appearances to just once a month.

Ministers from the other government departments are only required to answer direct questions on the floor once a month. “The argument seems to be since they are only a single department they should only appear once also.”

A letter from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister is believed to have been sent to the Assembly’s procedures committee, which may discuss the idea |tomorrow.

The letter is also thought to suggest that when Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness are unavailable — as they are this week, both in the US on an investment mission — that Junior ministers Gerry Kelly and Jeffrey Donaldson could stand in.

The committee, co-chaired by the DUP’s chairman Lord Morrow and North Antrim member Mervyn Storey, is due to go into closed session to discuss an evidence paper on Assembly questions.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan accused Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness of treating the Assembly with disdain and attempting to side-step its accountability role.

“Very often Assembly members are debating matters relevant to the Executive and there is not even a junior minister present to listen to the discussion,” the Foyle MP said.

“Given what commentators are saying about the Assembly, it does not set a very good example if the First Ministers treat it in this way. I would hope that mssrs Robinson and McGuinness would want to listen to what Assembly members are saying.”

He also said ministers have decided not to give the Assembly a budget statement, even though he argued it is required by law.

The DUP and Sinn Fein were guilty of trying to “hollow out the accountability role” of the Assembly.

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