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14 questions to the Northern Ireland secretary... guess how many our MPs asked?

By Tom Moseley

Northern Ireland’s MPs have called for action after not one of them was allowed to question the Secretary of State in Westminster yesterday.

The list of 14 MPs allowed to quiz Owen Paterson was made up of six English, four Scottish and four Welsh MPs.

While local representatives joined the debate by catching the Speaker's eye, there was concern that the procedure meant vital topics were being ignored.

Northern Ireland party officials are unhappy that the Labour and Conservative parties are flooding the ballot — from which the questions are randomly chosen — to score party political points.

Yesterday's list included five identical questions on fuel poverty from Labour MPs.

The tactic, branded “infuriating” by North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, means the 13 MPs from Northern Ireland who take their seats at Westminster run the risk of being frozen out in the monthly question time session.

Nigel Dodds, DUP MP for North Belfast, said: “They were making points about economic policy and tagging on Northern Ireland to make it appear relevant.

“It's not good in the long run to have that happen. We welcome participation, but it's a question of balance — on this occasion the balance was too far one way.”

English MPs managed to include references to their own constituencies, with one making the case for a motorway link in Lancashire and another referring to fuel poverty in Sussex.

It was too much for Tory Peter Bone, who accused Labour of “flooding the order paper”.

Alliance's Naomi Long said: “It's unfortunate that Northern Ireland questions does not include any topical questions. This would allow some issues to be discussed, like the hacking of Peter Hain's computer. We were not able to raise that today because it didn't fit with any questions.”

Foyle SDLP MP Mark Durkan said: “It's an added reason why there should be a window for topical questions. It's literally the luck of the draw. The sensible way would be to provide topical questions.”

Lady Hermon added: “Five repetitions of the same question greatly distorted the range of issues that could otherwise have been raised.”

Background

Northern Ireland questions have to be submitted eight days in advance, longer than other sessions, in a throwback to the Troubles when questions had to be cleared in advance.

So-called “topical questions”, which can be about any topic in the news, are not allowed.This meant that the alleged hacking of former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain's computer could not be raised yesterday as it did not relate to any of the questions on the order paper.

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