Wednesday, 21 June 1978
Dáil Eireann Debate
An Ceann Comhairle: : I assume the Chair has permission to make a statement in relation to a matter which took place in the House earlier today at Question Time when the ruling of the Ceann Comhairle in relation to certain questions was challenged.
While I do not wish to establish a precedent that questions which are challenged should be raised in the House in this way there were circumstances today in which I conceded to make a statement in relation to the matter, particularly since two questions were raised. One was that some Members seemed to think that questions should not be ruled out as anticipatory in any event. The other was whether or not the Green Paper was a matter for discussion on the Adjournment Debate. For that reason I decided to make some explanation to the House.
It has been the long standing practice of the Chair to rule out of order questions which anticipate the subject matter of a forthcoming debate, with the exception of purely statistical questions. There have been numerous instances in which questions were ruled out as anticipatory of debate. For example, on the budget, on the Finance Bill, on many other Bills. Indeed a Bill which had been introduced in the Seanad, and which had not even reached the Dáil—the Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Bill—was regarded as anticipated by questions which were duly ruled out of order. Similarly, questions anticipatory of debates on motions have been disallowed. For example, questions regarding EEC matters have been ruled out as anticipatory of the motion regarding Developments in the EEC, Fourth Report.
To give Deputies some idea of the number of cases involved I may say that a file of disallowed questions, dating only from 1941, is many inches thick. I have brought it here and will quote from it if the House wishes to have examples of questions, literally hundreds of them, which have been turned down in similar circumstances.
In the present case various references were made in the House to the availability of the Green Paper and its discussion on the Adjournment Debate. For instance, on 31 May, Deputy Cluskey asked whether it would be circulated, available and ordered to be discussed during the Adjournment Debate. Again, on 8 June, the Taoiseach, in reply to a question from Deputy Kelly, said that the Green Paper would be available in good time for the Adjournment Debate. The impression created in the minds of my advisers and myself in regard to the Adjournment Debate was that its subject matter was to be the Government's Green Paper. A debate before a long adjournment can be so confined either by putting down a motion, for example, that the House takes note of the Green Paper, or by a general agreement that the debate on the motion to adjourn the House for the recess would be devoted to a particular subject. The staff and I believed that either of those courses would be followed. Accordingly I felt obliged to follow precedent and ruled out questions referring specifically to the Green Paper. Unless the House tells me now  that this assumption is wrong and that, instead of being the only subject on the debate the Green Paper will be just one of many matters raised, my ruling, based on the long-established precedent, must stand.
Before anybody speaks, I have a very deep file here in front of me in relation to questions which at least three or four of my predecessors ruled on as being anticipatory questions, very many relating to budget debates, and I am referring to our assuming from certain evidence before us that there would be a debate on the Green Paper. I look at a precedent where several questions were put down in relation to mergers and take-overs. They were ruled out of order on the grounds that the matter would be covered in a Bill to be discussed in Committee.
An Ceann Comhairle: : The people asking the questions were seeking information which they thought enabled them to equip themselves for the debate. But they were ruled out by one of my predecessors—the said Committee Stage never took place. Similarly there was a motion on the EEC for which there were as many as ten or 12 questions ruled out on the same grounds, that they were anticipating the debate on the motion. These questions were being asked by Deputies who would argue that they were seeking information to enable them the better to deal with the debate. I have literally hundreds of them here, from 1941 down to the present day. Therefore the criterion of a question anticipating a forthcoming debate, a Bill or a motion is very common practice.
Dr. FitzGerald: : I should like to say that I am not aware of any suggestion that either of the procedures which you have mentioned as confining an Adjournment Debate have been contemplated by anybody and certainly not by us. I understood the form of the Adjournment Debate to be normal open form. I took it that some speakers might wish to refer to the Green Paper. I am aware that a number of speakers wish to refer to other matters not connected with the Green  Paper. Therefore there may have been, on your part, a misapprehension as to the intention with regard to both the format of the debate and the nature of the contributions in the debate. Having made that statement as to my understanding of the position, I should like to ask you a question, which is whether you can quote precedent relating to an open-ended Adjournment Debate which has not been specifically confined to a specific topic, and which I think is the issue at stake in these circumstances.
Dr. FitzGerald: : Sir, you have referred to a very thick file of precedents. From what you have said, by implication I have gathered, but I would like to be more directly informed, that these related to cases where either a specific Bill or motion was coming forward or where an Adjournment Debate was about to be or had been agreed to be confined to a specific topic by way of one of two procedures which you mentioned. It is my understanding from what you said that there is not a precedent for refusing questions where the Adjournment Debate is of the open-ended kind which it normally takes. I should like to have confirmation of my understanding of that.
An Ceann Comhairle: : Most of these questions, like the ones ruled out of order on tomorrow's Order Paper, were based on the assumption that an opportunity would arise in a forthcoming debate, already mentioned, sometimes ordered and sometimes by way of motion. Many of the things for which these questions have been ruled out did not take place at all. We have frequently to go on the assumption that we have reasonable grounds for so ruling. I was amazed that Deputies raised the question of the Ceann Comhairle ruling out questions of the ground that they were anticipatory.
Mr. Cluskey: : I also very much welcome the fact that you clearly indicated that on being told by Members that your staff made an incorrect assumption with regard to the discussion of the Green Paper, you referred to a question addressed by me to the Taoiseach asking if the Green Paper would be available in time to be discussed during the Adjournment Debate and the Taoiseach assured me it would. Naturally it would not be our intention, and I find it difficult to see how anyone could assume it would, to confine our remarks to the Green Paper in the Adjournment Debate. There was also the fact that the Taoiseach assured me on two occasions some considerable time ago that we would have an opportunity in Government time to discuss the Green Paper. That opportunity has not been afforded to us yet. However, I am very much relieved that the situation now seems to have been resolved. I welcome the fact that the Chair has appeared to me to clearly indicate that, on being assured, as I now assure him again, that our remarks on the Adjournment Debate would naturally include references to the Green Paper but would not be confined to references to the Green Paper, that would lead the Chair to revise the disallowing of the questions that were the subject matter of this controversy.
An Ceann Comhairle: : I do not want to enter into any controversy at all on this matter but I would say that many of the precedents here in front of me in this huge file relate to cases where the matter was ruled out in relation to Bills which covered many things other than the subject matter of the questions. I think I was right in assuming that the questions related to matters which could be and, no doubt, will be raised on the Adjournment Debate.
Mr. T. J. Fitzpatrick: (Cavan-Monaghan): In ruling you relied on precedents and the Chair quoted the precedent of the budget debate. That is a specific debate in relation to which one would expect a question to be ruled out if it were probing the  budget. The Chair also referred to specific debates on specific resolutions and Bills. These are all closely knit debates. I doubt if the Chair will find a precedent where something was ruled out in anticipation of a general adjournment debate. The Chair has raised the question as to whether the Green Paper will be the only matter to be dealt with in the Adjournment Debate or whether it will be one of many matters. I have no doubt the House will agree that a wide range of topics dealing with every Department and the activities and inactivities of the Government over the last 12 months will be dealt with in the Adjournment Debate and I am sure that if the Chair's advisers had appreciated that when they were advising him, the questions would not have been ruled out and I take it that——
Mr. T. J. Fitzpatrick: (Cavan-Monaghan): I am only saying that the Chair, appreciating the Green Paper is only one of a variety of topics, will agree that the questions should not have been ruled out.
Mr. Keating: : May I have clarifi-cation, first of all, as to whether I am right in assuming that the Adjournment Debate is a general open-ended debate and, if I am right in that, is it not correct to say that every one of the precedents you quote were not in fact of a general open-ended nature but dealt specifically with financial or other matters and dealt in a closed way with the issues on which the questions were disallowed? In other words, is there not a major difference between questions about specific proposals, such as the Green Paper, and their being ruled out of order on the basis of a general debate and questions which could reasonably be said to be linked with specific proposals,  such as the Finance Bill, budget proposals, a Broadcasting Bill, EEC legislation and so on? Is there not a fundamental difference and is not that fundamental difference underlined by the fact that, whereas in any of the precedents you quoted there would be a Committee Stage and, therefore, a question and answer session, there is no guarantee whatever that any Deputy would be entitled to contribute to the Adjournment Debate because it is a limited debate and, secondly, whoever replies need not even bother to acknowledge the questions, to say nothing of not answering them specifically, and, if we accept that, do we not therefore accept automatically a major circumscription of the right of the Members to ask questions——
An Ceann Comhairle: : The Deputy may not enter into controversy over this. I have, I think, gone as far as I can. I would point out there are questions, many questions, ruled out just because there was a known opportunity of raising them in the future.
Mr. B. Desmond: : May I, as one whose questions were directly involved make a comment? In view of the generous nature of your reply, and the assurances you have received from the House in relation to the nature of the debate, may I take it now the statistical questions will be allowed tomorrow?
Mr. Cluskey: : I do not think this should be prolonged unnecessarily but I would like to be clear what exactly your ruling is. Are we to take it now that it is quite in order for a Deputy to submit a question seeking factual information he wishes to use in a pending debate?
An Ceann Comhairle: : There is no precedent for this type of discussion. I want to say finally, if the House is satisfied that the Green Paper is not the principal part of the discussion,  and that a proper opportunity does not arise to raise these matters, I will permit these questions. I would like to add here for the benefit of anyone who might impute any ulterior motive to the Chair—I do not think anyone did—that had I allowed these questions in the first instance they would not have been reached. Anybody can make his own deduction but I want to make the position quite clear in case anybody would think that there is any ulterior motive. I thank the House. We will now proceed with the remaining business.
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