Memorandum submitted by FDA (formerly
First Division Association)
1. This paper sets out briefly the high
level issues which the FDA would wish the Committee to bear in
mind when considering changes to Procedure relating to Parliamentary
Questions and Motions. These relate to the effect on members of
any changes to the system for dealing with Parliamentary Questions.
In putting forward this memorandum, we understand that the Committee
is seeking the most effective mechanisms on behalf of the House
of Commons. In commenting we are raising areas relating to the
interests of those of our members on whom the system might impact.
2. In broad terms we have two groups of
staff whom the changes might affect: those in Departments and
those who work for the House of Commons itself. In both cases,
the primary concern of the union is that the workloads and time
demands should not be excessive. There is often an element of
pressure when dealing with Parliamentary business, but this should
not become stressful, nor should the demands be unreasonable,
either in terms of volume or timescale.
3. Most of the FDA members who will be affected
by any changes work in Departments. They will be required to prepare
the answers and supporting briefing for Ministers. The staff time
involved in this will vary and will depend on factors such as
the complexity of the question and the availability of information
to frame an answer and, in the case of oral questions, the range
of subjects on which briefing may be necessary to cover supplementary
4. The staff who prepare an answer on a
topic are the staff who are responsible for that particular subject
area. The staffing levels of any area of the civil service are
based on a business need. Part of the calculation of that need
will take account of the likely level of Parliamentary demands.
This is relatively straightforward where a Bill is being prepared,
since it is possible to set up dedicated teams and the pressures,
though severe at some points, follow broadly recognised patterns.
In the case of PQs, there are certain areas which will remain
a focus of Members' interest over a sustained period and Departments
may be able to allocate staff resources to take account of that.
5. However, given the wide range of Members'
interests and the range of government responsibility, most areas
have an unpredictable level and pattern of PQ business with which
to deal. From the perspective of individuals or teams within Departments,
this means peaks and troughs of demands from Parliament. Since
PQs fall to the subject experts, they are often additional to
existing workloads, many of which are demanding. By its nature
Parliamentary business has significant priority and the effects
may not therefore be felt by the Member asking the question, but
consideration should be given to the effect on civil servants.
6. The Committee is considering the period
of notice given for questions. The purpose of a Parliamentary
"is to obtain information information or press for action"
(Erskine May citing Parliamentary debates). If the time
allowed for the preparation of an answer is inadequate then it
is difficult to see how the Member might achieve either objective.
7. Topicality is a concern raised by others
who have already appeared before the Committee. Various ways of
addressing the issue have been suggested. While not wishing to
encroach on the Committee's consideration of how best it can serve
the House's needs, we would note two factors which would lead
to significant pressure on civil servants, and on the answers
which they prepare; lack of notice of questions and any structure
which has the potential to cover a wide range of topics in one
session (thus requiring briefing from a wide range of policy and
8. Overall this is a question of balance.
The FDA understands the wish of Members for more topicality, but
would be concerned about the effect of very short deadlines on
staff. Conversely, if questions were to be better focused and
the numbers reduced (eg as suggested in the Memorandum from the
Leader of the House) then this would reduce the workload and in
particular would reduce the amount of supporting briefing which
is prepared and not used when an oral PQ is not reached.
9. Similar considerationsworkload,
pattern of demand and time pressurearise for House of Commons
staff. We would ask that in making reforms the Committee consider
the impact on the House staff who might suffer particularly from
increased peaks of demand with very short deadlines. An illustrative
example, as posed by the Committee (Mr Wrightquestion 15,
Tuesday 12 February), is the case where the Table Office may be
deluged with e-mails from members submitting questions shortly
before the deadline for tabling. Members will have expectations
as to the level of service and speed of reply which they receive
from the Table Office, but these will always be constrained by
the resources available and the level of demand at any time. Examples
of the possible impact on the Table Office were given in the Memorandum
from the Principal Clerk, Table Office.
10. The FDA would welcome any initiative
which would allow its members to deliver an improved service when
dealing with Parliamentary Questions. To that end we would welcome
any proposal which would allow a reduction in unnecessary work
while ensuring that there were no excessive pressures put on staff,
particularly from unreasonable deadlines.
15 March 2002