Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Principal Clerk, Table Office


  1. This paper discusses some of the aspects of Parliamentary Questions highlighted in the Committee's press notice announcing its inquiry and in the questionnaire to Members and also takes account of the proposals related to Questions discussed in the Leader of the House's recent memorandum to the Modernisation Committee.[1] Any changes to the sitting hours of the House, such as are proposed in that memorandum, would have implications for the arrangements for tabling questions; I will be happy to let the Committee have more detailed comments on these when decisions are taken about those proposals.

Changes in the System since 1990-91

  2. There have been some substantial changes since the Committee's last major inquiries into this subject.[2] The rota setting out which ministers answer on which days (which is the responsibility of the Government) has been simplified to reflect what had become the reality, that questions tabled to ministers in any Department other than that which was the first department due to answer would not be reached, and the Prime Minister has changed his slot for oral questions from twice a week for fifteen minutes to once a week for half an hour.

  3. A major change followed devolution. On 25 October 1999 the House agreed the following resolution:

    ``That, subject always to the discretion of the Chair, and in addition to the established rules of order on the form and content of questions, questions may not be tabled on matters for which responsibility has been devolved by legislation to the Scottish Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales unless the question:

    (a)  seeks information which the United Kingdom Government is empowered to require of the devolved executive, or

    (b)  relates to matters which:

(i)  are included in legislative proposals introduced or to be introduced in the United Kingdom Parliament,

(ii)  are concerned with the operation of a concordat or other instrument of liaison between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved executive, or

(iii)  United Kingdom Government ministers have taken an official interest in, or

    (c)  presses for action by United Kingdom ministers in areas in which they retain administrative powers."

This has erected a new barrier to Members' opportunities to ask questions of ministers about Scottish and Welsh issues, even where these relate to their own constituencies. Mutatis mutandis, the same principles are applied by the Table Office to questions relating to matters devolved to the Northern Ireland executive and to the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly. In respect of oral questions Members have to some extent managed to get round the new restrictions, using devices such as "when he last met [the relevant minister etc in the devolved body] to discuss  .  .  .  .", thus opening up the possibility of a supplementary question on a devolved matter, but detailed written questions on devolved matters are now generally not possible.

  4.  Changes relating to the tabling and content of questions include:

    (a)  moving of the time for the "shuffle" from 4 pm to 5 pm (in 1991) and to 6.30 pm (in 2001) as an experiment on the direction of the Speaker for the convenience of Members who were not in the House until quite late in the day;

    (b)  abolition of the "blocks" system, by which questions could not be asked on certain categories of issues on which ministers had refused to answer. The Table Office now follows the pattern of answers by ministers in any one session in deciding whether questions are admissible. It also maintains a list of matters on which ministers have refused answers. This is submitted each year to the Select Committee on Public Administration which annually asks departments about the reasons why questions are not answered.[3]

    (c)  questions are now allowed on ministerial statements made outside the House and on policy towards the internal affairs of foreign countries.

  5.  The system of printing questions and answers has been streamlined: only the top questions in the "shuffle" are printed; written questions are now published only on the Blue order paper on the day after tabling and thereafter in the Order Book—except for questions put down for the next day, almost always those which are expected by the Government; and answers from heads of agencies are printed in Hansard.

  6.  One noticeable non-procedural change is the increased use of research assistants to prepare questions. Many Members use them freely and it is clear that the same researchers work for groups of Members. Frequently they telephone the Table Office to ask about preparing questions or for other advice.


  7.  Appendix 1 sets out some statistics about the use of the question system in recent years. None of the statistics treats the answers qualitatively, recording a short answer in the same way as an extensive one. They show nothing about whether answers were satisfactory or to the point. Since the House resumed in October 2001 there has been a marked increase in the number of questions tabled, especially written questions, compared with the same period in 2000. The graphs show fairly consistent patterns of tabling although particular events (perhaps one or two Members pursuing a matter vigorously by means of many questions) may throw things out of kilter from time to time. It may be that the increased tabling seen so far since the House's return in October will die down.

  8.  The Committee's questionnaire to Members asks a wide range of questions about the working of the system. Some of these matters are not for the Table Office to express an opinion on but I will be very happy to provide a further paper for the Committee on any aspects of the responses received to the other sections of the questionnaire when these have been analysed. The remainder of this paper focuses mainly on matters raised in Sections C, D, E and F of the questionnaire.


  9.  Any discussion of questions needs to start with an examination of what questions are for. Questions are formal proceedings in Parliament, addressed by Members to ministers and must relate to matters for which ministers are responsible and on which they are accountable to Parliament. The basic rules are quite clear. Questions must either press for action or seek information and a question which has recently been answered may not be asked again. The other rules relating to questions and the practice of the Table Office on behalf of the House depend on these central provisions and are intended to ensure that orderly questions are not crowded out by those relating to matters of debate for which other parliamentary opportunities are available. The fundamental rules have been reconfirmed by successive Procedure Committees, most recently in 1990-91.[4]

  10.  Bearing in mind these fundamental principles of what questions are designed to do, it is a matter for the House (to some extent in consultation with the Government) to decide how it wishes the system of questions to develop. There is a balance to be struck between ease of use and maintaining a flexible system which reflects the political needs of Members and protection of the system from abuse. This balance is by no means easy to achieve.


  11.  In the case of written questions, the rules appear to be well understood by Members and are generally straightforward to apply. We have no immediate suggestions for further modification or amendment of the rules as they relate to the content of written questions, but I will be happy to provide a further paper to the Committee if the responses to its questionnaire suggest that any aspect of the rules require reconsideration.

  12.  The Leader's memorandum (para 15) makes one suggestion about written questions—that `planted' or inspired questions be replaced by an entry on the Order Paper giving notice of written statements by ministers expected that day, which would then be published in a separate section of that day's Official Report. This would be more transparent than the present arrangements for such ministerial announcements and it would be straightforward to devise a new section on the Order Paper for the purpose. Instructions about entries in this section could then be given to the Table Office by the Chief Whip's office in the same manner as instructions are given for the next day's effective orders.

  13.  The Committee may wish however to consider whether at the same time to recommend removal of the right of Members to table questions for answer the next day. Such questions may at present be tabled by any Member and occasionally Members ask for their questions to be set down for answer next day. As these are ordinary written questions, Members may not insist on an answer the next day and any such questions which are not inspired by ministers will almost certainly not receive an answer that day. However there might be circumstances when Members wish to highlight their questions by putting them down for the next sitting day and thus ensuring they are printed with the Order Paper. If the Committee felt such opportunities should be retained it would be feasible to retain the present system in addition to developing a new method of announcing ministerial written statements.

  14.  The use of the named day system has long been a subject of controversy. It is the habit of some Members to table their written questions for the earliest named day as a matter of course; sometimes this is a deliberate policy on the part of the Member and the Table Office is obliged to follow Members' instructions if they wish to specify a date for reply.

  15.  The number of named day questions, broken down into those tabled for answer for the earliest available (first) named day, first named day plus one, and other named days and expressed as a percentage of all tabled written questions, shows that the general use of named day question remains reasonably constant. However, the summary of the responses to the question by Mr Burns (see Appendix 1) about the proportion of named day questions answered on the day requested reveals that out of 20 departments responding, only nine indicated that in the test period they had answered more than half named day questions on the day requested. Of those nine, three had answered about a third with holding replies. Only six departments had anything like a reasonable record in answering named day questions on the appropriate day.[5] There is no clear correlation between the success rate in answering named day questions on the appointed day and the volume of questions received. What is clear, is that the system of named day questions is not working in the way in which is was designed to operate. In its Report in 1990-91 (paras 53 to 75) the Procedure Committee examined and rejected the idea that Members' use of written questions should be rationed. It also exhorted Members to be sparing in their use of named day questions (then known as priority written questions).

  16.  The Speaker has made statements recently about the quality and timeliness of departmental replies.[6] It has been recognised in the past that excessive use of the named day procedure devalues it as a mechanism for ensuring a prompt reply for a specific reason. The statistics cited above show that there is a strong likelihood that the named day asked for will not be complied with. The Committee may wish to revisit the idea of rationing such questions so that only genuinely time-critical questions have a named day for answer. If the Committee were minded to recommend a system of rationing named day questions it would be possible to maintain a register in the Table Office.

  17.  Much of the criticism of the named day system concerns ministers' use of holding answers. If Members' ability to specify named days for answer were rationed, the Committee might wish to consider whether this should be balanced by additional opportunities for Members to pursue matters if ministers did not provide substantive answers to named day questions on the due date. In the Chamber, where Members are dissatisfied with the answers to oral questions, notice is sometimes given that in view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, the Member intends to raise the matter in an adjournment debate. The Committee might wish to consider whether a Member who did not receive a substantive answer to a named day question on the due date could be given priority in a forthcoming ballot for adjournment debates, perhaps in Westminister Hall. Such a penalty might discourage excessive use by ministers of holding replies.

  18.  The Leader of the House has suggested that the time for answering written questions be brought forward from 3.30 pm to noon each day.[7] At present written answers may not be released before the end of Question Time—3.30 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 12.30 pm on Thursdays. Answers may be released at any time thereafter. It would probably not be convenient for departments for written answers from the department whose minister was answering oral questions on that day to be released earlier than the end of Question Time, but there are no procedural reasons why answers may not be released from a specified time earlier in the day. The Speaker recently authorised the release of written answers on Fridays from the time when the House meets instead of 12.00 noon as hitherto.[8]


  19.  There are linked aspects of the rules relating to both content and tabling of oral questions which the Committee may wish to revisit. The requirement for ten days' notice has been identified by the Leader of the House as one which might be amended.[9] The Procedure Committee in 1990-91 recommended that the notice period be reduced to five sitting days.[10] There are no procedural reasons why a shorter period should not work, such as the five working days proposed by the Procedure Committee in its previous Report. Such a time limit is perfectly workable from a Table Office point of view and the Table Office would have no difficulty in operating whatever notice period was suggested.

  20.  The Committee may also wish to consider whether more fundamental changes to the system of oral questions should be addressed. It is by no means clear whether the present rules on the content of questions currently reflect the wishes and needs of Members. Notwithstanding the framework for Question Time laid down by the list of questions set out on the Order Paper, in practice Question Time is not often an occasion when Members "seek information or press for action" as the rules require. On many occasions it is closer to a series of interpellations, almost mini-debates on broad areas of a minister's responsibilities. It may be that the rules should be adjusted to reflect this reality. At one extreme there could be questions without any notice to departmental ministers. Alternatively the system could be altered to try to encourage more "real" questions capable of giving rise to more pointed supplementaries.

  21.  The Committee may also wish to reexamine the rule prohibiting open questions to ministers other than the Prime Minister. In its 1990-91 report, the Procedure Committee concluded that, for Prime Minister's questions "the convenience of the overwhelming majority of the House appears to be best served by the flexibility and topicality inherent in the open question",[11] but recommended that oral questions to departmental ministers should "be so worded as to indicate, within reasonably broad limits, a particular subject matter".[12] A glance at the Order Paper for Question Time on virtually any day shows that while oral questions are not technically "open" in that some indication of the topic of the question is given, they are very close to being open questions and the range of supplementaries asked on a particular question may open up a very wide discussion on broad policy issues. Most oral questions are in reality no more than a "peg" on which to hang a supplementary and do not in more than the most literal sense either seek information or press for action.

  22.  In 1989-90 the Procedure Committee carried out an inquiry into oral questions. One idea then considered was a suggestion by the then Principal Clerk (Charles Winnifrith) for replacing the present arrangements for tabling oral questions with a preliminary ballot for the opportunity to ask an oral question, to be followed in due course by the tabling of the question itself. Appendix 2 reproduces the proposal made to the Committee in 1989-90. On that occasion the Committee rejected the idea on the grounds that it would "separate to an unacceptable degree the act of tabling a question from the method used to determine its precedence on the order paper".[13] The Committee also noted that "if the order of questions was already known, the temptation for those organising syndicates to bring pressure to bear on Members who had been successful in the ballot would be all the stronger".[14]

  23.  The 1989-90 inquiry took place in the context of a marked rise in the practice of syndication of oral questions, described by the Committee as the farming out by Parliamentary Private Secretaries or Whips of groups of identical or near-identical and often vague questions to large numbers of Members with a view to increasing the probability of questions on selected topics coming out high in the shuffle and dominating Question Time[15]. To counter that practice the Committee recommended two changes, which were agreed to by the House. These were that Members must table oral questions in person in the Table Office and that notice of oral questions may not be sent by post.

  24.  Although there was some immediate reduction in the practice of syndication of oral questions following the House's agreement to these changes in the rules, the practice has certainly not disappeared. Syndication continues to be a feature of oral questions. It is not possible to give precise numbers but the clerks in the Office estimate that on some days anything up to half the questions tabled to a particular department may be syndicated and they frequently have to advise Members seeking to table identical or near identical questions that, as more than four or five identical questions have already been tabled, they are unable to accept the question being proffered. The Committee may wish to consider whether it agrees with the conclusion of its predecessors, that syndication was "quite simply an abuse"[16] or whether some degree of stage-managing Question Time has now become accepted by all sides of the House as inevitable.

  25.  If the Committee were to conclude that an element of stage-management by the parties of Question Time is now an accepted aspect of the House's proceedings, then a preliminary ballot for the opportunity to ask an oral question could greatly simplify the way in which Members give notice of questions and Members (and Table Office clerks) would be able to give more considered attention to the questions to be put to Ministers for oral answer. Members successful in the ballot would have longer to consider their questions and the actual questions tabled might then become more precise and less "open", giving the possibility of more relevant and pointed supplementaries at Question Time. In particular, up to 300 Members each Wednesday take the opportunity to table oral questions to the Prime Minister, almost all of which are the conventional open "engagements" question. An overt ballot for Prime Minister's questions might encourage significantly more questions to the Prime Minister to be substantive questions. Syndication would not be prevented by moving to a preliminary ballot, but the risk of the Order Paper being dominated by questions on a single theme should disappear (and could be reinforced, if necessary, by a rule prohibiting more than, say, two identical questions on any one day). If the Committee is minded to reconsider a preliminary ballot, the Table Office can prepare a further note on how it might operate in practice.

  26.  If the Committee decides to retain the present link between tabling and the determining of the order in which questions are answered, the Committee may wish to consider whether any other changes to the arrangements for tabling oral questions are desirable.

Time for tabling oral questions

  27.  At present, oral questions must be tabled on a particular day. There are always more questions tabled for oral answer than can be reached and the random "shuffle" has been long accepted as the fairest way of determining the order in which the Members' questions will be called. There must clearly be a final time for tabling in order for the "shuffle" to go ahead. Standing Order No. 22(5) provides that questions for oral answer may not be tabled on a day earlier than ten sitting days before the day for answer. Since the Procedure Commitee inquiry into oral questions in 1989-90, it has also been the rule that members must table oral questions in person in the office and that notice of oral questions may not be sent by post.

  28.  There could be advantages to Members if the Table Office were allowed to receive questions in advance of the due date—on, say, any sitting day after the last day on which each minister answered. Thus Members could table questions at times which were convenient to them and, for example, Members away from Westminster on Select Committee or other visits would be able to table oral questions. Members could also discuss the terms of their question and its orderliness with the Table Office at any time, which would reduce the over-crowding and queues in the Office at peak times and there would be longer in which to ascertain whether the question was likely to be transferred. It is already the case that a Member may (on the date it is tabled) amend or withdraw a question tabled in advance of the time for the "shuffle". Members could therefore amend questions tabled on earlier days until the time of the "shuffle" on the due day. A consequential change which would be necessary is that Members would have to deposit questions not for a particular day but for the next slot for a particular department as the exact dates of recesses which alter the timetable for the order of questions may not be known until quite late.

  29.  The additional administrative burden on the Table Office staff which would result from such a change would be considerable and systems would be necessary to avoid the possibility of error when handling larger numbers of questions for different days. There would need to be constant monitoring of oral questions received so that accurate records were kept of who had tabled. Members would inevitably wish to amend their questions before the "shuffle" to take account of recent developments. Members might forget whether they had tabled for a particular department. This would lead to them being disadvantaged under the current rules, as both their questions would be included in the "shuffle" and the lower placed one would be taken as setting the order in which the Member's question appeared. To lessen the possibility of error more time would be needed to process the "shuffle" each day, and to enable its results to be known and the list of oral questions to be printed the next day it would be necessary for the time for the "shuffle" to be brought forward to earlier in the afternoon. However, the reason behind the moving of the shuffle to a later time would have disappeared.


  30.  The Leader of the House has suggested that the long summer recess be replaced by two shorter recesses, with a September sitting. If these proposals are implemented, many of the criticisms of the present arrangements where questions may not be answered during the summer break may be dealt with. The following paragraphs discuss some ways in which questions may be made more topical over long breaks, some of which the Commitee may wish to consider when the outcome of the Leader's proposals about the calendar are clear.

  31.  At present, oral questions are tabled 10 sitting days before the due date for answer. The system continues seamlessly when the House comes up to an adjournment period, so that questions are accepted for dates after the break on the appropriate day of the week (as nearly as may be). This rule results in Members being required to table in the last fortnight that the House sits in July for departmental questions in early or even mid-October. This can produce some absurd results, where an issue may cease to be of importance in the intervening months or may be eclipsed by events which everyone—Government, the Member questioning and the rest of the country—is much more interested in, but which do not appear on the Paper. In these circumstances, a Member may be forced to ask a question he or she no longer particularly wants to be answered.

  32.  One possible solution to this difficulty would be to reduce the notice period, as suggested by the Leader of the House. But any notice period would mean some questions were tabled in early summer, up to several weeks or months ahead of the date for answering. Another approach could be to allow oral questions to be tabled in the adjournment in the period just before the House resumes. At present Members must table oral questions in person in the Office. Thus Members would have to bring oral questions to the Table Office in the fortnight before the House resumed; this would inconvenience those Members whose constituences were not near Westminster. This might be less of a problem if the time for tabling for oral questions was telescoped, like at the start of a Session, when a multiplicity of orals are taken for the following week. It would be worth considering whether Members might be allowed to table oral questions in the week before the House resumes for the first two weeks after a recess.

  33.  Other solutions could also be considered. Whatever view the Committee takes about the proposal for a preliminary ballot to determine the precedence on the Order paper described above, such a ballot might be appropriate for questions after a long recess (with the actual text of the question tabled, say, a week before the House returns). Alternatively, Members could be allowed to amend or change their questions up to, say, five days before the House resumes after the recess by analogy with the present arrangements for 10-minute rule bills, where Members may change the subject of their proposed bill up to five days before the date when they are due to propose it to the House.

  34.  The long period of silence during the summer recess when no written questions can be answered has troubled Members for a considerable time. The present system already allows Members to submit written questions during the summer and these are examined and edited by the Table Office towards the end of the recess and printed in a draft Blue notice paper, so that Government departments have some warning of them. Any system of tabling and answering questions during recesses would have financial implications for the House in that notices of questions and the answers would need to be printed. The Committee will no doubt wish to seek ministers' views about the feasibility of providing ministerial answers during the whole of the holiday season when the relevant officials and ministers may not always be available, and the Leader's proposals about the parliamentary calendar may reduce the demand for questions to be answered during summer recesses. It would be possible to set up a system by which written questions were printed on one day in the week for answer a set number of days later. The Committee will no doubt also wish to seek evidence from the Editor of the Official Report on the additional costs associated with such a scheme.


  35.  Tabling of questions by e-mail is an issue which was raised by the Procedure Committee in the last Parliament. My predecessor's memorandum is attached as Appendix 3. The position remains as set out there. The Office could receive such questions, but there would be important consequences which merit serious consideration. The question of Members' providing adequate authority for questions and for amendments to questions in order to bring them into order remains to be settled, as well as the danger of the question system beng open to abuse. The Table office has dealt with draft questions and EDMs as well as other queries by e-mail on occasion (although few Members have used this facility) and is committed to assist in the expansion of using new technology, where appropriate. If the suggestion of a preliminary ballot for oral questions is taken up, Members could perhaps enter that ballot by e-mail—or clear the text of the proposed eventual question by e-mail.

  36.  If a satisfactory means of authenticating questions tabled electronically can be identifed, and the Committee is minded to recommend that this be permitted, it might wish also to seek evidence from the Clerk of the House or the Clerk of Legislation about whether such a system could or should be adopted in relation to other notices, of motions or of amendments to Bills. If tabling of questions by e-mail is permitted, we would anticipate a further consideration increase in overall numbers of questions submitted, which might have staffing implications for the Table Office.


  37.  Linked to the use of e-mail is the question of allowing tabling by Members' assistants. At present the rule is quite strict. Assistants may deposit signed, written questions, but the Table Office may not take instructions about them from anyone except the Member. Strictly speaking, the Office should not even discuss them with anyone except the Member, but a common sense interpretation of the rule means that general advice may be given to Members' assistants who telephone the Office. Previously, the view has been that allowing Members' assistants into the Office at busy times would create more of a blockage in what is already a rather crowded office. There is a further practical problem in that unlike the Public Bill Office, which does allow representations to be made by specified staff about amendments to bills in Committee, the Table Office deals with many Members and it would be impossible to know each staff member in each Member's office. The Table Office could not guarantee that it would only accept instructions from authorised staff members.

  38.  The question of principle as to whether assistants should table on behalf of their Members is difficult. Questions are formal proceedings in Parliament and like any other proceeding their content is the responsibility of the Member. There are many occasions when the Members will take a tabled question away if there is a problem with it to discuss it with their assistant and often the assistant will know more than the Member tabling the question. Nonetheless, as noted in the Table Office's memorandum relating to the e-mailing of questions, it would be a major departure from current practice with far reaching implications to allow Members' staff to authorise any changes to such questions in the absence of a Member.

  39.  The Committee has asked for Members' views about the training of their staff. In this and the last Parliament, the Table Office has taken part in briefings offered to new Members and would be happy to extend similar briefings to Members' staff if the Committee's questionnaire elicits a demand for such a service.


  40.  There have been a number of changes to the Order Paper in recent years designed to make it clearer. One Member has pointed out to us (and to the Committee) that the Blue notice paper published each morning which contains the questions tabled on the preceding day is difficult to read. The questions are already separated by date of answer asked for and are listed in alphabetical order of department and Members' surnames. If the Committee agreed, it would be a relatively simple matter to insert headings to reflect this organization of the paper and little or no expense would be involved.

  41.  At present most questions to the Prime Minister are ``engagements'' questions, which allow a Member to raise any issue. It is a puzzling part of House procedure for those who are unfamiliar with how the Chamber works and setting out the text of the question on the Order Paper makes little sense now that the Speaker simply calls Members with later questions to put a question without notice to the Prime Minister. It would make the Order Paper clearer to visitors and others if the engagements questions (or at least all after the first question) were no longer printed in question form. Members who were successful in the ballot could just have their names printed under a rubric which indicated that, unless a question was printed under their name, they would ask an ``open'' question. This would have the added effect of emphasising the substantive questions tabled by those Members who regularly do so. Such questions are at present swamped by the repeated engagements questions.

Helen Irwin

14 January 2002

1   Modernisation of the House of Commons: a reform programme for consultation, HC 440 (2001-02) (hereafter "Memorandum"). Back

2   First Report (1989-90), HC 379 on Oral Questions; Third Report (1990-91), HC 178, on Parliamentary Questions. Back

3   See eg Second Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, HC 61, 2000-2001 and the Speaker's statement of 28th November 2001, Official Report, col 971. Back

4   First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, HC 178 (1990-91), paras 84, 120 and 121. Back

5   FCO: 6 per cent; POC: 0 per cent; SG: 0 per cent OSSW: 0 per cent; DWP: 6 per cent; PM: 19 per cent of questions answered with holding replies. Back

6   Official Report, 21 November 2001, cols 320-21; 28 November 2001, col 971. Back

7   Memorandum, para 54. Back

8   Official Report, 30 October 2001, col 250WH. Back

9   Memorandum, para 13. Back

10   HC 178 (1990-91), para 21. Back

11   HC 178 (1990-91), para 38. Back

12   HC 178 (1990-91), para 43. Back

13   First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, HC 379 (1989-90), para 18. Back

14   Ibid. Back

15   HC 379 (1989-90), para 10. Back

16   HC 379 (1989-90), para 11. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 26 June 2002