Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Clerk/Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament

  1.  This memorandum is submitted to the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons in response to the request from the Chairman of the Committee of 4 December 2001. It sets out the process for lodging Parliamentary Questions (PQs) (both oral and written) and also sets out the background and the procedures adopted by the Scottish Parliament in the electronic processing of PQs, motions and amendments to motions.

PQ procedure

  2.  All questions, written (the Parliament has no "priority" written system) and oral, are lodged with the clerks in the Chamber Desk (the equivalent of the Table Office) who implement Rules 13.3-13.9 of the Parliament's Standing Orders which set out the framework for the lodging of PQs to the Scottish Executive, including the First Minister, and to the Presiding Officer. In addition to these Standing Orders, the clerks need to ensure that the Detailed Guidance on Parliamentary Questions, which provides more expansive detail on the procedures to be followed in respect of these Rules, is complied with. For ease of reference, the Rules on admissibility in Standing Orders are reproduced below.

    i.  Questions shall be in writing and lodged with the Clerk.

    ii.  A question shall:

    (a)  be brief, clearly worded, and address specific points;

    (b)  relate to a matter for which the First Minister, the Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Law Officers have general responsibility;

    (c )  be in English;

    (d)  be prefaced by the name of the member asking it;

    (e)  not contain offensive language;

    (f)  not express a point of view;

    (g)  not breach any enactment or rule of law or be contrary to the public interest; and

    (h)  not contravene Rule 7.5.1 (sub judice).

    iii.  A question is admissibile unless:

    (a)  it does not comply with the requirements of the above or

    (b)  the information sought has been provided in response to a similar question in the six months before the member seeks to lodge the question.

  Any dispute as to whether a question is admissible is determined by the Presiding Officer.

  3.  Answers to written PQs are lodged with the Clerk, normally within 14 days of the question being lodged. In the case of a question lodged during the seven days before a period when the Parliament is in recess for more than four days and during that recess, an answer shall be lodged normally within 28 days of the question being lodged.

  4.  Oral Question Time (QT) lasts up to 40 minutes each week (normally on Thursdays). First Minister's Question Time (FMQT) lasts up to 20 minutes each week immediately following QT. A member may lodge an oral question for answer at QT during the period commencing with the completion of the QT before the preceding one (normally 3.10 pm on the Thursday) until 2.00 pm the next Wednesday for the QT on the Thursday of the next week. Thirty questions are selected (using an electronic random selector in Microsoft Word) for each QT. For FMQT, normally questions may be lodged from 3.30 pm on the Thursday until 2.00 pm the next Monday for the FMQT that Thursday. This can allow for more topicality in questions.

  5.  Six questions are selected for FMQT and these are selected by the Presiding Officer, taking into account the following criteria:

    (a)  preference is given to topical questions and questions suitable for supplementary questions;

    (b)  reasonable political balance between the parties in their share of questions is maintained over time;

    (c)  questions from the opposition party leaders are taken first and second but otherwise "diary" questions on the lines of "To ask the First Minister when he last met X" are avoided;

    (d)  unnecessary duplication with questions already randomly selected for question time is avoided; and

    (e)  subject to the above, account is taken of individual Members' previous record of selection for First Minister's Question Time.

  6.  Members may lodge an Emergency Oral question but only on a day when there is a meeting of the Parliament (normally Wednesday and Thursday). The question must be lodged with the clerks in the Chamber Desk no later than 10.00 am on the meeting day. If the question is, in the opinion of the Presiding Officer, sufficiently urgent, he shall allow the question to be put and answered at an appropriate point during the meeting of the Parliament.

  7.  Members may address a question on a matter concerning the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to the Presiding Officer. A question addressed to the Presiding Officer shall normally be for written answer but may, exceptionally, be for oral answer. There has been no time given to oral questions to the Presiding Officer to date.

  8.  Members can either lodge questions in person or can, upon completion of the necessary authorisation form, delegate a named person (researcher, assistant) to lodge questions on their behalf. The clerks will then accept questions in the name of the MSP which have been signed by members of staff (see also paragraph 14 below).


  9.  As at 18 December 2001 over 21,000 written, 4,300 oral and 1,500 First Minister's questions have been lodged. It is not possible to give a breakdown as to the number lodged electronically but it would certainly be more than half.

  10.  The First Report, 2000 by the Parliament's Procedures Committee, Preliminary Report into the Volume of Written Parliamentary Questions and the Scottish Executive's Speed of Response, identified the concern expressed by a number of members into the timescale in receiving a substantive answer to a written PQ and the volume of questions receiving a holding answer. This problem was added to by the increase in the volume of PQs being lodged compared with the number of questions tabled to the Secretary of State for Scotland pre-Scottish Parliament. The Report recommended measures to improve performance in answering PQs and that the Committee would continue to monitor this situation closely.

  11.  The Second Report, 2001 by the Parliament Procedures Committee, Report into the Volume of Written Parliamentary Questions and the Scottish Executive's Speed of Response and Related Matters, which has been agreed by the Parliament, included a recommendation that the joint Parliament/SE monitoring exercise which has been established should continue for the time being and that the Procedures Committee keeps the outcome of the monitoring under regular review. The figures provided in Annexes A and B were extracted from a paper submitted to the Procedures Committee for consideration at its meeting on 18 December 2001 when the issue "Written PQs: Monitoring Volume and Speed of Response" was on their agenda.

  12.  Annex A shows in both table and graph form, the total number of written questions lodged to both the SE and the Presiding Officer in each month since June 1999. The table shows that, although the peak volume of questions lodged in March 2000 has not been repeated, there is no clear annual cycle to the volume of questions. The volume of questions fluctuates between 500-600 in recess months and circa 1,000 in the busiest months.

  13.  Annex B shows the figures for speed of response for the four-week periods since April 2001. The Second Report of the Procedures Committee covered the period up to the end of March 2001. These four-weekly figures are also published in the Written Answers Report. The figures show that improvement in the SE's performance has continued sharply since April 2001. Performance has reached over 70 per cent of answers being given within the due period (14 days) in the last three four-week periods.

Electronic processing of PQs

  14.  The Report of the Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament highlighted the need for the Parliament to utilise IT in its procedures. It was against this background that the Parliament sought to ensure that members were able to lodge questions, motions etc and, importantly, that the answers to questions could be processed electronically.

The system

  15.  The PQ system which has been developed and which has been in operation since the Parliament started in May 1999, allows members to lodge questions electronically either using a basic Word template or by simply sending the text of the question in an e-mail message. The Standing Orders allow for a PQ to be lodged electronically but only if the member has completed the necessary authorisation form to allow the clerks to accept questions electronically from their Parliament, constituency and/or home e-mail address(es) (this authorisation also allows members to e-mail to the clerks motions, amendments to motions, support to motions, amendments to Bills and support to Bills).

  16.  Persons authorised by the member to lodge questions on their behalf (see paragraph 7 above) can also e-mail questions but only if the e-mail shows the member's name. This means that clerks will accept questions e-mailed which show "name of authorised person on behalf of name of MSP". Clerks will not accept questions electronically if they do not come from one of the authorised e-mail accounts or if the question does not show the member's mailbox name. Questions cannot be lodged by fax (as faxes are open to fraudulent use).

  17.  Once the question has been received in the Chamber Desk, the clerks can edit it electronically before it is dropped into a PQ template. After all questions are given their final check (late afternoon), including those received in paper form which have been typed into the PQ template, they are then e-mailed to the Scottish Executive (SE). This allows the SE then to transmit each question to the relevant official for preparation of the draft answer which is then e-mailed back to the SE's Parliamentary Office who, upon receiving Ministerial clearance to the draft answer, e-mail the question and answer, normally late afternoon or early evening, to the member and the Chamber Desk. The Chamber Desk clerks then arrange for all questions and answers to appear on the Parliament's website by early afternoon of the next day. In addition, the question and answer are used in the preparation of the weekly Written Answers Report, which is published each Monday morning.

  18.  The recognised advantage of electronic lodging of questions is that text can be recycled and amended more easily than a question lodged in hard copy thereby making it easier for clerks and allowing for the speedy transmission of questions through the Chamber Desk, to the SE and for publication in the Parliament's Business Bulletin (the daily "order paper") and on the web. It also allows members to submit questions when they (or their staff) are not in the building. This is an obvious advantage on Mondays and Fridays when the Parliament and its committees do not meet and members can e-mail questions to the Chamber Desk while in their constituencies.


  19.  As stated earlier, members can lodge motions, amendments to motions and support to motions electronically in the same way as they lodge PQs.

December 2001

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