Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from the Minister for Parliamentary Business, Scottish Parliament to the Chairman of the Committee

  Thank you for your letter of 21 March to the First Minister seeking information about our contacts with the Procedures Committee of the Scottish Parliament with regard to their Enquiry into written Parliamentary Questions and the outcome of these exchanges.

  Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that we have a series of regular, planned meetings with the Procedures Committee on the management of parliamentary questions, the Executive has worked closely with the Committee and we have met on a number of occasions, as I explain below.

  Following representations about the volume of parliamentary questions and the Executive's speed of response, the Procedures Committee began an Enquiry and published their Preliminary Report on 31 August 2000[1]. The Executive were keen to work constructively with the Committee and agreed to a working agreement with the broad objective being "to assist all those responsible for parliamentary questions to match resources to demand in answering questions lodged; to seek demonstrable improvements in the turn round time for answering questions; and to monitor the number of questions lodged." Joint monitoring arrangements were put in hand at official level and statistics published in the Parliament's Written Answers Report covering four week periods. In addition to this, the Executive publishes its own more detailed quarterly audits (copy of the audit for July-September 2001 attached). The Committee published its second report in 2001[2]. These reports were debated and approved by the Parliament.

  These reports are the outcome of discussions at official level. Formal written evidence from the Executive, in addition to correspondence as well as more formal meetings when Ministers and officials attend to give oral evidence to the Committee. Since 1999, the Committee has met on approximately 10 occasions to discuss substantive issues relating to parliamentary questions. Ministers have attended on four occasions to give oral evidence and officials on two occasions.

  It may also be worth noting that the Executive took part in seminars on parliamentary questions arranged by the Parliament for Members and their assistants.

  As explained above, the ongoing Enquiry is a product of shared objectives and the exchanges have always been conducted in an open and constructive manner. The outcomes are probably best identified by referring you to the Committee's reports and debates which are readily accessible through the Parliament's website. The Executive continues to be concerned at the overall volume of questions which shows no sign of abating but in spite of this the Executive's performance in responding in time to questions has improved significantly. Whilst the Committee's Enquiry had its origins in concerns about the quantity of questions and how they were managed, it quickly became clear that the relevance and quality of questions were significant issues. The application and interpretation of the rules of admissibility continue to develop and be refined but it is for individual Members to take responsibility for the number, relevance and quality of the questions that they ask. Consensus in these areas is not easily achieved and we have to acknowledge that there is a political dimension to the process.

  The Committee and the Executive have encouraged the use of other sources of information, whilst not disputing a Member's right to ask questions. On occasion, a meeting between the Member and the relevant Minister has been offered as a more productive means of providing the information required.

  The Executive recognises that it has a responsibility to answer questions clearly, accurately and timeously. We have worked hard and continue to do so to improve our internal management information systems. Our performance has improved as a result and we shall continue to strive towards answering all written questions by the due date.

  Perhaps one of the most obvious differences between procedures at Westminster and Holyrood is that questions are permitted during recess periods in the Scottish Parliament. An outright embargo on questions during recess was considered and rejected by the Committee. However, the Parliament recently changed it Standing Orders to allow 28 days (as compared with the usual 14 days) for answering questions lodged in the week before a recess of more than four days and throughout that recess. This has enabled the Executive to more efficiently manage the process during long holiday periods. The Committee has undertaken to review the matter.

  Other practical changes have been made such as identifying "inspired" questions (ie, questions arranged through a Member to convey Executive policy) in the Parliament's Written Answers Report; and the date of the holding answer is shown against the substantive answer in the Written Answers Report. In addition, we make available to Members, their assistants and Parliament staff, electronic copies of the Executive's business directory to enable direct contact to be made with Executive officials for urgent factual information not readily available elsewhere. This has not, however, resulted in any discernible reduction in the volume of questions.

  Besides quantity, relevance and quality issues, a number of topics remain under consideration and these will be the subject of further discussions. These include, for example, setting an advisory cost limit for written questions which we reported to the Committee earlier this month and on which we await their views, and how questions relating to the work of non-departmental public bodies are dealt with.

  You also asked about the frequency of contact by Executive officials with Members who have tabled questions in order to clarify the background to the questions, with a view to providing better and more focused answers. The Executive's Parliamentary Clerk's Office regularly seeks clarification from the Clerks of the Parliament's Chamber Desk with regard to terms used and references to publications etc in parliamentary questions. In addition, in cases when it is unclear from the question the scope and nature of the information being sought, the Parliamentary Clerk will seek further information from either the Chamber Desk or from the Member direct. This is standard practice and happens several times each week but does not require the approval of individual Ministers before the contact can be made.

  Of course, Ministers may choose to contact a Member informally with regard to a question and the nature of the answer being sought.

Patricia Ferguson MSP

28 March 2002

1   31 August 2000 First Report, 2000: Preliminary Report into the Volume of Written Parliamentary Questions and the Scottish Executive's Speed of Response. Back

2   8 June 2001 Second Report, 2001: Report into the Volume of Written Parliamentary Questions and the Scottish Executive's Speed of Response, and Related Matters. Back

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