Letter from Mr Paul Tyler CBE MP to the
Chairman of the Committee
Charles Kennedy has asked me to respond on behalf
of the Liberal Democrats to your letter. I am grateful for this
opportunity to contribute to a further consideration on the effectiveness
of parliamentary questions.
The current collection of standing orders, government
codes and parliamentary practices which regulate the asking and
answering of questions should in theory be sufficient to ensure
proper scrutiny of the executive.
However, in practice, the aspirations of the
Code of Access to Government Information and Ministerial Code
of Conduct that Governments should be as open as possible in providing
information, are not being fulfilled. The practice of delaying,
misleading and obstructing access to information in answer to
private Members' questions is normal experience.
It follows, therefore, that existing procedures
should be tightened in relation to Ministerial accountability
to Parliament, rather than excessive changes to the system are
The following submission falls into three areas:
1. A suggested code of conduct for Ministers
when answering questions. There should in addition be a process
of appeal and sanction if the Minister is shown to have failed
in his/her obligations;
2. Possible reforms to oral and written questions
that the Liberal Democrats would like considered;
3. Procedural and administrative changes
which could improve the general effectiveness of the process.
1. CODE OF
Liberal Democrats believe in the most open and
accountable processes possible to govern the procedure of Parliament.
Our current system regulates the asking of questions, but not
the answering of them.
There are basic principles that underpin
this scrutiny process which the Liberal Democrats believe should
not only be upheld, but strengthened for the benefit of Parliamentary
democracy and public accountability.
That private Members and opposition
parties have the right to question the executive, and that Ministers
have a duty to be as open as possible about releasing information,
as set out in the code of conduct for Ministers.
That this is essentially a Parliamentary
process, not a party political one, and therefore Ministers have
an absolute duty to answer questions as fully as possible, even
if it is potentially damaging in a party political sense.
That on any matter of urgent or great
importance, or relevant constituency concern, Members of Parliament
should be given the greatest opportunity to hear a report or answer
from the Secretary of State, or Minister, as soon as possible.
This should not be governed solely by the discretion of the Secretary
of State. If an oral statement is not available on the relevant
issue, and the Speaker has ruled the matter requires urgent attention,
a Member should expect a written explanation from the Minister
as soon as possible.
That there should be as few as possible
limits of the number and frequency of parliamentary questions
Members can ask, and the emphasis should be on the obligation
on Ministers to answer them.
That Ministers should be accountable
for their actions regarding questions. If they are not in a position
to answer properly (due to public interest reasons, or due to
the costs) they should be under an obligation to explain as fully
as possible their reasons. They should also advise the Member
how relevant information may be provided within appropriate costs,
or in a manner which doesn't conflict with public interest. In
short, there should be an obligation to be as helpful as possible
to answer the Members' questions.
There should be a greater logic in the differentiation
between oral and written questions, and a protection of both as
a means to scrutinise. Liberal Democrats believe that:
Written questions have a primary
purpose to scrutinise in-depth any detailed aspect of Government
policy and actions.
Oral questions should provide
Members with the opportunity to question Ministers about recent
developments the Department has responsibility for and urgent
concerns the member may have.
At present, the current monthly rota of departmental
questions and fortnightly tabling of questions limits the effectiveness
of oral questioning to produce answers that deal with the most
topical concerns that department has responsibility for.
Therefore the Liberal Democrats would like
to see oral questioning to be more relevant and responsive to
Several proposals to achieve this could be:
Identical notice period for tabling
oral questions as for written (departmental civil servants presumably
prepare for both in a similar way).
Allowing "open questions",
similar to PMQs, effectively giving Members the widest possible
scope to question ministers.
Oral questions should never be transferred
for written answer by another Department, since this precludes
a supplementary, but should be placed in the normal process of
selection for the next oral questions to the latter department.
Ministers should be under an automatic
obligation to provide a supplementary written answer if they are
unable to satisfactorily answer a Member's oral question.
An opportunity for Members to put
on the record at the beginning of question time their request
for a statement on an urgent and specific matter, which, giving
the Minister and Speaker prior notice, may allow for some advance
notice of when further information is likely.
At present, due to there being no restrictions
on the number and frequency of written answers, this is the principal
form of questioning departments. Problems occur when Ministers
appear at best unhelpful, at worst evasive and inaccurate in providing
information requested; transfer questions to other departments
when there are departmental precedents for answering on a particular
subject; giving late or delayed answers (sometimes after the rise
of the House) to the point where the question has become obsolete;
grouping related questions together and answering only parts of
each; or at the very worst, simply not answering the question
put. Liberal Democrat MPs would be happy to provide examples to
illustrate these claims.
Therefore Liberal Democrats believe there
should be a fundamental reform of written questions, making them
more detailed, flexibile and effective.
Multiple questions should be permitted requiring
one "multiple answer". Questions could be inter-dependent
eg "Q2: if the answer to Q1 is "no" then will the
minister produce...". Ministers would then be required to
answer point by point. This would mean questions and answers would
inevitably be longer and more detailed, however it would also
allow for concise questioning on a subject, it would also prevent
Ministers from circumventing difficult questions.
Holding answers should be regulated more carefully,
with Departments under an obligation to provide a date on which
they anticipate being able to answer the question. Departments
should not refer Members to answers given which were themselves
referrals. Departments should disclose any relevant information
that became available since a previous answer was given. Where
information has been provided in response to questions in previous
sessions, holding answers should not be provided except in exceptional
Answers that indicate that the information requested
could only be provided at disproportionate cost should also be
carefully regulated. Again, where similar information has been
provided in response to questions in previous sessions, disproportionate
cost answers should not be permitted. Where they are, an explanation
should set out the reasons why this is so (for instance, the number
of agencies that would need to be contacted).
Questions asking for an explanation of a certain
policy should be answered as the policy was at the time the question
was tabled, and then giving any subsequent changes to that policy.
Members should have a right of appeal regarding
the answers they have received, to the Public Administration Committee
or possibly to a special select committee which could call Ministers
to explain their department's actions regarding questions. Another
possibility would be have a right of appeal to the relevant departmental
Members should be allowed to table written questions
during recess, as it is obvious that Government policy making
continues throughout the year. There is an important gap in scrutiny
especially during the Summer recess. Even if the Recess dates
are shortened or regularised, a four week "holiday"
should surely be enough to prevent undue pressure on departments.
Electronic and facsimile tabling
There are many ways both methods could be made
secure and efficient, making it a legitimate way to table not
only questions, but amendments, motions and other business. It
could always be the case, for example, that Members could confirm
the tabling on the telephone, perhaps citing a personal "tabling
Rulings regarding whether questions are "in
The Table Office should provide the administrative
means to accept questions from Members. They should not be put
in a position to decide the intentions of a Minister when answering
specific questions, in order to rule whether a subsequent question
is in order. There should be as little procedural doubt as possible
as to whether a question is in order. It is not the duty of the
Table Office to be instinctively or institutionally conservative
about the "appropriateness" of a question. Members should
be given every benefit of the doubt and interpretation under the
standing orders to question Ministers. There should be no House
of Commons bias in favour of the Government as far as tabling
amendments, motions or questions. The Table Office will always
have the duty to reject spurious questions [eg opinion seeking
fishing expeditions] but it should always err on the side of greater
Use of ordinary written or oral questions as
a means for Government to communicate information via private
members questions, thus controlling the release of information
in procedurally hidden ways, should be discouraged. The Government
should be honest and mature about the way it makes announcements,
and the integrity of written questions as a means for back benchers
to question the executive should be preserved. If a new format
for written Government announcements is required, then the House
could institute a new "Ministerial Letter to Parliament",
where the subject matter does not justify a full statement and
a period of response and questioning. This would dispel the illusion
that the initiative comes from the Minister, not from the backbench
In the meantime there should be a clear day
between the tabling of traditional "planted" questions
so that they appearseparately identifiedin the order
paper the day before they are due, thus allowing people to make
preparations for a government announcement.
13 December 2001