Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Table Office on the Government Memorandum to the Procedure Committee

  As requested, this note contains observations by the Table Office on the proposals in the Government Memorandum to the Procedure Committee on Parliamentary Questions. (Paragraph numbers refer to the memorandum by the Leader of the House.)

  Some of the Leader's proposals may have implications for the Official Report or for the Library and the Committee may wish also to seek the views of the Editor and the Librarian.


  1.  This proposal seems to be based on a misunderstanding of current practice. Members may not alter Questions after the day on which they have been tabled, although they may of course withdraw them. Clerks in the Table Office are required to check the text of Questions as published in the blue notice paper the day after tabling to look for misprints, etc and so wordings may be changed slightly when those Questions appear in the Order Book the following day. While any misprints not picked up at this stage may be corrected in the Order Book, this is rare, and the vast majority of corrections are made within the 24 hour period the Government suggests. Parliamentary clerks are already supposed to take the Order Book version, rather than the text in the blue notice paper, as the authoritative text.


  2.  The proposal that all Questions should be answerable from 9.30 am every day raises no practical or procedural issues for the Table Office. The proposal would no doubt be helpful for Members. It might be more convenient for Members however, if there were a fixed time for answering, than for answers to be sent over at any time during the day.


  3.  The suggestion of a weekly limit on the number of Named Day questions for answer up to five days ahead that a Member may table could be operated by the Table Office, although a daily limit might be easier for Members to keep track of and would require simpler records to be kept. However, it would be impractical to require the Table Office to apply a limit "flexibly": this would require the clerks in the Office to reach and enforce political judgements on the urgency and importance of a Question, which would be a clear departure from what has been its role.

  4.  We assume that paragraph 18 means that there would be no limit on the number of Named Day Questions that a Member may table for answer more than five sitting days in advance. We have had a number of requests in the past from Members that they should be allowed to table Questions for a Named Day for more than the present maximum of two sitting weeks, and the Committee might want to consider this additional flexibility too.

  5.  In response to paragraph 19, the role of clerks in the Office is confined to advising Members on the distinction between the timetables for Ordinary and Named Day Questions and to accepting Members' instructions on their Questions. If there is ambiguity about whether a Named Day Question has been requested, or where a vague or incorrect instruction for a Named Day Question has been given, our "default position", in line with the recommendations in paragraphs 74-5 of the Procedure Committee's Third Report of 1990-91 (HC 178), is to put it down for Ordinary Written answer. Other than that, no subjective judgements are made by the Office in this respect and it would be very difficult to create a clear and enforceable distinction between the natures of the two sorts of Questions that the Table Office could apply.

  6.  Paragraph 20's proposal to extend the minimum notice period for a named day Question would not cause any difficulties for the Office. It might encourage more Members to opt for Ordinary Written Questions.


  7.  As I said in my original memorandum, the tabling of a new sort of Notice on the Order Paper does not raise any significant issues for the Table Office. The Committee may wish to seek the views of the Editor of the Official Report and the Library on the implementation of this proposal.


  8.  Shortening the present two week notice period for Oral Questions would be quite feasible for the Office. It would be helpful to all concerned, however, to retain the system whereby Members are generally tabling on a certain day of the week for a Question time on that day of the week in the future, so a shortening of the notice period to five sitting days would seem to be a logical change.


  9.  The number of Questions per Department in any given slot is set by the Speaker following the House's acceptance of the Procedure Committee's First Report on Oral Questions of 1989-90 (HC 379). Any figures have to be high enough to allow for a number of withdrawals to take place without a risk that there will not be enough Questions. The limits proposed in paragraph 29 may be slightly too low: on Monday 18 March 2002 Question 20 to the Secretary of State for Defence was reached, a limit of 25 for a full hour's questions might be more appropriate. The Office will be able to deal with whatever number is agreed.


  10.  The purpose of this proposal is unclear. Members who find that they are unable to be present in the House on the day on which they have an oral Question down for answer can instruct the Table Office to unstar the Question (ie convert it to a question for written answer) or to withdraw it. The proposal for a requirement for Questions to be withdrawn within a week of tabling would remove the option of unstarring Questions.

  11.  It is difficult to see how the proposed change could be operated in practice. It is a fact of parliamentary life that Members will, on occasion, be called away at very short notice for unavoidable reasons. When this occurs, Members with oral Questions for that day are expected to inform the Speaker's Office as soon as possible as a courtesy to the House. A notice of withdrawal is printed the following day or, if the withdrawal is very late, the relevant department is informed by telephone. If it is proposed that such late withdrawals should not be accepted by the Table Office, there are no obvious benefits to the House or Government. It would be misleading to leave a Member's name on the Order Book when notice had been given that they would not be present to ask their Question and a waste of the House's time for an absent Member to be called.

  12.  The numbers of Questions withdrawn within a week of the answering date are small (6 per week in the month following the Christmas recess). A similar number of Questions are unstarred or withdrawn on the day on which they are due to be answered, often as a result of delays in travel to the House. The Committee may wish to consider if it would be practicable or reasonable to impose sanctions against Members for late withdrawal of oral Questions. If not, the proposal might act as a useful reminder to Members of the need for early notification of withdrawn Questions, but it is difficult to see how the problem of late withdrawals can be eliminated completely.


  13.  Possible solutions to the long barren period when Members are unable to receive answers to Questions were included in my earlier submission to the Committee (14 January). However, as the Leader of the House's Memorandum indicates, some of these problems may be alleviated if the proposals of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons relating to September sittings are implemented.


  14.  The proposal to allow departments to answer substantively Questions tabled at the end of a session in a separate edition of the Official Report has no practical implications for the Table Office. The Committee may wish to seek the comments of the Editor of the Official Report and the Librarian on this proposal.


  15.  It is in everyone's interest to see the number of Questions transferred reduced. Table Office clerks seek to ensure that Questions are directed to the correct department using the List of Ministerial responsibilities (which is available on the Parliamentary Intranet via a link to the Cabinet Office web-site) and the pattern of previous answers. But the Office is not able to insist against the wishes of a Member that a question should be tabled to a particular minister if the issue is in any doubt. As the Leader of the House acknowledges, there are some areas in which the boundaries between departments are blurred or an issue cuts across two or more departments' responsibilities and Questions are transferred by Ministers to another department.

  16.  We therefore welcome the proposals [10 and 11, paragraphs 51-2] to inform the Office in writing of any changes in responsibilities and to make available information on departmental responsibilities on a searchable database. This would improve the ability of the Office to offer accurate advice and therefore reduce the number of transferred Questions. I am happy to discuss the practicalities of this initiative. The Committee may wish also to seek the views of the Librarian on issues of compatibility.

  17.  It is further proposed [proposal 12, paragraph 53] that Questions be transferred within one sitting day of tabling. At present, transfers are expected to made within two sitting days of notice first being given. In practice, almost all departments notify the Office of any transfers the day after tabling. It is only on rare occasions that departments transfer Questions after the deadline. The Table Office has no powers to prevent such late transfers. The proposed one sitting day deadline would help keep the Order Book as accurate as possible. The Office would be happy to receive a copy of the notification of transfer letter to the Member, rather than a separate letter, provided that all the relevant information is included [proposal 13].


  18.  There has been increasing pressure from Members to table Questions, particularly to the Secretaries of State for Wales and Scotland, on subjects which are primarily the responsibility of the devolved Administrations. In accepting such Questions, the Table Office is guided by the Resolution of the House of 25 October 1999, quoted in my original memorandum, which sets out the scope of allowable Questions. It also takes account of previous answers by departments and accepts Questions on subjects on which the Minister concerned has already provided substantive replies.

  19.  For oral Questions to the Secretary of State for Wales, Questions are often framed along the lines of "What discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales on . . .". It is clear from the answers given that the Secretary of State does have a wide range of discussions with Assembly Secretaries on matters within their responsibility, and it is on this basis that further Questions are accepted. Where an Answer is given that "this is a matter for the devolved Administration" no further Questions on the subject are accepted. It is notable that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland does not answer substantively on any issue which is not strictly within his responsibility. The Table Office would welcome further guidance on the issues on which Ministers are prepared to Answer but which are primarily the responsibility of devolved Administrations.


  20.  The Procedure Committee has received detailed comments on the tabling of Questions by e-mail from my predecessor (January 2001) and in my earlier Memorandum (14 January 2002). As we see it, the principal problem is the authentication of questions submitted in this way. Otherwise, the Table Office is committed to extending its use of new technology.

  21.  It is not immediately clear, however, that permitting Members to table Questions by e-mail would, in the near future, enable parliamentary clerks in departments to receive the text of Questions tabled earlier than at present (as is stated in paragraph 58 of the Government Memorandum). Currently, Questions are type-set by The Stationery Office under the House's printing contract and departments separately contract with TSO to receive overnight the text of the Questions tabled. Over the next two years it is planned to move to inputting Questions in-House, along with all the other components of the daily Vote bundle. We will examine in the course of that project whether the text of Questions can be made available earlier. In the immediate future, however, we assume that many Members will continue to table Questions on paper, so two processing systems will be necessary. The Order Book, containing the full text of all Questions, is already available on the Internet and is searchable by departments of the House, the Government and the general public.

  22.  As regards the electronic transmission of answers to Questions and of Ministerial letters to Members, this is principally a matter for the Official Report and the Library.

Helen Irwin

Principal Clerk, Table Office

18 March 2002

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