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.
PROPOSAL 1: WORDING
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.
PROPOSAL 2: TIMING
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.
PROPOSALS 3 AND
4: NAMED DAY
17 TO 20)
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.
PROPOSAL 5: MINISTERS'
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.
PROPOSAL 6: QUOTAS
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.
PROPOSAL 7: WITHDRAWAL
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.
PROPOSAL 8 "I
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.
PROPOSALS 9-13: TRANSFER
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
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
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
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.
Principal Clerk, Table Office
18 March 2002