Memorandum by the Leader of The House
1. The Government recognise the importance
of Parliamentary Questions as a vital tool of scrutiny for all
Members of the House of Commons. The Government believe that good
scrutiny makes for good Government and attach the highest importance
to the duty of Ministers and civil servants to provide full and
accurate information to Parliament. That principle is embodied
in the Parliamentary Resolution adopted by both Houses in 1997
and in the Ministerial Code.
2. The Government are committed to upholding
the right of Members to use questions to seek information or press
for action as they see fit, within the rules of the House. The
cost of administering parliamentary questions since Session 1997
is estimated at over £31million.
3. The ability of Members to question Ministers
about anything within their departmental responsibilities is extremely
important. Not only do they ensure Members are informed, they
also keep Ministers in touch with the whole range of the work
of their department.
4. However, the effectiveness of the system
relies on its proper use, and the Government believe that in both
Parliament and Government the handling of PQs could be improved.
This memorandum suggests several changes to the way in which Government
deals with PQs and identifies areas of parliamentary procedure
where the Procedure Committee's inquiries might be valuable.
5. The Government believe that any changes
should aim to bring a greater clarity to the system, promoting
a better understanding of the purpose and limitations of the system
amongst MPs and Government departments. We therefore welcome the
Procedure Committee's inquiry as a timely opportunity to address
some of these issues and look forward to the results of the Committee's
6. The tabling of questions remains an effective
and well-used route for gaining information from the Executive:
7. The number of questions tabled each year illustrates
their importance to Members. However, the Government note the
marked increase in the average number of questions tabled per
sitting day so far for this Session compared to previous Sessions:
|No. of sitting Days
|Avg. No. questions tabled|
per sitting day (Total)
8. Ministers and their Parliamentary Clerks are conscious
that every effort should be made to provide a Member with a prompt
and accurate reply to a written question. The sheer volume of
questions that are currently being asked is inhibiting the speed
with which answers can be prepared. The Government re-affirm the
presumption that any requested information, which is readily available,
should be given.
9. However, the Government would like to draw the Procedure
Committee's attention to possible reforms relating to the timing,
notice and classification of written questions. The Government's
proposals are intended to improve the efficiency of the system
and enhance the ability of departments to provide the requested
information as efficiently as possible.
10. In the first instance the practice of changing the
wording or meaning of a question at late notice can be time-consuming
for departments. The Government propose [proposal (1)]
that a limit of 24 hours notice from the date of tabling be adopted
for a Member to change a question and for the Table Office to
inform parliamentary clerks as soon as possible.
11. The Leader of the House of Commons in his Memorandum
to the Modernisation Committee
commented on the restrictions whereby questions can only be answered
at certain times. Written and oral questions serve quite different
purposes. The Committee might want to look at the extent to which
they should be treated differently. Current procedures state that
questions can only be answered during the following hours: MondayWednesday
from 3.30 pm, Thursday from 11.30 am and most recently from 9.35
am on a Friday. The Memorandum suggested these timings should
12. The Government believe that the current rules create
unnecessary delays and prevent departments from informing the
Member and the House as soon as a Minister has approved a reply
to a question. The Government believe that questions should be
answered from 9.30 am every day of the week. [proposal (2)]
13. Named Day Questions are designed to elicit a reply
by a set date. Standing Orders state that "a member may indicate
a date for answer of a question for written answer" and that
"the Minister shall cause an answer to be given to the Member
on the date for which notice has been given".
It is in the nature of some issues that MPs will require information
promptly and the Government believe that MPs should be able to
request information within a short time frame. Indeed, the Government
do not query MPs' right to ask questions for answer on a specific
date, but it is hard to see any discernible urgency in the majority
of these Questions.
14. Named Day Questions constitute almost half the total
number of Questions asked:
|Named Day questions as % of total
15. The sheer volume of Named Day Questions now being
tabled threatens to undermine the system. A previous Leader of
the House of Commons noted that "Such indiscriminate use
of priority written questions undermines their purpose and may
lead to large numbers of holding replies."
The Government wish to reiterate this point. Some holding replies
are inevitable, but the Government seek to limit their excessive
16. The tabling of several Named Day questions can put
a great burden on departments. The information requested may involve
a great deal of effort by officials both within their department
and across Whitehall who may be diverted from equally pressing
tasks. The indiscriminate use of Named Day questionson
occasion over 50 by one single Member to a single departmentfor
the shortest notice, results in Ministers not being able to respond
properly to genuinely urgent questions.
17. A previous Procedure Committee report considered,
and rejected, a rationing system for written questions. However,
the Committee urged greater restraint in the use of such questions,
concluding "priority marking should be used sparingly and
selectively in particular, the earliest permitted date should
be reserved for those questions to which an urgent answer is genuinely
Procedure Committee suggested that the excessive use of priority
written questions would ultimately be self-correcting, but the
figures above demonstrate that this has not occurred.
18. The Government urge the Committee to look again at
the number and notice period for Named Day questions. Although,
there may be a good reason to table a number of Named Day questions
on a single day, the Committee may wish to consider a weekly limit
for Members. The Government believe that it would be reasonable
to place a limit on the number of questions to which an answer
is required within five sitting days. We would expect that such
restrictions would need to be applied flexibly so as not to undermine
an individual Member's ability to question the Executive on serious
and urgent issues.
19. Members would, of course, retain the ability to ask
non-urgent questions with a specified date for reply and the Government
believe there should be no limit on this category of questions.
20. However, the Government believe that the system would
work more efficiently if [proposal (3)] there was a clear,
enforceable distinction between Ordinary Written and Named Day
questions and for the Committee to draw up rules which could be
enforced by the Table Office. In order to improve the way in which
departments deal with such questions we would welcome guidance
from the Table Office as to the basis on which they accept questions,
which require a reply on a Named Day. We hope that the Procedure
Committee inquiry will illuminate the criteria currently applied
by the Table Office and to outline what problems are caused by
the current system (if any).
21. We also propose [proposal (4)] that the minimum
period for a reply for a named day question is extended from three
to four working days. We believe that this will reduce the number
of holding answers and allow a fuller response to such questions.
22. Parliamentary Questions are also used as a means
by which the Government can make written statements. Major policy
announcements are made in the Chamber, but it is not practicable
for all Government statements to be made on the Floor of the House
without unreasonably reducing the time for debate in the Commons.
For this reason, many Ministerial announcements will be suitable
for written answer.
23. However, Ministers' Written statements have to be
made with the artificial device of a planted PQ. In his recent
Memorandum to the Modernisation Committee, the Leader of the House
It would be more transparent if there was a separate
entry on the Order Paper for notice of written statements and
a separate entry for their publication in Hansard. This would
have the effect of advising Members in advance of a forthcoming
written statement and make it more convenient for Members and
the press to locate the text.
24. The Government propose [proposal (5)] a more
transparent and accountable process by having a clear category
of "written ministerial statements" which would be notified
on the Order Paper and later published in the Official Report.
25. Question Time is the most visible way in which MPs
can hold Ministers to account. However, the recent report by the
Hansard Society Commission
showed that MPs do not believe that is a useful way of garnering
information. According to their survey only a quarter of MPs thought
it was effective. The Government believe that improvements could
be made to enhance its topicality and substance.
26. The topicality of the issues raised is restricted
by the two-week notice period for tabling questions. It is a source
of frustration to MPs and the public that many "live"
issues do not figure in such parliamentary exchanges. The Memorandum
to the Modernisation Committee suggests that the Procedure Committee
might examine this matter;
A prime issue for consideration must be whether
the period of notice of two full weeks can be reduced and, if
so, by how much? It is plainly in the interests of the House that
ministers can be properly briefed, but this should still be possible
with a much shorter period of notice, which increased the topicality
of the questioning.
27. The Government would welcome the Procedure Committee's
thoughts on these matters.
28. The quotas set for orals questions was revised in
1997. The current allocation is as follows:
|Oral Questions slot||Questions tabled (total)
29. The Committee will recognise the great deal of pressure
involved in preparing draft replies to oral questions. Whilst
it is a judgement for the Speaker to decide on the number of questions
and supplementaries to be called during oral questions, the current
quotas are unrealistic.
30. The Government note that some of the work undertaken
for oral questions is unnecessary, especially when a brief has
been prepared for a question which is not reached. The Government
propose [proposal (6)] that the number of questions tabled
for oral reply should be more realistic:
|Questions Tabled (total)
31. The current rules on admissibility enable Ministers
to give proper answers to questions tabled. Members have opportunities
to raise a wide range of related matters in supplementaries. Introducing
open questions is likely to result in "bad questions driving
out good"; confusion as Ministers may not be able to speak
on a range of issues which are the responsibility of a fellow
Minister and; question time being reduced further to pure political
32. There is a tension between the number of questions
asked and the quality of discourse during question time. The Government
would welcome the Procedure Committee's views on whether a more
radical restructuring of oral questions would be desirable.
33. Successive Speakers have placed a premium on allowing
as many MPs as possible to participate in Question Time. The Government
believe that this is absolutely right. Question Time should provide
the opportunity for Members from all parties to question Ministers
rigorously about Government policy.
34. However, the recent reports from the Norton Commission
and the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny
raised concerns about Question Time's emphasis on "breadth
rather than depth". There is a tendency to try and get through
as many questions as possible during departmental questions. Whilst
the laudable aim is to maximise the number of contributions from
the Floor the result is that few issues are examined in much depth.
Both reports argue that the current structure encourages MPs to
ask questions aimed at cheap point-scoring rather than thorough
scrutiny, and suggest that reform should allow each issue to be
more thoroughly probed.
35. The recommendation of the Norton Report, and echoed
in that of the Hansard Society, is to reduce the total number
of tabled questions to ten per question time. Under this scheme
each subject would be pursued for five to eight minutes, with
any MP allowed to ask a supplementary question, provided it falls
within the policy area. It is argued that this form of questioning
would allow at least as many MPs to speak as at present, but mean
more detailed investigation of each policy area. The effect, it
is suggested, would to be create a more fruitful dialogue between
ministers and MPs.
36. Such an innovation will require a significant change
to the structure of Question Time. To work, it would require a
cultural shift within Parliament and the Speaker would need to
be active in ensuring that questions were in order. However, the
Government acknowledges the potential benefits: given their advance
knowledge of the policy areas to be raised, Ministers and MPs
would therefore get more detailed answers to their enquiries.
The Government has no fixed view on these options but would very
much welcome the results of the Procedure Committee's investigations
into the implications of such a change.
37. The Government has recently introduced a separate
slot for Members to question the Minister for Women on her areas
of responsibility and the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral
Commission. The Government believe that the system is working
well but will keep it under review.
38. At present there is no minimum notice period for
the withdrawal of questions and they can be withdrawn at any time
before the question is due to be asked. The text of the withdrawn
question is printed in a memorandum at the end of the next issue
of the Order Paper.
39. The removal of questions at such short notice does
not add to the overall efficiency of the system of questions.
It can often create unnecessary work and expense for departments
with no outcome. In order to cut down on this unused work the
Government propose [proposal (7)] that if a Member is unable
to attend oral questions, that the question is withdrawn within
a week of tabling.
40. The Government understand the desire to ensure accountability
throughout the year but is not convinced that questions should
be tabled during the summer recess. It is unlikely that questions
in the recess could be answered as fully or quickly as when the
House is sitting. Quite reasonably, Ministers and officials take
their holidays to coincide with parliamentary recesses. The Government
believe that the effect of such a change would only increase the
number of "I will write" letters, indicating a Minister's
intention to write with more detail at a future date.
41. However, the Government believe that other reforms
may alleviate some of the problems associated with the summer
42. The Modernisation Committee Memorandum outlines plans
for redesigning the parliamentary year and contains specific recommendations
for breaking up the long summer recess. The changes, if accepted
by the House, would mean the Commons returning in September, before
breaking for a short conference recess. MPs would be able to table
questions immediately on their return in September and during
the three-week conference recess. This would halve the current
"barren" period that exists during the long summer recess.
"I WILL WRITE"
43. The Procedure Committee dealt with the issue of "I
will write to the hon. Member" in its Fourth Report. It was
concerned that some departments did not seem to be aware of the
fact that letters sent to Members should be deposited in the Library
of the House, where appropriate, or were unaware of the procedures
for doing so. The assumption is that such deposit should be normal,
unless there are strong reasons, such as the confidentiality of
a constituent, against it.
44. The previous Leader of the House accepted the recommendation
that guidance should be issued to "Government departments
on how to implement the existing arrangements for deposit of letters".
This guidance was first issued on 6 October 2000 and has since
been re-issued by my office.
45. The Committee will wish to be aware that my office
have established links with the House of Commons Library to chase
on a quarterly basis those departments who have failed to follow
up commitments to "I will write". This system is intended
to lead to both the Member receiving a reply and for the Library
to maintain accurate records.
46. In addition, in response to a written Parliamentary
Question from Anne McIntosh MP on 15 November 2001 suggesting
that questions replied to by letter during recess should be published
in the Official Report the next sitting day. My office
issued guidance to Parliamentary Clerks setting out the new instructions,
which would take effect as of Monday 19 November 2001.
47. I believe this meets the spirit of the Procedure
Committee recommendation that "a list of letters deposited
in the Library should be published at regular intervalseither
weekly or monthlyboth as a supplement to the Order Paper
and at a suitable place in the Official Report"
48. I hope that this innovation will assist Members.
However, a further change may eliminate the current practice that
on the last sitting day of the session, all outstanding questions
receive an "I will write" reply. The Government propose
[proposal (8)] that at the end of the session, departments
should be allowed to answer these questions substantively in the
normal way and for the replies to be printed in a special edition
of the Official Report in the recess.
49. The transfer of a question between departments occurs
where responsibility for the subject matter rests with another
Minister. The delay created by the transfer, quite understandably,
can be frustrating for Members and the Government would like to
see the number of transfers reduced.
50. The transfer of questions ultimately rests with the
Minister of that department through their parliamentary clerk.
However, the number of transfers that appear on the Order Paper
suggests that a fair proportion are being misallocated. The Government
suggest a number of changes below to improve the efficiency of
transfers within Whitehall and the provision of information to
parliamentary officials. But we would urge, in the first instance,
[proposal (9)] that the Table Office make every effort
with the Member concerned to accurately allocate Questions to
the correct department.
51. The Government recognise that changes to the structure
of Government since 1997 and the increased number of cross-cutting
initiatives may have caused problems of allocation. The Government
has endeavoured to inform Parliament and the public of these changes
through the List of Ministerial Responsibilities.
52. We believe there could be further improvements to
the system. The Government therefore propose [proposal (10)]
that when there are Machinery of Government changes the Table
Office are informed in writing.
53. The system could also be improved by "joining-up"
systems in Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster. The channels
for provision of information could be improved through much greater
use of the electronic mechanisms now available. The Government
propose [proposal (11)] that the information currently
contained within the current paper based List of Ministerial
Responsibilities and on the Cabinet Office websitehttp://www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/central/index/lmr.htm
should be made available via a searchable database. This database
would contain a list of Ministerial Responsibilities and guidance
on where issues cut across a number of Government departments
and would enable House officials to identify responsibilities
more easily. The Government would welcome discussions between
the House Authorities and the Executive on how to develop and
finance compatible systems.
54. The Government acknowledge that the time taken in
Whitehall to transfer a question can, in certain cases could be
quicker than at present. The Government propose [proposal (12)]
that when a question is clearly not the responsibility of a department,
it should be transferred within one sitting day from the date
it appears on the Order Paper. In an effort to speed this process
the Government also propose [proposal (13)] that when a
question is being transferred that the current practice of producing
two separate letters B one to the Member and one to the Table
Officeshould cease. One letter, sent to the Member but
copied to the Table Office would suffice.
55. We hope that by providing information on Ministerial
responsibilities in this way, that it will help reduce the number
of questions tabled to the wrong department. The Table Office
plays a vital part in this, and better information should improve
its ability to advise Members properly.
56. The Government are keen to ensure that questions
are not permitted which are the responsibility of the Devolved
administrations. The Government would welcome views from the Committee
on whether the current standing orders should be tightened in
57. Ultimately it is for the House of Commons to decide
on its use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).
However, the extent to which Parliament under-utilises the benefits
of ICT is a cause of concern for many Members. The Leader of the
House has received much correspondence for Members suggesting
greater use of e-mail and other electronic devices to improve
the transmission of information.
58. The issue, which has generated the most comment,
is Members' inability to table questions other than by hand. Numerous
MPs have requested the opportunity to e-mail questions to the
Table Office. The Government can see merit in this proposal. We
acknowledge that the change may have implications for the current
methods of work within the Table Office, which the Procedure Committee
will want to examine. The Government would welcome the Procedure
Committee's findings in this area.
59. The Stationery Office provide an extremely useful
service, of notifying departments by e-mail by 5.00am a list of
questions which have been tabled overnight. The use of an electronic
system by Parliament would allow earlier notice of both questions
and EDMs. The benefit for Parliamentary Clerks and indeed Members
would be great. Draft replies could be commissioned more speedily,
potentially allowing a higher number of questions to be answered
60. In addition to the electronic delivery of questions,
the Government can also see huge benefits in the electronic delivery
of questions to Members, the Official Report, the Library, the
Table Office and the Press Gallery and again would welcome a view
from the Committee on this.
61. The Government look forward with interest to the
outcome of the Procedure Committee's report into Ministerial correspondence
that "We support the principle of electronic publication
of this material [the text of Ministerial letters to be routinely
supplied to the Library in electronic form]. We look to the
Information Committee to consider such a proposal, and that the
Library should explore with Government departments the feasibility
of receiving the text of replies electronically".
14 February 2002
Estimate provided by HM Treasury using current prices. The precise
estimate is £31,625,658. Back
Public Administration Select Committee; Select Report of Session
2000-01, Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions
(HC 61), para 19. Back
HC 440, published 12 December 2001. Back
Standing Orders of the House of Commons: Public Business, Standing
Order 22, paras 3, 4. Back
Third Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1990-91,
Ev. P.27. Back
HC 178 (1990-91), para 72. Back
Hansard Report "The Challenge to Parliament: Making Government
Accountable".NOTICE PERIOD FOR QUESTIONS Back
HC440, 12 December 2001. Back
Commission on Strengthening Parliament, chaired by Lord Norton,
(2000), Strengthening Parliament; Commission on Parliamentary
Scrutiny, (2001), The Challenge for Parliament, London:
Hansard Society/Vacher Dod. Back
HC 734 (1999-2000), Letters sent by Minsisters following Undertakings
in Debate. Back
Para 13, HC 734 (1999-2000). Back
Cabinet Office, published July 2001. Back
House of Commons Sessional Returns Data to 29 January 2002. Supplied
by the Table Office ibid Number of sitting days to Tuesday 29
January inclusive. HC 734 (1999-2000). Back