Memorandum from the Principal Clerk, Table
TABLING QUESTIONS BY E-MAIL
Julia Drown's letter on tabling questions by
e-mail raises two matters. She proposes (a) that questions be
submitted by e-mail and (b) that, as a related issue, any problems
be dealt with by the Table Office by e-mail reply.
Any change in the rules for tabling questions
to enable notices to be submitted electronically would require
a system of verification of a Member's authority for the tabling
of such notices. This is a matter of some complexity. The Committee
should consider what technical means would be required to verify
the source of a question; whether it is appropriate to propose
a change relating to the giving of notices of questions in isolation
from notices relating to other parliamentary proceedings; and
whether other changes should be made to the rules for tabling
If these issues can be satisfactorily resolved,
the practical problems for the Table Office of receiving e-mailed
questionsassuming that a proper system of verification
was in placeare not insurmountable. But it would have to
be recognised that the service provided to Members by e-mail could
not be guaranteed to be as helpful at all times as that provided
to Members attending the Office in person. This would apply in
particular to oral Questions when there would almost inevitably
be occasions when e-mail correspondence would be too slow to allow
an oral question, which had originally been sent before the deadline,
to be accepted in time for entry in the shuffle.
The Table Office already deals with draft questions
and EDMs as well as other queries by e-mail, when required. Although
few Members have used this facility, it has occasionally proved
useful in assisting Members in preparation of matters to be tabled.
The Table Office is ready to assist in the expansion of this method
of giving advice to Members (and their staff). Indeed, the Office
already makes extensive use of new technology and is keen to develop
its uses, where appropriate. To this end, for example, it has
recently established a scheme for notifying Members on request
by pager, rather than by the traditional card, of any problem
with an oral question or an adjournment debate.
The proposals that actual notices of questions
be submitted by e-mail raise a number of issues relating to the
rules for tabling questions and these are discussed below.
The current rules relating to the method of
tabling questions were approved by the House in 1990 following
reports of the Procedure Committee. It is a basic rule applicable
to all notices of questions that they must clearly be authorised
by the Member asking them. For this reason a verifiable signature
(which is impossible to include on a fax) or the word of a Member
(including one Member on behalf of another) is required to give
proper authority for a question to be accepted for tabling.
The rules relating to the method of tabling
questions are different for oral and for written questions. At
present Members may table written questions in person or
by post, as long as they are signed by a Member. Questions faxed
to the Table Office are not accepted because there is no guarantee
that they are properly authorised.
Oral questions (which are subject in
any case to an allowance for each Member of one per answering
department and up to two per day) must be tabled by a Member in
person or by another Member on the Member's behalf. As with written
questions, it is permissible for a Member to fax a question to
a colleague who must then vouch for it when delivering it to the
The rule requiring Members to table oral questions
in person results from a recommendation by the Procedure Committee
in its First Report of 1989-90 (HC 379) on Oral Questions. In
paragraphs 10 to 20, the Committee examined the problem of the
preparation and circulation of questions by political parties,
which it saw quite simply as an abuse.
It proposed as a solution the requirement that all oral questions
be handed in by the Member (or a colleague) in person concluding
that "Our strong hope is that if Members are obliged to take
the trouble to go to the Table Office in person, there will be
a greater incentive to decline the syndicated hand-out in favour
of a question of genuine concern to the individual Member or his
The House agreed this proposal on 24 October 1990 and it was implemented
with effect from the start of Session 1990-91.
Changing the current rules
The tabling of notices of oral questions by
e-mail would directly breach the current rule that Members must
hand their questions to the Table Office in person. A change to
allow e-mailed notices would imply that other rules about the
giving of notice should be reviewed. There are also some practical
Verification of authority
The most important practical question raised
by the use of e-mail for questions (or any other proceeding) is
verification of authority given by the Member. A recognisable
electronic signature would provide the most direct way of ensuring
that material is not submitted without a Member's express authority.
The Table Office is aware that a considerable amount of work has
been done on the security of e-mail systems and their authentication.
But to date, the House has not considered what might be involved
in accepting electronic notices in relation to any of its proceedings.
Many Members rely increasingly on their staff
to draft questions. Without a signature or the Member to vouch
for them, questions could in effect be submitted by a member of
staff rather than the Member in whose name the questions will
be tabled. The present system whereby Members must sign questions
which are not handed in by them can be abused if Members pre-sign
blank question forms and allow their research assistants to table
questions in their name. However, even this practice sets a practical
limit on the number of questions which can be tabled without being
seen by a Member, since the physical action of signing a form
many times prevents submission of questions in large numbers.
If e-mailed questions were to be accepted, could one verified
e-mail be permitted to contain many appended questions? Any system
of verification would need to reproduce in some way the safeguard
against unauthorised questions represented by a Member's signature.
Without this, the number of written questions which could be submitted
without being seen by a Member would be limitless.
In addition to the important point of principle
enshrined in the rules of the House that Members are personally
responsible for their questions tabled, there is a theoretical
risk that questions which have not been vetted by a Member may
in fact be submitted electronically by outside lobby interests.
Given the volume of questions tabled there is a possibility that
this might lead to a significant misuse of House and Government
resources, since Members cannot be expected to check the Order
Book constantly for any unauthorised questions submitted without
their knowledge. The scope for unwitting breach of the advocacy
rule in such cases is also considerable.
There is also the problem of external misuse
of the system whether by professional hackers or others. Since
the House is such a high-profile organisation and Members are
so much in the public eye, use of e-mail necessarily will set
up a significant challenge to outsiders who may enjoy corrupting
the system. There are methods of protecting the transmission of
material between offices and the network within the House has
structures to protect security; to what extent the accuracy and
security of transmission of e-mails can be protected is a technical
matter beyond the scope of this paper. In order to ensure that
potential abuses do not occur, some form of electronic signature
or authentication would be essential to provide some verifiable
authority comparable to those which the system relies on at present.
The best method of dealing with e-mailed written
questions, once received, would be simply to print them out
and edit them as normal. This would provide a single edited copy
which would provide the same authority as hard copy. In case of
confusion, it would always be possible to refer back to the original
printed out version. The current system of "carding"
questions would be able to continue, in parallel with use of the
telephone or e-mail for drafting any changes by agreement with
If oral questions were e-mailed and there
was a problem with the text, the process of replying to a Member
and agreeing a text might give rise to complications. Since there
is a time limit for the receipt of oral questions, all questions
received must be dealt with promptly and, in any event, before
the expiry of the time limit for entry into the shuffle. Currently,
the regular practice is to agree the text of oral questions before
a Member leaves the Office. Experience shows that this benefits
Members, not least because a face to face explanation of the basic
point of the question and the procedural obstacles often means
that Members can speedily obtain an agreed text which accomplishes
what they want within the rules of the House. It also, of course,
ensures that they have a text which can be included in the shuffle.
The Table Office is often very busy when it
is receiving oral questions. It is possible that there would be
a delay in examining e-mailed questions, since Members attending
in the Office in person would, as now, receive first attention.
It is not possible to assume therefore that clerks would be able
to respond immediately about an e-mailed question. If a text were
not agreed before the deadline, it would not then be possible
to enter the question in the shuffle nor to delay the shuffle
for an indefinite period pending agreement of the text. Although
Members' staff are usually in their offices during business hours,
the Table Office is currently only permitted to accept instructions
from Members about their questions or motions.
10 January 2001
17 See para 11. Back
See para 15. Back
Whether by pager or the traditional method. Back