Letter from the Minister for Parliamentary
Business, Scottish Parliament to the Chairman of the Committee
Thank you for your letter of 21 March to the
First Minister seeking information about our contacts with the
Procedures Committee of the Scottish Parliament with regard to
their Enquiry into written Parliamentary Questions and the outcome
of these exchanges.
Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that we
have a series of regular, planned meetings with the Procedures
Committee on the management of parliamentary questions, the Executive
has worked closely with the Committee and we have met on a number
of occasions, as I explain below.
Following representations about the volume of
parliamentary questions and the Executive's speed of response,
the Procedures Committee began an Enquiry and published their
Preliminary Report on 31 August 2000.
The Executive were keen to work constructively with the Committee
and agreed to a working agreement with the broad objective being
"to assist all those responsible for parliamentary questions
to match resources to demand in answering questions lodged; to
seek demonstrable improvements in the turn round time for answering
questions; and to monitor the number of questions lodged."
Joint monitoring arrangements were put in hand at official level
and statistics published in the Parliament's Written Answers Report
covering four week periods. In addition to this, the Executive
publishes its own more detailed quarterly audits (copy of the
audit for July-September 2001 attached). The Committee published
its second report in 2001.
These reports were debated and approved by the Parliament.
These reports are the outcome of discussions
at official level. Formal written evidence from the Executive,
in addition to correspondence as well as more formal meetings
when Ministers and officials attend to give oral evidence to the
Committee. Since 1999, the Committee has met on approximately
10 occasions to discuss substantive issues relating to parliamentary
questions. Ministers have attended on four occasions to give oral
evidence and officials on two occasions.
It may also be worth noting that the Executive
took part in seminars on parliamentary questions arranged by the
Parliament for Members and their assistants.
As explained above, the ongoing Enquiry is a
product of shared objectives and the exchanges have always been
conducted in an open and constructive manner. The outcomes are
probably best identified by referring you to the Committee's reports
and debates which are readily accessible through the Parliament's
website. The Executive continues to be concerned at the overall
volume of questions which shows no sign of abating but in spite
of this the Executive's performance in responding in time to questions
has improved significantly. Whilst the Committee's Enquiry had
its origins in concerns about the quantity of questions
and how they were managed, it quickly became clear that the relevance
and quality of questions were significant issues. The application
and interpretation of the rules of admissibility continue to develop
and be refined but it is for individual Members to take responsibility
for the number, relevance and quality of the questions that they
ask. Consensus in these areas is not easily achieved and we have
to acknowledge that there is a political dimension to the process.
The Committee and the Executive have encouraged
the use of other sources of information, whilst not disputing
a Member's right to ask questions. On occasion, a meeting between
the Member and the relevant Minister has been offered as a more
productive means of providing the information required.
The Executive recognises that it has a responsibility
to answer questions clearly, accurately and timeously. We have
worked hard and continue to do so to improve our internal management
information systems. Our performance has improved as a result
and we shall continue to strive towards answering all written
questions by the due date.
Perhaps one of the most obvious differences
between procedures at Westminster and Holyrood is that questions
are permitted during recess periods in the Scottish Parliament.
An outright embargo on questions during recess was considered
and rejected by the Committee. However, the Parliament recently
changed it Standing Orders to allow 28 days (as compared with
the usual 14 days) for answering questions lodged in the week
before a recess of more than four days and throughout that recess.
This has enabled the Executive to more efficiently manage the
process during long holiday periods. The Committee has undertaken
to review the matter.
Other practical changes have been made such
as identifying "inspired" questions (ie, questions arranged
through a Member to convey Executive policy) in the Parliament's
Written Answers Report; and the date of the holding answer is
shown against the substantive answer in the Written Answers Report.
In addition, we make available to Members, their assistants and
Parliament staff, electronic copies of the Executive's business
directory to enable direct contact to be made with Executive officials
for urgent factual information not readily available elsewhere.
This has not, however, resulted in any discernible reduction in
the volume of questions.
Besides quantity, relevance and quality issues,
a number of topics remain under consideration and these will be
the subject of further discussions. These include, for example,
setting an advisory cost limit for written questions which we
reported to the Committee earlier this month and on which we await
their views, and how questions relating to the work of non-departmental
public bodies are dealt with.
You also asked about the frequency of contact
by Executive officials with Members who have tabled questions
in order to clarify the background to the questions, with a view
to providing better and more focused answers. The Executive's
Parliamentary Clerk's Office regularly seeks clarification from
the Clerks of the Parliament's Chamber Desk with regard to terms
used and references to publications etc in parliamentary questions.
In addition, in cases when it is unclear from the question the
scope and nature of the information being sought, the Parliamentary
Clerk will seek further information from either the Chamber Desk
or from the Member direct. This is standard practice and happens
several times each week but does not require the approval of individual
Ministers before the contact can be made.
Of course, Ministers may choose to contact a
Member informally with regard to a question and the nature of
the answer being sought.
Patricia Ferguson MSP
28 March 2002
1 31 August 2000 First Report, 2000: Preliminary
Report into the Volume of Written Parliamentary Questions and
the Scottish Executive's Speed of Response. Back
8 June 2001 Second Report, 2001: Report into the Volume of
Written Parliamentary Questions and the Scottish Executive's Speed
of Response, and Related Matters. Back