Select Committee on Procedure Third Report



THIRD REPORT

The Procedure Committee has agreed to the following Report:—

DEADLINES FOR TABLING OF ORAL QUESTIONS

Introduction

1. The Procedure Committee decided to undertake a short inquiry into the deadline for the tabling of questions for oral answer following the raising of the issue on the floor of the House by two Members.

2. The current practice of the House is that questions for oral answer must be handed in at the Table Office by 5 pm on a certain date, usually a fortnight in advance of the date on which questions will be answered by a particular department. Questions received by the deadline are then shuffled into a random order by computer, and the top 10, 15, 30 or 40 (depending on how much time is allotted to each department to answer questions in the House) are printed in the Notices of Questions ("the blues") the following morning.

3. During Question Time on 21 March 2000 Mr Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked the Leader of the House about the deadline, arguing that the current cut-off point was unnecessarily restrictive, and that it would be more convenient for Members to be able to table questions later in the evening, particularly perhaps when they were around the Chamber for a vote at 7 pm.[8] Mr Nigel Evans further suggested that the time allowed for tabling of questions for oral answer could be extended until the end of the parliamentary day.[9]

4. The deadline for oral questions has been set at 5 pm for the last ten years; prior to that, the deadline was 4 pm. In Session 1989-90 a report by the Procedure Committee suggested measures to curb the then-expanding numbers of oral questions tabled, and the practice of 'syndication', by placing restrictions on the right of Members to table questions on behalf of other Members.[10] As a corollary to those recommendations, the report urged that the deadline for tabling questions for oral answer be deferred to a later time, possibly 6 pm, to give Members more time to meet the deadline. The Committee's report was approved by the House on 24 October 1990.[11] On the same day new standing orders relating to the time for taking questions and to notices of questions, motions and amendments were agreed, to come into effect at the beginning of the following Session.[12] These new standing orders embodied most of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. The deadline for tabling questions for oral answer was moved forward to 5 pm (not 6 pm as suggested by the Committee) by a decision of the Speaker.

5. In Session 1990-91 the Procedure Committee produced a more wide-ranging report on Parliamentary Questions.[13] The Committee revisited its previous recommendations and concluded that the new system was proving a success as far as its main objective was concerned, that of reducing the number of oral questions tabled—this had fallen by some 39 per cent. There remained some concerns about the timing of the shuffle, however: the Committee commented that it had received representations from Welsh Members who argued that they were placed at a disadvantage in having to table questions for the Secretary of State for Wales in person before 5 pm on a Monday, and who requested that the deadline for submitting Welsh oral questions be extended.[14]

6. The Committee in its report acknowledged the difficulties facing Members with distant constituencies, but stated that it did not see any case for an across-the-board extension beyond 5 pm. It concluded that it did not wish to recommend any changes, but that Mr Speaker should keep the matter under review. In a further report in Session 1992-93 the Committee restated this conclusion.[15]

Need for a change in the deadline

7. The Table Office in its memorandum helpfully provided us with a breakdown of the time of receipt of notices of oral questions over a two-week period.[16] This shows that the majority of oral questions are tabled around the period of Question Time and statements, the peak time for tabling occurring between 3.30 and 4 pm. On Mondays there is a slightly later peak in the time of tabling, presumably as a consequence of the fact that on that day Members tend to arrive in the House late from their constituencies. On Thursdays, when the House sits and rises earlier, there is a more even spread of tabling during the day.

8. We have considered whether, on the evidence presented to us, there is a need for an extension of the deadline. The Table Office's statistics show a small peak in tabling occurring just before 5 pm, although as the Principal Clerk of the Table Office points out:

    ... this may simply represent the effect of the deadline itself and would occur at whatever time [it] was set.[17]

Clearly there is some demand among Members for an extension of the deadline; it is not clear how widespread this demand is. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to suppose that most Members would welcome a modest increase in the time available to them for tabling questions, if that could be achieved without significant extra cost or any other adverse consequences.

Effects of any change in the deadline

POSSIBLE GROWTH IN THE NUMBER OF ORAL QUESTIONS

9. It is possible that a later deadline would lead to more questions being tabled. The quantity of questions tabled for oral answer was a major concern of the Procedure Committee in the 1980s: the number per Session grew from around 9,000 in the mid-1970s to over 23,000 in 1988-89.[18] Until 1990 all questions tabled were printed on the Order Paper, which led to what the Committee described as "a grotesque waste of resources, both human and material" as the great majority of those questions were not reached (the then Leader of the House estimated the extra printing costs alone at up to £750,000).[19] The major thrust of the Committee's 1989-90 report was to cut down on the number of questions tabled and printed by requiring that only a specified number of the highest placed questions in the shuffle should be printed and by setting more stringent conditions for tabling.

10. Whilst a deadline later than 5 pm might well lead to a slight increase in the number of questions for oral answer being tabled, nonetheless the number surviving the shuffle would remain the same, and it cannot therefore be argued that any such increase would lead to an appreciable increase in wasted resources.

EFFECTS ON THE TABLE OFFICE

11. We also considered whether an extension of the deadline would be likely to have a significant effect on the Table Office and its staffing arrangements. The Principal Clerk, Table Office, told us that moving the deadline to any time between 6 and 8 pm "would have only minor consequences for staffing, which could be handled within existing resources". A move to late in the evening might create "a slightly increased potential for mistakes" because some of the regular Table Office staff would have been replaced on night duty by staff from other offices within the Clerk's Department. Nonetheless, the Principal Clerk commented that the Table Office "would be able to operate whatever deadline or deadlines the House decides".[20]

Timing of the deadline

12. The Committee requested the views of the Table Office on possible deadlines at 6, 6.30, 7, 7.30, 8 pm or at the rise of the House. The Principal Clerk, Table Office, pointed out some factors to be taken into consideration:

  • The cut-off point occurring during a division (which would happen regularly were a 7 pm deadline chosen) would cause problems. Divisions usually result in an influx of Members into the Table Office to table written questions and Early Day Motions; there would be a higher likelihood of disputes over whether questions for oral answer had been tabled before the deadline or not.

  • A deadline of 7 pm or later would cause especial difficulties on Thursdays as the holding of the shuffle at or after the rising of the House might prevent Members from learning the results of the shuffle before leaving for their constituencies.

  • A deadline set at the rising of the House would result in successful questions not appearing in the "blues" until two days after the day of tabling, rather than on the next day as at present; and might cause confusion if one day's tabling began while the previous day's was ongoing.

Variation in the deadline during the week

13. There is no absolute requirement that the deadline for tabling oral questions must be the same on each day of the week; technically it would be feasible to vary the deadline according to the demands and sittings of the House. Mr Clifton-Brown in his question to the Leader of the House particularly stressed Mondays as a time when it would be helpful for the deadline to be extended. However a new, later deadline across the whole week might cause difficulties on Thursdays when the House rises at an earlier time. The Table Office told us that it saw no difficulty in having a different deadline on Monday or Thursday only; but the Principal Clerk did express concern that,—

    "if a later deadline was agreed for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays combined with an earlier time on Thursday it might well result in Members attempting to table questions too late on Thursdays".[21]

Conclusions

14. We note that there is no evidence of overwhelming demand amongst Members for a change in the deadline for tabling questions for oral answer. Nonetheless there are rational grounds for supposing that a modest extension of the deadline would bring benefits. We have taken into account the problems faced by Members with distant constituencies, and those who chair Standing Committees and Westminster Hall, who cannot always be certain that they can arrive in the Table Office by 5 pm.

15. We also note that a modest extension of the deadline would entail only minor consequences for staffing, and no extra printing costs.

16. We are mindful of the problems that might be caused should the deadline be set later than 7 pm, and similarly of the confusion that might be caused should different deadlines exist on different days of the week. We wholeheartedly agree with the view of the Principal Clerk, Table Office, that "the most important factors ... are certainty and simplicity. Members ... are best served by there being a regular deadline around which they can operate."[22]

17. Taking these various factors into account, we have concluded that the deadline for tabling questions for oral answer should be moved from 5 pm to 6.30 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We recommend that the Speaker should authorise such a change.


8  Hansard, 20.3.00, c850 Back
9  Hansard, 20.3.00, c854 Back
10  First Report, Session 1989-90, Oral Questions, HC 379 Back
11  CJ 1989-90 p639 Back
12  Now Standing Orders Nos. 21 and 22. Back
13  Third Report, Session 1990-91, Parliamentary Questions, HC 178 Back
14  Since 1991 the timing of Welsh Questions has altered: these are no longer taken on Mondays. Back
15  First Report, Session 1992-93, Parliamentary Questions, HC 687 Back
16  Ev, p2 onwards Back
17  Ev, p2 Back
18  First Report, Session 1989-90, para 4 Back
19  Ibid., para 7; Hansard, 24.10.90, c376 Back
20  Ev, p1 Back
21  Ev, p2 Back
22  Ev, p1  Back

 
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