Select Committee on Procedure Third Report


Letter to the Chairman from the Principal Clerk, Table Office

  The Table Office has operated with a deadline of 5 pm for the tabling of Oral Questions for the last 10 years. Prior to that time, the cut off point had been 4 pm. The current deadline results from a decision of the Speaker following a Report of the Procedure Committee.

  In my experience, the most important factors to be considered in setting a deadline are certainty and simplicity. Members, who are subject to many different demands on their time and have to deal with a variety of matters in their day, are best served by there being a regular deadline around which they can operate. We notice the importance of this when the days for tabling are affected by the incidence of recesses.

  The Table Office would be able to operate whatever deadline or deadlines that the House decides within present resources although there might be a slightly increased potential for mistakes if the shuffle were to take place late in the evening when some of the regular Table Office staff are replaced on night duty by staff from other offices within the Department.

  With these preliminary comments, I set out below my response to the specific points you raised:

(1)  Effect of moving the deadline to 6 pm, 6.30 pm, 7 pm, 7.30 pm or 8 pm

  Moving the deadline to any of the times suggested would have only minor consequences for staffing, which could be handled with existing resources. However, we would be concerned by any move of the deadline to 7 pm. There is often a division at 7 pm, and the office is usually busy during divisions. This would make it difficult to cope with the last minute rush of Members just before the deadline (which would be likely to occur at whatever time the deadline is set), and it would also be much harder to ensure that oral Questions were accepted only from Members inside the office at the time of the deadline, giving rise to arguments with Members.

  There would be special difficulty on Thursdays. A 7 pm deadline would fall at a time when the sitting of the House is about to be brought to an end. In those circumstances the shuffle might not be completed until some time after the House had adjourned. This would be a minor inconvenience for staff but more importantly would prevent Members from learning the results of the shuffle before leaving for their constituencies for the weekend. A deadline at 7.30 pm would clearly lead to the shuffle taking place after the House had risen. A deadline at 8 pm would be inconsistent with the cut off for tabling of 7.30 pm set down in Standing Orders.

  The Modernisation Committee is due to examine the times at which the House sits in assessing the impact of the timing of Thursday sittings. If the Modernisation Committee were to propose a change in the hours of the House's sittings on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays, we would of course need to reconsider the answer to this question. In view of the demonstrable effect which the time of events in the Chamber has on the time at which Members table Questions, the Committee might think it best to await confirmation of the current daily sitting times before recommending any change.

(2)  Whether a deadline could be set for the rising of the House, with the shuffle taking place the following morning

  There would be no practical difficulties for the Table Office, but there would be two consequences of which the Committee should be aware.

  First, the successful Questions would not appear on the blue Notices of Questions until two working days after they were tabled, which would be particularly awkward for Questions tabled on a Thursday. While the names of Members successful in the ballot (as opposed to the questions themselves) would as usual be available in the Table Office shortly after completion of the shuffle, this would obviously be later than at present.

  Secondly, there is a cut-off point for questions at 10.30 pm (7.30 pm on Thursdays), after which questions are treated as having been tabled on the following day (SO No 22(2)). From 10.30 pm (if the House is still sitting), Members are able to table oral questions as if it were the following day, eg after 10.30 pm on Tuesdays to the Prime Minister for answer on the Wednesday just over two weeks later. If the deadline were changed to the rising of the House, and the House sat after 10.30 pm, one day's tabling would continue after the next day's tabling had begun. While this would not cause undue difficulty for the Table Office, the system might well be regarded as confusing by Members.

(3)  Whether a later deadline on only some days of the week would be feasible

  We see no difficulty with having a later deadline on Monday only, if this were wanted to enable Members to get to Westminster later than 5 pm. Nor would it be impossible to operate with a different deadline on Thursday when the House is sitting earlier in the day. But 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.

(4)  Whether the Table Office is aware of significant demand amongst Members for a later deadline

  Only one Member has raised the matter with us (Mr Clifton-Brown), and another (Mr Nigel Evans) has also raised it at question time.


  To assist the Committee in its deliberations, the Table Office has plotted the time of receipt of notices of Oral Questions in the past two weeks. The attached charts and tables clearly demonstrate that Members generally use their visits to the Chamber for Question Time and Statements to table Questions. A smaller peak in tabling occurs immediately before the deadline but this may simply represent the effect of the deadline itself and would occur at whatever time the deadline were set.

  The tabling of Questions on Mondays is generally later in the day than on other days, presumably because of the hour at which Members arrive at the House. On Thursdays tabling is normally earlier than other days reflecting the earlier time for taking Questions and statements. Fluctuations in daily patterns tend to reflect the events taking place in the Chamber drawing Members to the vicinity of the Table Office. Because such events, Question time apart, are unpredictable, it would be impossible to structure a regular deadline around them.

  Neither the charts nor our daily experience indicate that there is a widespread demand by Members to table Questions after the deadline which is frustrated by the current rule.

Douglas Millar

12 May 2000


Pattern of Receipt of Oral Questions into the Table Office Monday 8 May-12 May 2000

Monday TuesdayWednesday ThursdayAverage Mon-Wed Average Mon-Thur
Other FactorsFCO and NIO Statements DTI Statement
after 10.30 pm 62.8%
9.30-10.00 21.0% 10.9%
10.00-10.3011.3% 34.8%4 1.9%21.8% 2.662.5
10.30-11.0011.3% 11.6%1 0.5%43.5% 11.75
11.00-11.3000% 00%5 2.4%87.1% 1.663.25
11.30-12.0000% 00%6 2.9%119.7% 24.25
12.00-12.3011.3% 00%14 6.7%54.4% 55
12.30-1.0033.9% 11.6%6 2.9%119.7% 3.335.25
1.00-1.3045.1% 46.3%8 3.8%119.7% 5.336.75
1.30-2.0033.9% 34.8%11 5.2%76.2% 4.666
2.00-2.3045.1% 57.9%15 7.1%98.0% 88.25
2.30-3.00911.5% 23.2%28 13.3%76.2% 1311.5
3.00-3.301316.7% 812.7%8 3.8%65.3% 9.668.75
3.30-4.0079.0% 2234.9%54 25.7%87.1% 27.6622.75
4.00-4.301721.8% 711.1%18 8.6%87.1% 1412.5
4.30-5.001519.2% 711.1%24 11.4%1513.2% 15.3315.25
TOTAL78 63210 113


Pattern of Receipt of Oral Questions into the Table Office Monday 15 May—Thursday 18 May

Monday TuesdayWednesday ThursdayAverage Mon-Wed Average Mon-ThurAverage over two weeks
Other FactorsFCO Statement Defence StatementHome Statement MAFF Statement
after 10.30 pm 14 5.5%
9.30-10.00 20.8% 00%
10.00-10.3000% 65.9%7 2.7%11.1% 4.33.53
10.30-11.0012.3% 11.0%1 0.4%44.4% 11.751.75
11.00-11.3000% 33.0%9 3.5%11.1% 43.253.25
11.30-12.0012.3% 00%0 0%77.7% 0.323.125
12.00-12.3036.8% 11.0%9 3.5%1213.2% 46.255.625
12.30-1.0000% 22.0%13 5.1%1920.9% 58.56.875
1.00-1.3024.5% 55.0%14 5.5%99.9% 77.57.125
1.30-2.0012.3% 33.0%11 4.3%88.8% 55.755.875
2.00-2.3049.1% 76.9%18 7.0%55.5%
2.30-3.0036.8% 87.9%29 11.3%11.1% 13.310.2510.875
3.00-3.3036.8% 1413.9%28 10.9%66.6% 1512.7510.75
3.30-4.00715.9% 1716.8%41 16.0%44.4% 21.717.2520
4.00-4.30920.5% 1716.8%43 16.8%77.7% 2319 15.75
4.30-5.001022.7% 1716.8%17 6.6%77.7% 14.712.7514
TOTAL44 101256 91

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