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
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
(2) Whether a deadline could be set for the
rising of the House, with the shuffle taking place the following
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
12 May 2000
DAILY INTAKE OF ORAL QUESTIONS
Pattern of Receipt of Oral Questions into
the Table Office Monday 8 May-12 May 2000
|Other Factors||FCO and NIO Statements
|after 10.30 pm||
DAILY INTAKE OF ORAL QUESTIONS
Pattern of Receipt of Oral Questions into the Table Office
Monday 15 MayThursday 18 May
||Average Mon-Thur||Average over two weeks
|Other Factors||FCO Statement
||Defence Statement||Home Statement
|after 10.30 pm||