Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by FDA (formerly First Division Association)

  1.  This paper sets out briefly the high level issues which the FDA would wish the Committee to bear in mind when considering changes to Procedure relating to Parliamentary Questions and Motions. These relate to the effect on members of any changes to the system for dealing with Parliamentary Questions. In putting forward this memorandum, we understand that the Committee is seeking the most effective mechanisms on behalf of the House of Commons. In commenting we are raising areas relating to the interests of those of our members on whom the system might impact.

  2.  In broad terms we have two groups of staff whom the changes might affect: those in Departments and those who work for the House of Commons itself. In both cases, the primary concern of the union is that the workloads and time demands should not be excessive. There is often an element of pressure when dealing with Parliamentary business, but this should not become stressful, nor should the demands be unreasonable, either in terms of volume or timescale.


  3.  Most of the FDA members who will be affected by any changes work in Departments. They will be required to prepare the answers and supporting briefing for Ministers. The staff time involved in this will vary and will depend on factors such as the complexity of the question and the availability of information to frame an answer and, in the case of oral questions, the range of subjects on which briefing may be necessary to cover supplementary questions.

  4.  The staff who prepare an answer on a topic are the staff who are responsible for that particular subject area. The staffing levels of any area of the civil service are based on a business need. Part of the calculation of that need will take account of the likely level of Parliamentary demands. This is relatively straightforward where a Bill is being prepared, since it is possible to set up dedicated teams and the pressures, though severe at some points, follow broadly recognised patterns. In the case of PQs, there are certain areas which will remain a focus of Members' interest over a sustained period and Departments may be able to allocate staff resources to take account of that.

  5.  However, given the wide range of Members' interests and the range of government responsibility, most areas have an unpredictable level and pattern of PQ business with which to deal. From the perspective of individuals or teams within Departments, this means peaks and troughs of demands from Parliament. Since PQs fall to the subject experts, they are often additional to existing workloads, many of which are demanding. By its nature Parliamentary business has significant priority and the effects may not therefore be felt by the Member asking the question, but consideration should be given to the effect on civil servants.


  6.  The Committee is considering the period of notice given for questions. The purpose of a Parliamentary "is to obtain information information or press for action" (Erskine May citing Parliamentary debates). If the time allowed for the preparation of an answer is inadequate then it is difficult to see how the Member might achieve either objective.

  7.  Topicality is a concern raised by others who have already appeared before the Committee. Various ways of addressing the issue have been suggested. While not wishing to encroach on the Committee's consideration of how best it can serve the House's needs, we would note two factors which would lead to significant pressure on civil servants, and on the answers which they prepare; lack of notice of questions and any structure which has the potential to cover a wide range of topics in one session (thus requiring briefing from a wide range of policy and subject areas).

  8.  Overall this is a question of balance. The FDA understands the wish of Members for more topicality, but would be concerned about the effect of very short deadlines on staff. Conversely, if questions were to be better focused and the numbers reduced (eg as suggested in the Memorandum from the Leader of the House) then this would reduce the workload and in particular would reduce the amount of supporting briefing which is prepared and not used when an oral PQ is not reached.


  9.  Similar considerations—workload, pattern of demand and time pressure—arise for House of Commons staff. We would ask that in making reforms the Committee consider the impact on the House staff who might suffer particularly from increased peaks of demand with very short deadlines. An illustrative example, as posed by the Committee (Mr Wright—question 15, Tuesday 12 February), is the case where the Table Office may be deluged with e-mails from members submitting questions shortly before the deadline for tabling. Members will have expectations as to the level of service and speed of reply which they receive from the Table Office, but these will always be constrained by the resources available and the level of demand at any time. Examples of the possible impact on the Table Office were given in the Memorandum from the Principal Clerk, Table Office.


  10.  The FDA would welcome any initiative which would allow its members to deliver an improved service when dealing with Parliamentary Questions. To that end we would welcome any proposal which would allow a reduction in unnecessary work while ensuring that there were no excessive pressures put on staff, particularly from unreasonable deadlines.

15 March 2002

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