Proposal for a preliminary ballot for oral questions:
extract from the memorandum to the Procedure Committee by the
Principal Clerk of the Table Office, First Report from the Select
Committee on Procedure, Session 1989-90, Oral Questions, HC 379
(1989-90), Appendix 1, paragraphs 35-42.
Balloting for Questions
35. The present system for determining the
order of oral Questions is in effect a raffle. The essential difference
between the four o'clock shuffle, whether computerised as now
or manual as previously, and any form of raffle, whether a procedure
of the House such as the ballots for Private Members Bills or
Motions, or a local cricket club Christmas draw, is that for oral
Questions the losers as well as the winners are drawn. A reformed
system would only draw the winners or potential winners.
36. An arrangement along these lines would
follow, mutatis mutandis, the procedures already well understood
in the House for Private Members Bills and Motions. Broadly speaking
the system would be as follows:
(a) on a day so many days before oral Questions
were to be answered, a ballot book would be opened in the Lower
Table Office in which names could be entered for the ballot for
Questions to a particular Department. On some days, notably Tuesdays
and Thursdays, there would need to be more than one book.
(b) a Member would be entitled to enter his
own name or that of one other Member.
(c) at a suitable moment in the day the book
would be closed, and the ballot would be drawn by computer in
the Upper Table Office.
(d) a certain number of names would be drawn.
(e) the list of Members successful would
be published in the Notices on the next day.
(f) by so many days before the Questions
were due for oral answer, the Member concerned would have to give
notice of the Question in the normal way; the Questions would
be subject to the normal rules as to orderliness.
(g) such notices would appear the following
day in the blue Notices and a consolidated list would appear in
the White Order Book.
37. If the Committee is attracted in principle
to such a scheme, there are various points of details it will
need to consider, which are outlined briefly in this paper, and
which I would be glad to discuss further in oral evidence. The
most important seem to me to be:
(a) should the scheme apply to all Departments
or only to some?
(b) should there be provision for entry to
the ballot by post?
(c) at what time should the ballot be held?
(d) how many names should be drawn, and should
the number vary between Departments?
(e) how much notice should be required of
the text of the oral Question?
38. So far as the application of a ballot
scheme to individual Ministers is concerned, it seems to me that
the case for applying it to the Prime Minister is overwhelming.
She receives far more Questions far more often than any other
Minister. There is a strong case for the application of the scheme
to all major Departments; their existing numbers of oral Questions
are far greater than the number actually reached. Even the Welsh
and Northern Ireland Offices receive more Questions than can be
answered. There is a less strong case for some of the smaller
Departments, and it may seem curious to consider a ballot for
Questions to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, but
I would strongly suggest that it would be desirable from the point
of view of convenience of Members and all others involved, and
in the traditions of the House, that consistency between the treatment
of all Departments is maintained.
39. The ballots for private Members Bills
and Motions require a personal entry by a Member, whether by himself
or by another Member acting on his behalf. Such a system applied
to Questions would therefore seem logical and would certainly
lessen the possibility of syndication. The Committee might feel,
however, that it would impose too rigorous and annoying a discipline
on Members to turn up personally in the Lower Table Office. If
that were the case, a written application in the Member's own
writing, not just a signature on a pro-forma, might be thought
to be a valid notice of intent though there will be difficulties
for the Table Office in checking this.
40. The shuffle has been traditionally held
at 4.00 pm in order to allow sufficient time for the relevant
questions to be sorted and printed. Under the new system which
would involve no post-shuffle sorting for the Office Clerks in
the Table Office, nor any texts to be printed by the Parliamentary
Press, there is a strong case for deferring the ballot until later
in the evening. This would give Members more time to enter and
would avoid the 3.30-4.00 pm rush, particularly if the Committee
were to favour entry only in person and not by post. With the
computer in the Table Office, the draw can be made very rapidly.
41. In determining how many names should
be drawn, the Committee will need to bear in mind that some Members
may be unavoidably absent on the actual day for oral Questions.
It would be wise therefore to draw a few more names than are likely
to be reached in practice. Account also needs to be taken of the
fact that some Departments answer for the whole of Question time
(55 minutes approximately), others for 40 minutes, others for
35 minutes, the Prime Minister for 15 minutes and small Departments
for 10 or five minutes. A very rough rule of thumb might be to
draw a number of names equal to the number of minutes available
for that Department. Thus, 55 names would be drawn for Trade and
Industry, Environment and so on, 15 for the Prime Minister and
only five for the House of Commons Commission. While there may
be logic in this, in my view 55 is still too many, and I would
have thought that a maximum of 40 would be more realistic for
Departments answering for the whole of Question time, and a maximum
of 30 for those answering until 3.10 or 3.15 pm. At the other
end of the scale, five is probably too few for the very small
Departments, and a minimum of 10 (which might well not be reached)
would be safer. It would, of course, be in order for any Member
not successful in the ballot to table a Question subsequently
if he thought that there was a chance of it being reached; this
might well be the case for some small Departments. Any Member
drawn in a ballot would immediately have his ration checked by
the Table Office; if he were found to be over his limit, his name
would not go forward. In relation to Prime Minister's Questions
the Committee might also consider the possibility of barring a
Member who is drawn in the top three, four or five names from
entry in the next ballot for Prime Minister's Questions.
42. The present maximum two-week period
of notice for oral Questions, which is in effect also the minimum
period, was introduced in 1971. From 1965 it had been 21 days;
prior to that there had been no maximum period of notice and Questions
had been tabled up to six weeks ahead. If the ballot system were
to be introduced and the ballot held on the same day as Questions
are now tabled, ie, 10 sitting days before they are to be answered,
there will inevitably be a reduction in the time available for
Departments to prepare answers. It will be for the Committee to
judge whether there is a case for reducing the period of notice
in order to encourage more topical Questions. No doubt the Government
may argue that a reduction is undesirable, but against that it
can be said that there will be far fewer Questions for which oral
answers need to be prepared. I would have thought that there was
a strong case for keeping the present 10-day rule, which is well
understood by Members, for the balloting arrangements, and then
to allow a further two days for successful Members to prepare
their actual Question. This is, however, a matter for the Committee
to decide in the light of the evidence it receives; the Table
Office can perfectly well operate whatever system is decided.