Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


  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.

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