Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Principal Clerk, Table Office


  Julia Drown's letter on tabling questions by e-mail raises two matters. She proposes (a) that questions be submitted by e-mail and (b) that, as a related issue, any problems be dealt with by the Table Office by e-mail reply.


  Any change in the rules for tabling questions to enable notices to be submitted electronically would require a system of verification of a Member's authority for the tabling of such notices. This is a matter of some complexity. The Committee should consider what technical means would be required to verify the source of a question; whether it is appropriate to propose a change relating to the giving of notices of questions in isolation from notices relating to other parliamentary proceedings; and whether other changes should be made to the rules for tabling questions.

  If these issues can be satisfactorily resolved, the practical problems for the Table Office of receiving e-mailed questions—assuming that a proper system of verification was in place—are not insurmountable. But it would have to be recognised that the service provided to Members by e-mail could not be guaranteed to be as helpful at all times as that provided to Members attending the Office in person. This would apply in particular to oral Questions when there would almost inevitably be occasions when e-mail correspondence would be too slow to allow an oral question, which had originally been sent before the deadline, to be accepted in time for entry in the shuffle.


  The Table Office already deals with draft questions and EDMs as well as other queries by e-mail, when required. Although few Members have used this facility, it has occasionally proved useful in assisting Members in preparation of matters to be tabled. The Table Office is ready to assist in the expansion of this method of giving advice to Members (and their staff). Indeed, the Office already makes extensive use of new technology and is keen to develop its uses, where appropriate. To this end, for example, it has recently established a scheme for notifying Members on request by pager, rather than by the traditional card, of any problem with an oral question or an adjournment debate.

  The proposals that actual notices of questions be submitted by e-mail raise a number of issues relating to the rules for tabling questions and these are discussed below.


  The current rules relating to the method of tabling questions were approved by the House in 1990 following reports of the Procedure Committee. It is a basic rule applicable to all notices of questions that they must clearly be authorised by the Member asking them. For this reason a verifiable signature (which is impossible to include on a fax) or the word of a Member (including one Member on behalf of another) is required to give proper authority for a question to be accepted for tabling.

  The rules relating to the method of tabling questions are different for oral and for written questions. At present Members may table written questions in person or by post, as long as they are signed by a Member. Questions faxed to the Table Office are not accepted because there is no guarantee that they are properly authorised.

  Oral questions (which are subject in any case to an allowance for each Member of one per answering department and up to two per day) must be tabled by a Member in person or by another Member on the Member's behalf. As with written questions, it is permissible for a Member to fax a question to a colleague who must then vouch for it when delivering it to the Office.

  The rule requiring Members to table oral questions in person results from a recommendation by the Procedure Committee in its First Report of 1989-90 (HC 379) on Oral Questions. In paragraphs 10 to 20, the Committee examined the problem of the preparation and circulation of questions by political parties, which it saw quite simply as an abuse.[17] It proposed as a solution the requirement that all oral questions be handed in by the Member (or a colleague) in person concluding that "Our strong hope is that if Members are obliged to take the trouble to go to the Table Office in person, there will be a greater incentive to decline the syndicated hand-out in favour of a question of genuine concern to the individual Member or his constituency".[18] The House agreed this proposal on 24 October 1990 and it was implemented with effect from the start of Session 1990-91.


Changing the current rules

  The tabling of notices of oral questions by e-mail would directly breach the current rule that Members must hand their questions to the Table Office in person. A change to allow e-mailed notices would imply that other rules about the giving of notice should be reviewed. There are also some practical problems.

Verification of authority

  The most important practical question raised by the use of e-mail for questions (or any other proceeding) is verification of authority given by the Member. A recognisable electronic signature would provide the most direct way of ensuring that material is not submitted without a Member's express authority. The Table Office is aware that a considerable amount of work has been done on the security of e-mail systems and their authentication. But to date, the House has not considered what might be involved in accepting electronic notices in relation to any of its proceedings.

  Many Members rely increasingly on their staff to draft questions. Without a signature or the Member to vouch for them, questions could in effect be submitted by a member of staff rather than the Member in whose name the questions will be tabled. The present system whereby Members must sign questions which are not handed in by them can be abused if Members pre-sign blank question forms and allow their research assistants to table questions in their name. However, even this practice sets a practical limit on the number of questions which can be tabled without being seen by a Member, since the physical action of signing a form many times prevents submission of questions in large numbers. If e-mailed questions were to be accepted, could one verified e-mail be permitted to contain many appended questions? Any system of verification would need to reproduce in some way the safeguard against unauthorised questions represented by a Member's signature. Without this, the number of written questions which could be submitted without being seen by a Member would be limitless.

  In addition to the important point of principle enshrined in the rules of the House that Members are personally responsible for their questions tabled, there is a theoretical risk that questions which have not been vetted by a Member may in fact be submitted electronically by outside lobby interests. Given the volume of questions tabled there is a possibility that this might lead to a significant misuse of House and Government resources, since Members cannot be expected to check the Order Book constantly for any unauthorised questions submitted without their knowledge. The scope for unwitting breach of the advocacy rule in such cases is also considerable.

  There is also the problem of external misuse of the system whether by professional hackers or others. Since the House is such a high-profile organisation and Members are so much in the public eye, use of e-mail necessarily will set up a significant challenge to outsiders who may enjoy corrupting the system. There are methods of protecting the transmission of material between offices and the network within the House has structures to protect security; to what extent the accuracy and security of transmission of e-mails can be protected is a technical matter beyond the scope of this paper. In order to ensure that potential abuses do not occur, some form of electronic signature or authentication would be essential to provide some verifiable authority comparable to those which the system relies on at present.


Written questions

  The best method of dealing with e-mailed written questions, once received, would be simply to print them out and edit them as normal. This would provide a single edited copy which would provide the same authority as hard copy. In case of confusion, it would always be possible to refer back to the original printed out version. The current system of "carding" [19]written questions would be able to continue, in parallel with use of the telephone or e-mail for drafting any changes by agreement with the Member.

Oral questions

  If oral questions were e-mailed and there was a problem with the text, the process of replying to a Member and agreeing a text might give rise to complications. Since there is a time limit for the receipt of oral questions, all questions received must be dealt with promptly and, in any event, before the expiry of the time limit for entry into the shuffle. Currently, the regular practice is to agree the text of oral questions before a Member leaves the Office. Experience shows that this benefits Members, not least because a face to face explanation of the basic point of the question and the procedural obstacles often means that Members can speedily obtain an agreed text which accomplishes what they want within the rules of the House. It also, of course, ensures that they have a text which can be included in the shuffle.

  The Table Office is often very busy when it is receiving oral questions. It is possible that there would be a delay in examining e-mailed questions, since Members attending in the Office in person would, as now, receive first attention. It is not possible to assume therefore that clerks would be able to respond immediately about an e-mailed question. If a text were not agreed before the deadline, it would not then be possible to enter the question in the shuffle nor to delay the shuffle for an indefinite period pending agreement of the text. Although Members' staff are usually in their offices during business hours, the Table Office is currently only permitted to accept instructions from Members about their questions or motions.

Douglas Millar

10 January 2001

17   See para 11. Back

18   See para 15. Back

19   Whether by pager or the traditional method. Back

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