Select Committee on Procedure Third Report


    (a)  The present notice period required for oral questions has become a major barrier to the effective operation of questions. (paragraph 34)

    (b)  The period of notice required for oral questions to departmental Ministers should be reduced from ten sitting days to three sitting days. We believe that this will enable Question Time to become much more topical and relevant, while allowing a reasonable period (in effect, two whole working days) for departments to prepare briefing for their Ministers. (paragraph 38)

    (c)  This change should be accompanied by three other modifications of the existing rules. The first is that Members should be allowed to table oral questions on any day after their last Question Time and before the minimum notice period—that is, generally, up to a period of four weeks before the day for answer. (paragraph 39)

    (d)  The timing of the shuffle should be brought forward from 6.30 pm to 4 pm. (paragraph 41)

    (e)  The number of Questions per department in each daily slot should be reduced. (paragraph 42)

    (f)  The following new quotas should be adopted:

Oral questions slot Questions printed (maximum)

             55 minutes 25

             50 minutes 20

 45 minutes 20

 30 minutes 15

 15 minutes 10

 10 minutes 8.

These new quotas should be subject to regular review, and ... Mr Speaker should have the authority to make any further adjustments which seem to him desirable. (paragraph 43)

    (g)  The four recommendations set out in paragraphs 38 to 43 above comprise an integrated package. They are intended to operate in conjunction with each other and we believe it is essential that they should be implemented together. (paragraph 44)

    (h)  The House should be invited to decide upon two further proposals aimed at injecting greater topicality into oral questions. These are that:—

(1)  On every Tuesday and Thursday, departmental Question Time should be followed by a further session of up to 30 minutes of questioning on a single subject.

(2)  Once a week, an hour-long session of questioning addressed to a single Minister of State, or two 30-minute sessions addressed successively to two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries, should be held in Westminster Hall (possibly on Thursday mornings). (paragraph 45)

    (i)  We are very concerned about the increasing length both of questions and of Ministerial answers. (paragraph 47)

    (j)  We strongly support Mr Speaker in his attempts to restrain the prolixity of some Members. Long, rambling questions are counter-productive, whilst long, rambling answers are an abuse of the time of the House. We would encourage Mr Speaker—and the Deputy Speakers—to interrupt long-winded Members and instruct them to come to the point. We believe that the Chair should take a pro-active role in seeking to change the 'culture' of Question Time and foster more incisive, tightly focussed exchanges. (paragraph 47)

    (k)  We also believe that the balance of power at Question Time between Minister and questioner is at present tilted too far in favour of the former, who can choose to give evasive or unhelpful replies, knowing that questioning will move on and he or she will shortly be 'off the hook'. We support the proposal by Lord Norton that the Speaker should give the Member who has asked a question the opportunity to ask a second supplementary after all supplementaries from other Members have been called. If this recommendation is implemented, the questioner will have the opportunity of some redress if the Minister has blatantly failed to address the original question. (paragraph 48)

    (l)  The distinction between Prime Minister's Questions and departmental Question Time is sufficiently fundamental that special provision for the former would be justified. We recommend that the timing of PMQs ought to be separately specified in the standing orders, so that any future change to it will be open to debate and subject to the formal decision of the House, which will thus be seen to have 'ownership' of its own procedures. (paragraph 55)

    (m)  We very much welcome the Prime Minister's willingness to appear before the Liaison Committee, which we believe will lead to a significant increase in Government accountability to Parliament, as well as an enhanced recognition of the importance of the select committee system within Parliament. ... It may be that in due course the principle of questioning the Prime Minister in committee could usefully be extended, with more frequent committee appearances, perhaps every six to eight weeks. Such evidence sessions might be held in Westminster Hall. (paragraph 60)

    (n)  Our proposal to reduce the period of notice for oral questions from ten to three sitting days, if implemented, will reduce some of the perceived disadvantage to Members of tabling closed questions to the Prime Minister, by making it easier for such questions to be relevant and topical. We hope this will encourage Members to make greater use of closed questions. In addition, any future extension of the practice of questioning the Prime Minister in committee might provide an opportunity to experiment with greater use of closed questions. (paragraph 61)

    (o)  The text of 'engagements' questions to the Prime Minister should no longer be set out in full. Instead, the names of Members successful in the ballot should be listed under a rubric indicating that, unless a question is printed under their name, they will ask an open question. (paragraph 62)

    (p)  We trust that the Select Committee on Public Administration will address these and similar concerns [raised in evidence] in their continuing inquiry into the quality of ministerial answers. We recommend that they give consideration in particular to the need for the Government, in cases where it does not give a full and satisfactory answer to a question, to state the reasons why this has not been possible. (paragraph 65)

    (q)  We also take the opportunity of reminding the Government of the importance of adhering to the 1997 Resolution of the House on ministerial responsibility. (paragraph 66)

    (r)  The House should impose a daily quota per Member of five named-day questions (that is, five per day relating to all named days, not just the earliest named day). We expect that this measure, by relieving the pressure on departments, will lead to a significant reduction in the number of holding replies. (paragraph 73)

    (s)  The ration [of named-day questions per Member per day] must be fixed and non-negotiable. (paragraph 74)

    (t)  We reject the Government's further proposal that, in addition to a daily ration of named-day questions, the minimum period for a reply to a named-day question should be extended from three to four working days. (paragraph 76)

    (u)  The Principal Clerk, Table Office, suggested to us that if there were to be a ration of named-day questions, a Member who did not receive a substantive answer to such a question on the due date could be given priority in a forthcoming ballot for adjournment debates, perhaps in Westminster Hall. The Principal Clerk argued that "such a penalty might discourage excessive use by Ministers of holding replies". We understand the attraction of this proposal, but consider that it would be best to see whether our reform, if implemented, is successful in significantly reducing the number of holding replies before deciding whether it would be desirable to introduce sanctions of this kind. We may return to this proposal in a future report. (paragraph 77)

    (v)  We do not propose that any limit be placed on the number of ordinary written questions a Member can table, and indeed believe that it would be wrong in principle to do so. (paragraph 78)

    (w)  We urge all Members of the House, and their staff, to develop greater awareness of alternative sources of information, especially via the Internet, and to seek information by means of parliamentary questions only if those alternative sources have been explored and found wanting. Members must ensure that their staff do not draft PQs as a first resort when researching a particular issue. Members must take direct responsibility for all questions tabled in their name. (paragraph 79)

    (x)  We welcome the Government's proposal that the time for answering written questions should be brought forward. We recommend that it be implemented. However, we note the concerns expressed by the Table Office and the Official Report. ... The Government should give an undertaking that departments will use their best endeavours to answer questions at 9.30 am rather than in batches during the day, and that (other than in exceptional circumstances) all questions will be answered by 7 pm. (paragraph 81)

    (y)  We recommend that [the Government's] proposal to replace planted questions with 'written statements' should be adopted. (paragraph 82).

    (z)  The introduction of a system of electronic tabling is highly desirable and should proceed. (paragraph 90)

    (aa)  In the first instance the House should approve the introduction as soon as possible of a system of electronic tabling which is closer to the Scottish or House of Lords model [than to the 'strong authentication' option] (but with some added safeguards which we detail below). This should proceed on an experimental basis. (paragraph 90)

    (bb)  The House should confer on Mr Speaker by resolution a reserve power, to be exercised on the basis of advice from the Table Office, either to impose quotas on the number of questions Members may table electronically, or to halt the experiment altogether, if in Mr Speaker's opinion the number of questions increases excessively or other significant abuses are suspected. If necessary, the more expensive and complicated option of commissioning a system based on 'strong' authentication could at this point be pursued. We hope that Members will operate the new system in a responsible manner and this latter option will not prove necessary. (paragraph 90)

    (cc)  Members who wish to use the new system should be required formally to opt into it, by supplying the Table Office with a signed authority allowing the Office to receive questions sent from specified electronic addresses. (paragraph 91)

    (dd)  Questions should only be accepted from addresses within the Parliamentary Data and Video Network. (paragraph 91)

    (ee)  Questions should not be accepted via ordinary e-mail. Instead, there should be a Web-based system using a template. (paragraph 91)

    (ff)  The development of the template and associated software should be undertaken by the parliamentary IT authorities, in liaison with the Table Office and other interested parties such as the House of Commons Library and the Official Report. The Table Office (subject to the authority of Mr Speaker) should have the final say as to the contents and configuration of the system. The overall objectives will be to maximise the advantages of automation, by producing a system which is as easy as possible for Members to use, which will capture as much relevant information as possible at the earliest time, and which may, if it proves technically feasible, police any relevant deadlines and quotas. The system will need to be developed within the wider framework of the House's overall strategy for future information services. (paragraph 92)

    (gg)  Electronic tabling will be in addition to, not instead of, the existing methods of tabling. (paragraph 93)

    (hh)  Electronic tabling will be simply the first stage in a longer process of making provision for 'seamless' electronic movement of data relating to parliamentary proceedings. (paragraph 94)

    (ii)  Oral as well as written questions should be submissible electronically. (paragraph 95)

    (jj)  With effect from the introduction of electronic tabling, submission of oral questions by post should be again permitted. (paragraph 95)

    (kk)  Further developments in regard to electronic transmission of information should be reviewed in the light of the experience of introducing electronic tabling and of IT developments such as new arrangements for printing questions and the proposed new information system for the House. (paragraph 96)

    (ll)  The current 'closed period' for questions during the summer of nearly three months represents an unacceptable restriction of Members' rights to pursue urgent political and constituency concerns. Equally, ... it is reasonable that there should be a shorter annual break from tabling of questions during the holiday period. We therefore recommend that with effect from 1 September each year, Members should be permitted to table written questions. ...This change should be made irrespective of whether the Government's proposals for September sittings of the House are adopted. (paragraph 101)

    (mm)  During recess periods in September/October, the Table Office should be open every Thursday during specified hours to receive questions, which should be printed after each tabling day in a special issue of the blue notice paper; and ... answers should likewise be printed in a special issue of Hansard to appear on a fixed day once a week (paragraph 102).

    (nn)  During September/October recess periods, named-day questions may only be put down for answer on a day one week ahead of the tabling day. (paragraph 102)

    (oo)  We do not believe that, initially at any rate, quotas should be imposed on the number of questions a Member may table in the recess. (paragraph 103)

    (pp)  The shuffle for a Question Time immediately after the summer recess should be held in the final part of the recess, on the day on which it would be held if the House was not in recess—i.e. if the House were to return on a Monday, the shuffle for Question Time on that Monday would be held (assuming our recommendation about notice is accepted) on the preceding Wednesday. We do not recommend any change to the earliest tabling dates for these questions. This proposal will enable much more topical questions to be tabled for Question Times immediately after the summer recess, and will maximise convenience for Members, whilst still affording the standard notice period for Government departments. (paragraph 104)

    (qq)  We welcome the Government's sensible proposal in relation to questions unanswered at the start of the recess. (paragraph 106)

    (rr)  We recommend that headings should be inserted in the blue notice paper to reflect the way questions are organised on the paper, in order to make easier for Members and others to find their way around the 'blues'. (paragraph 107)

    (ss)  We recognise that some of our recommendations—such as those in relation to electronic tabling and tabling in the summer recess—will have resource implications for the House in terms of staff time and printing costs. We believe that the extra resources needed can be more than justified in terms of the gains that will accrue to the House by way of more effective scrutiny of the Executive and greater convenience to Members. We also recognise that our recommendations will impose some extra burdens on the staff of the House. We hope that where necessary the House authorities will take steps to provide more staff resources and to ensure that staff facilities are adequate (for instance, a review of the accommodation available to the Table Office would be desirable). We also wish to take this opportunity of thanking the staff of the House—and especially the Clerks in the Table Office—for the commitment, skill and courtesy with which they administer the system of Parliamentary Questions. (paragraph 108)

    (tt)  We hope that our recommendations, if approved by the House, will be implemented as soon as possible, preferably with effect from the start of Session 2002-03. We recognise that some recommendations will require the development of computer software, alterations to the POLIS system, or considerable liaison between departments of the House, and that it may not be possible at this stage to impose a firm deadline for their coming into effect. We believe that if such recommendations have been approved in principle by the House, Mr Speaker should have the authority to approve their coming into effect as soon as he is satisfied, on the basis of advice from the House authorities, that the necessary preparatory work has been carried out. (paragraph 109)

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