Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Library on the Government Memorandum to the Procedure Committee

  As requested by the Clerk to the Procedure Committee, this note sets out the Library's observations on the Government memorandum to the Procedure Committee on Parliamentary Questions. Paragraph numbers refer to the memorandum by the Leader of the House (P46 2001-02).

  As background, the Procedure Committee should be aware that the Library is involved in several aspects of handling parliamentary questions. Under the present arrangements, the Library receives paper copies of the text of all written answers direct from government departments, at the same time as the text is supplied to the Official Report for editing and printing. The answers are retained in the Members' Library for consultation until they have been printed in the Official Report. The Library maintains the House's definitive set of the Official Report and makes reference copies available to Members (and their staff) for consultation.

  In addition, the Library is responsible for indexing all parliamentary questions for the POLIS database. POLIS is the Library's main information retrieval tool and is available on the Parliamentary Intranet, as well as on the Internet. The indexing of questions makes it much easier to trace questions (and answers) retrospectively; to link them with any papers deposited by Ministers, or with "will write" letters not printed in the Official Report; and to identify those which may not have received answers. POLIS data are also used for compiling the printed indexes for the Official Report. A special application of POLIS is used by the Table Office for handling parliamentary questions. As part of these processes, there are arrangements for the Library to capture the electronic text of oral and written questions when they are published in the Notice Paper, and the text of answers when they are printed in the Official Report.


  The Library would welcome the introduction of separate written statements and the concomitant abolition of "inspired" questions. Having a separate category will make it easier to distinguish them from other written answers than is always the case at present. That will allow them to be treated separately on the Library's POLIS databases, which would benefit users, both internal and external. There would, however, be consequences for the capture of data for POLIS, as with other proposed changes to the Notice Paper, since even very small changes in layout or formatting can require considerable programming effort to ensure the continuity of the POLIS service. The Library is already discussing the implications of this proposal with the Deliverer of the Vote in order to ease any potential transition, should the proposal be agreed. . Similarly, changes in the layout of Hansard will affect both data capture for the POLIS databases, and the program used to generate the printed indexes to the Official Report.


  The problem of "will write" answers is over 20 years old and was first addressed in 1982, although never quite solved. "Will writes" have always been regarded by the Library as public documents and treated as such. The Library has copied them to anyone, Members, the press and public, who has asked for them. The practice of issuing "will write" answers is perceived, mistakenly, as an attempt by the Government to hide information, so any steps to improve accessibility and publicity for these documents are to be encouraged. The establishment of procedures for monitoring the receipt of "will write" answers is a welcome development following an initiative originally taken by the Library.

  The publication of the list of "will writes" should be a matter for the Government but the Library questions whether, realistically, they would have the mechanisms to deal with it. As the receiving organisation, the Library has better information about which Ministers have written. Moreover, the Library's general concerns about long-term availability of material on Government web sites would extend to "will writes" if they were to be published by the Government. The House should aim to store and publish such letters, working with the Government to agree standards for the transfer of such information and perhaps sharing the financing of such a service. The corporate strategic plan recently endorsed by the Commission includes an objective to support the business processes of the House at all levels by developing and maintaining an information infrastructure that is unified, consistent, seamless, and easily accessed by, and appropriate to the needs of, the various user communities. This might be achieved as an initiative within the framework of a project currently being developed which is intended to fulfil that objective (the Parliamentary Information Management Services (PIMS) project).

  The use of the word "deposit" in respect of will write letters should be avoided if at all possible: "deposit" in this context refers to deposited papers, on which revised guidance has recently been issued to government departments.

  Under the present POLIS system, to issue an Official Report during recesses, as proposed here, would have staffing implications for the processing of those questions. It is difficult to assess the extent of the staffing implications as that would depend on the number of questions involved. It is also difficult to say at this stage how this might change in the context of the PIMS framework but it is a consideration for whatever system is in place as something will have to be done with the additional data generated. Any reduction in the present practice of publishing large number of answers on the first day of a recess would certainly be welcome.


  More robust procedures are needed for rapid and accurate notification of machinery of government changes, both for the purposes of communicating with the Government and for circulating information internally. Access to the Cabinet Office web site is available via the Library home page where there is a live link to Ministerial Responsibilities. It would undoubtedly help many users throughout Parliament and elsewhere if the Government (not the House as this is fairly and squarely a government responsibility) kept this information up-to-date and made it publicly available on a searchable database, whether via the Cabinet Office web site or HMSO. However, there are issues about common standards for describing this information which are relevant for Parliament's own requirements, and this is another area that might well be addressed by a PIMS initiative.


  If questions are to be tabled electronically, it is essential that Members should be provided with a template from a database that will ensure that certain data (their names, constituencies, parties, the names of Ministers and Departments, dates etc) are captured in the correct format at the initial point of contact. Use of such a database would meet the requirement of strong authentication to verify the origin of questions. Once again, the House would need to work with the Government to establish appropriate standards for the ready exchange of such information with government departments; and the facility for associating questions with answers and other related material.

  The electronic delivery of all material related to questions would be a highly desirable development, provided management and storage issues are addressed. These include data and metadata standards, procedures for delivery of electronic texts, and responsibilities for storing, publishing and archiving the material. The PIMS project should enable greater advantage to be taken of such developments than is possible under the current systems. There are distinct and widespread benefits to the Library, Members, the Government, and the public in abandoning hard copy transmission and delivery of PQ answers, but the House authorities and the Government would need to work together to ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, and that the benefits can be realised in a cost-effective way. These include speed of delivery; the integrity and accuracy of information; accessibility; and promoting freedom of information.

  The Library would be happy to respond to any further points that the Committee may want to raise.

Priscilla Baines


Betty McInnes

Director of Information Systems

10 April 2002

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