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.
PROPOSAL 5: MINISTERS'
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.
PROPOSAL 8: "WILL
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.
PROPOSALS 10 AND
11: (PARAGRAPHS 48-55)
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.
Director of Information Systems
10 April 2002