Ministerial Statements - Procedure Committee Contents

5  Written statements

63. In October 2002 the House agreed a new Standing Order which provides that

A Minister of the Crown, being a Member of the House, may give notice of his intention to make a ministerial statement in written form on a specified day not later than five sitting days after the day on which notice was given.[49]

Such statements are printed in the Official Report. It is for the Government to decide, when it deems that an announcement is significant enough that it warrants a ministerial statement to Parliament, whether that statement should be written or oral.

Oral questions on written ministerial statements

64. Some Members expressed concern that the Government might, on occasion, issue an announcement by means of a written statement in order to avoid the level of scrutiny to which oral statements are subject. Mark Durkan MP told us that he believed that "there are at times questions as to why the written route has been chosen, and I've certainly had experience of where it seemed to be chosen as a way of avoiding questions or opening issues up."[50] Duncan Hames MP felt that "written statements are very unsatisfactory for backbench MPs".[51]

65. At present, Members have a number of options if they wish to elicit further information on a matter which has been the subject of a written statement. A Member might, for example, seek to ask an Urgent Question; apply for an adjournment debate; make an application to the Backbench Business Committee for time for a debate; or table oral or written parliamentary questions. We are concerned, however, that there is currently not a mechanism for a series of Members to engage in the oral questioning of a Minister as there is when an oral statement is made.

66. Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP suggested one possible mechanism by which Members might be enabled to scrutinise more thoroughly the content of written ministerial statements. He suggested that:

There might be some mechanism, perhaps involving the Backbench Business Committee, to indicate subjects where they would like an opportunity to question a Minister and they haven't been given it, and that could allow perhaps questions, oral statements and questions, a few days after a written statement has been laid.[52]

He added that the use of Westminster Hall might be appropriate in such cases. We are persuaded of the merits of this suggestion, which would allow backbenchers to hold the Government to account in cases where an announcement of great interest to Members has been made by means of a WMS rather than an oral statement.

67. It would be appropriate for questions on a written ministerial statement to take place at a time when as many Members as possible are able to attend. We consider that a Wednesday morning would be the most suitable time. At present, Westminster Hall sits between 9.30 am and 11.30 am on a Wednesday morning; this time is allocated to adjournment debates applied for by backbenchers. We propose that, where Members feel that an announcement made by means of a written ministerial statement is deserving of further scrutiny, the half hour between 11 am and 11.30 am could be allocated to questions on that statement. If there was not a sufficient case in a particular week for questions on a WMS, the time would be spent on a half hour adjournment debate, as at present. There would be no need for a change to the Standing Orders, since Standing Order No. 10 (3) provides that "On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the business taken at any sitting in Westminster Hall shall be such as the Chairman of Ways and Means shall appoint and may include oral answers to questions under arrangements to be made by him."

68. It is for the Government to decide whether a particular announcement is to be made by means of a written or an oral statement, but, in some cases, an announcement made by means of a written ministerial statement is significant enough to deserve parliamentary scrutiny. In such cases, there should be a mechanism for backbenchers to question a Minister on the statement. We recommend that the half hour between 11 am and 11.30 am on a Wednesday in Westminster Hall should be available for oral questions without notice on a written statement made in the previous week. We would not expect the Minister to read out the text of the statement. Applications for this time should be made to the Speaker in the same way as applications for adjournment debates and, where the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means judge that a case has been made, the Chairman of Ways and Means should appoint oral questions on that statement as the business for the specified time. We recommend that this procedure be introduced on a experimental basis until the end of the Session. We will conduct a review of its effectiveness at that time.

Notice and timing of written ministerial statements

69. The Government is required to give notice of its intention to make a written ministerial statement by the rise of the House on the sitting day before the statement is to be made. The earliest time at which such a statement may be made is 9.30 am.[53]

70. The Government believes that "the requirement to give notice of a WMS before the rise of the House on the previous sitting day tends to discourage, rather than encourage, the use of WMSs."[54] In written evidence, it draws particular attention to the problems posed by the requirement to give notice for written ministerial statements to be made on a Monday: in most sitting weeks, such notice must be given by the rise of the House on Thursday.[55] To address this, the Government proposes that we "should actively consider recommending the removal, in part or in full, of the requirement to give notification of Written Ministerial Statements on the sitting day before they are issued."[56]

71. The Government also proposes that the earliest time at which written ministerial statements may be made should be brought forward from 9.30 am to 7 am. The Government's evidence made it clear that such a change was intended to improve the chances of such statements being reported by the media, explaining that "announcements made after 9.30 am are less likely to generate significant media interest than those that are made earlier in the morning."[57] The Leader of the House explained in oral evidence that "the intention is for the Government to have access to the media in a way that is unconstrained by the current 9.30 am publication of WMSs."[58] We are certain that this change would not be in the interests of backbench Members. Rt Hon Nick Raynsford agreed, saying that:

It's clearly completely in the interest of the Government and it would infuriate Members who found themselves listening to the Today programme and heard something that they had had no opportunity to question.[59]

72. We do not accept that the Government's desire for access to the morning media should carry more weight than the right of backbenchers to have the opportunity to scrutinise Government announcements. It is inevitable that changing the earliest time at which written statements may be made would lead to Members being questioned by constituents and the media on statements they had not had a chance to read. Although select committees routinely release their reports early in the morning (often at 12.01 am), we do not believe that this is a comparable case. Select committees usually give notice of the publication of their reports in two different ways: by means of a vote entry on the day on which the Committee formally agrees the report, and by press release, often issued days before publication. We do not accept that Members would benefit from the removal, in full or in part, of the requirement for the Government to give notice that a statement will be made. On the contrary, the Government should make every effort to give notice as far in advance as possible; in many cases, this will be earlier than the sitting day before the day on which the statement is to be made.

73. We believe that neither the removal of the requirement to give notice of written ministerial statements nor the making of such statements at 7 am would be in the interests of the House and its backbenchers. We therefore recommend that the earliest time at which written ministerial statements are released remain 9.30 am and that the requirement to give notice of such statements be retained. We accept that there is a difficulty on non-sitting Fridays and we recommend that the Government be able to give notice on a non-sitting Friday, between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm, of its intention to make a written statement on the following sitting day. We urge the Government to make every effort to give notice as early as possible of its intention to make a written statement.

Provision of written ministerial statements to Members electronically

74. Written ministerial statements are sent by Departments to the House of Commons library when they are made. Statements are made at various times throughout the day and it can therefore be difficult for Members, especially when they are not in the House, to know that a statement has been made. Written statements are available to Members in hard copy from the Vote Office and electronically on an intranet page updated by the House of Commons Library when a statement is received.

75. Some Members said that they would welcome a system of electronic delivery of statements to Members. Paul Flynn MP told us that this "would be a great improvement".[60] The Shadow Leader of the House suggested that "the moment a written or oral statement is made or laid, it should be e-mailed immediately to every single Member".[61] We are not persuaded that all Members wish to receive every written ministerial statement by e-mail. We do, however, believe that many Members would welcome the ability to choose to receive electronic notification of some or all written ministerial statements.

76. An alternative would be to allow Members to opt-in to an RSS feed[62] that would alert them to the publication of each statement. Members wishing to access written statements electronically could opt-in to the feed. In order for Members to be able to access statements via an RSS feed, the statements themselves would have to be published on the internet (rather than on the intranet, as at present). Publication on the internet would also allow Members to access statements via iPhones and BlackBerries.

77. It is sometimes difficult for Members to know that a written ministerial statement has been made. We recommend that written ministerial statements be published on the Parliamentary website and that an RSS feed be provided so that Members who so choose can be alerted to their publication.

49   Standing Order No. 22A Back

50   Q87 Back

51   Q92 Back

52   Q89 Back

53   Erskine May, 23rd edition (London, 2004), p. 360 Back

54   Ev 26 Back

55   Ev 27 Back

56   Ev 27 Back

57   Ev 27 Back

58   Q31 Back

59   Q98 Back

60   Q97 Back

61   Q44 Back

62   An RSS feed allows users to view the latest content from a website through a feed reader rather than having to visit the website itself to check for updates. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 2 February 2011