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.
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
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
Duncan Hames MP felt that "written statements are very unsatisfactory
for backbench MPs".
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
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.
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
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.
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." 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.
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."
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 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." 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.
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".
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".
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 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
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Erskine May, 23rd edition (London, 2004), p. 360 Back
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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