Memorandum submitted by the Government
(P 26, 2010-11)|
1. This memorandum sets out the Government's
proposals for reform of the procedure for making ministerial statements
to the House of Commons, following the debate in the House initiated
by the Backbench Business Committee on 20 July 2010 and the House's
decision that the Procedure Committee should inquire into the
2. Every Government has made important announcements
outside Parliament. There will inevitably be occasions when there
is a compelling need to make an announcement when Parliament is
not sitting. This Government believes in strengthening Parliament
and returning it to the centre of national debate. In order to
do so, the House needs to regain its ability to set the agenda
of the day by encouraging the Government to make major statements
to the House in the first instance. To do this, the House should
consider making the procedure for statements more flexible, without
losing the discipline that it enforces on Government.
3. The Ministerial Code
requires that, when Parliament is in session, the most important
announcements of Government policy should be made in the first
instance, in Parliament.
Ministers take this requirement seriously. From the beginning
of the current Session to the end of the September sitting, the
Government made 28 oral statements and 347 written ministerial
statements. This represents an average of 2.8 oral statements
per sitting week and 8.3 written statements per sitting day.
4. The Ministerial Code also requires Ministers
to make every effort to avoid making significant announcements
on the last day before a recess.
This is particularly important on the last day before the summer
recess, and the Office of the Leader of the House reminds departments
of this requirement in July each year. On the last day before
the summer recess in 2010, there were 17 written ministerial statements,
compared with 33 in 2009 and 30 in 2008. Though statements on
the last day before the recess should be avoided, it is usually
preferable to make a statement to the House at the last available
opportunity than to make it outside Parliament at the beginning
of the recess.
5. In deciding whether to make an oral statement
to the House, the Government tries to balance the need to make
the statement against the need to protect time for the consideration
of the main business of the day's sitting. It would clearly not
be in the House's interests for speaking time in the main debates
to be severely curtailed by multiple, lengthy statements. In order
to protect the House's time, requests from Ministers to make an
oral statement must be approved by the Leader of the House, the
Chief Whip, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister.
Requests from departments to make an oral statement are sometimes
refused because of the impact the statement would have on the
business of the House.
The Government often has to make difficult choices between giving
Members the opportunity to question a Minister on a new announcement
and allowing time for speeches in the main debate.
6. During the current Session (up to and including
the September Sitting), time taken for a statement and subsequent
questions has ranged from 28 minutes to one hour and 22 minutes,
with an average of 49 minutes. Two-thirds of statements in this
Session have taken between half an hour and an hour.
Measures to reduce the impact of statements on the other business
of the House would address the most significant obstacle to making
oral statements. The Committee might consider such measures as:
- (a) introducing a new category of time-limited
statements for some less significant issues, the use of which
would be agreed with the Speaker in advance, at the request of
the relevant Minister. This might involve a shorter time limit
on the statement itself, as well as on the subsequent questioning;
- (b) allowing Ministers the option of appearing
in the Chamber to respond to questions on a written ministerial
statement which had been made earlier in the day without repeating
the whole substance of the statement, creating a half-way house
between a full oral statement and a WMS to be used, as with the
current arrangements for statements, at the Minister's initiative;
- (c) introducing a general time-limit on all
statements and subsequent questions, with certain exceptions,
such as the Budget Statement.
7. The Select Committee on Reform of the House
of Commons concluded that
- There is plainly room for different procedures
designed to give an opportunity for a more thorough form of parliamentary
scrutiny, without undermining a Minister's right to make a statement
and respond to questions on it; and statements could well be taken
at a different point in the parliamentary day.
8. It is important for both Ministers and other
Members to have a degree of certainty about the pattern of the
sitting day and consistency is therefore an important consideration.
The Government would not therefore favour a variable time for
making statements. The current time for making statements, immediately
after questions, means that they are made at a time when both
the Chamber itself and the galleries are well-attended.
9. Written Ministerial Statements (WMSs) were
established in 2002, following a recommendation from the Procedure
The procedure was devised as an alternative to the "planted"
or "inspired" question, but the requirement to give
notice before the rise of the House on the previous sitting day
10. At the same time as the House agreed to the
introduction of WMSs, it agreed to bring forward the earliest
time for delivering written answers to 9.30 am. This rule applies
equally to WMSs, which should normally be delivered to the Vote
Office at 9.30 am.
Where a statement has to be deferred till the afternoon, the department
should notify the chair of the relevant select committee and any
other member with an interest.
The notice period for WMSs
11. 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
12. A Minister is not required to make a WMS
of which notice has been given, but Ministers are understandably
reluctant to give notice unless they are confident that the statement
will go ahead, since giving notice of a statement which is not
made generates speculation about what the content of the statement
might have been. However, once the House has risen a department
which has not given notice of a WMS is faced with a choice between
making an oral statementsubject to the business managers'
agreementor deferring the announcement to a later date.
There is no requirement to give notice of a WMS in the House of
13. For many written statements, giving notice
the night before presents no difficulty. However, in cases where
the announcement is uncertain, then departments must evaluate
the relative risk of giving notice and failing to deliver the
statement, and not giving notice and being unable to make the
announcement to the House. This might happen, for example, where
ministerial approval was expected imminently but had not yet been
granted, or where the statement was contingent on events outside
14. In cases where a department seeks to make
an oral statement, but permission is not given on the daya
decision which is usually taken to protect the time for debate
on the main business, particularly where it is an issue to which
the Opposition attach importancethen the department no
longer has the option to make a WMS.
15. The notice requirement creates particular
difficulties for announcements on a Monday. In most sitting weeks
it prevents the Government from making a written statement about
anything which happens between the rise of the House on Thursday
evening, usually 6.30 pm, and 9.30 am on Tuesday. This means that
there is usually a period of 4½ days every sitting week when
the Government cannot make written statements to the House relating
to new developments.
The choice is between an oral statement on Monday, a WMS on Tuesday,
or an announcement outside Parliament.
16. This does not just relate to new events between
Thursday night and Tuesday morning. It also makes it difficult
for the Government to make planned policy announcements to the
House on a Monday. Giving notice on Thursday alerts the media
to the fact that an announcement is planned on Monday morning
and increases the risk that media speculation over the weekend
might require a response from Government.
17. Notice of WMSs does not give Members significant
advance notice of a statement since the notice is published on
the Order Paper only around two hours before the statement is
made. Rather, it serves to alert Members to statements which,
by the time most Members have picked up the Vote Bundle, are immediately
imminent. There are other methods of advertising WMSs which would
not require the Government to give notice on the previous sitting
day. They might include use of the annunciator, the internet and
intranet, group e-mails and notices posted in the division lobbies,
at Vote Office counters and elsewhere around the Estate. The Government
therefore conclude that the Committee 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.
Timing of WMSs
18. A second issue in relation to the delivery
of WMSs is their timing. Announcements made after 9.30 am are
less likely to generate significant media interest than those
that are made earlier in the morning. In some cases, where an
announcement is market-sensitive, the Government must make it
at 7 am when the markets open. The delivery time effectively prevents
the Government from making such announcements to the House.
19. The House applies no such restriction to
select committees, which now routinely publish their reports to
the House at one minute past midnight, allowing them to be covered
in the same day's newspapers and on early-morning broadcast news.
This practice has not met with any significant objections from
Members or from the House as a whole. Bringing forward the time
at which WMSs can be delivered in the morning would allow the
Government to make announcements to the House at a time which
was compatible with the effective communication of its message
to the wider public and, in certain specific cases, its duties
in respect of the financial markets. There might also be a case
for allowing WMSs to be issued later in the sitting day, where
the circumstances warranted it, provided that they were not issued
so late that Members were denied a chance to respond while the
House was still sitting.
20. The Committee has indicated that it will
consider the establishment of a protocol for the release of information
by Ministers, and at what sanctions, if any, in cases where a
Minister fails to observe such a protocol.
21. The current protocol is the one set out in
the Ministerial Code (referred to in paragraph 3, above), that
when Parliament is in session, the most important announcements
of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in
Parliament. The question of what constitute "the most important
announcements" is a matter for judgement on a case-by-case
basis. There are some routine or recurring events where it is
the established practice that a statement is made to the House
where possible. They include, for example, statements before and
after European Council meetings; statements made on publication
of the annual reports of a wide range of public bodies and regular
statements on a variety of policies which are specific to individual
22. However, the range of issues which may be
the subject of statements mean that beyond these examples of recurring
events it is difficult to come up with a hard set of objective
criteria which would capture every occasion on which a statement
should be made. The decision is to some extent a political one,
and the decision to make a statement will be influenced by the
current political importance of the topic in question.
23. There is already a range of options available
to the House where Members feel that a Minister has failed to
make a statement on an important issue. The Speaker can decide
to grant an urgent question on the application of any Member if,
in his opinion, a Minister has declined to make an oral statement
on an urgent matter of public importance. It is also open to any
departmental select committee to examine the handling of a specific
announcement from its department, and to call the Minister to
give evidence. The Backbench Business Committee can schedule debates
on any issue, including government announcements which have not
been the subject of an oral statement, and individual backbenchers
can table questions and initiate adjournment debates.
Leader of the House of Commons
1 Cabinet Office, May 2010, paragraph 9.1. Back
Paragraph 9.3. Back
Ministerial Code, paragraph 9.2, and Guide to Parliamentary
Work (Cabinet Office, May 2010), paragraph 8.7. Back
Figures from the Sessional Diary, based on statements made up
to and including the end of the September sitting on Thursday
16 September 2010. The statement and subsequent questions on the
Comprehensive Spending Review, which took place on Wednesday 20
October 2010, lasted two hours and 32 minutes Back
Rebuilding the House, First Report from the Select Committee
on Reform of the House of Commons, Session 2008-09 (HC 1117),
paragraph 187. Back
Third Report of Session 2001-02, Parliamentary Questions,
HC 622, pp. 24-25. The recommendation was endorsed by the Select
Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons in its Second
Report of Session 2001-02, Modernisation of the House of Commons:
A Reform Programme, HC 1168, paragraph 79. Back
Under this procedure, a Member acting on the Minister's behalf
tabled a question for written answer on the next sitting day.
Such questions were printed with the other questions for written
answer the following day, but identified on the Notice Paper by
a blind P. Back
Previously, the earliest time at which written answers could be
submitted was the end of question time in the House (or the end
of Prayers on a Friday). In 2001-02, this was 3.30 pm from Monday
to Wednesday, 11.30 am on Thursday and 9.35am on Friday.
Guide to Parliamentary Work (Cabinet Office, May 2010),
paragraph 8.29. Back
In the 13 weeks in which the House sits on Friday, then this interval
is reduced to 3½ days . Back
Examples include the status of coroners' inquests into the deaths
of British service personnel overseas (quarterly WMS by the Ministry
of Justice); the cost of the Government Car Service (annual WMS
by the Department for Transport); the use of control orders (quarterly
WMS by the Home Office); and the list of bills in the Queen's
Speech (annual WMS by the Leader of the House). Back