Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny: Various items - Procedure Committee Contents

4  Written parliamentary questions


33. In 2008-09 our predecessor Committee published a report on Written Parliamentary Questions.[21] The inquiry was undertaken against a background of a rising number of written parliamentary questions (WPQs) and concerns over the pressure this placed on the resources of both Parliament and Government, with consequent effects upon the quality and timeliness of answers. The Committee concluded that the use of WPQs is vital to the scrutiny of Government and rejected the placing of restrictions on the number of questions Members could ask or stronger authentication requirements for e-tabling. The Committee recommended that Members should not use questions where the information could be obtained in another way; that an earlier cut-off be introduced for e-tabled questions (7.00 pm on Monday and Tuesdays, 6.00 pm on Wednesday and Thursdays and 2.30 pm on Fridays); and that Members should regularly be reminded that they are personally and directly responsible for WPQs which are proceedings in Parliament.

34. The Committee undertook to examine the subject again if these changes were insufficient to address the problems identified in the system. In fact, since the House has not been given an opportunity to endorse our predecessor's report, the changes have not been implemented and in the current Parliament the number of questions tabled has continued at record levels. There is no sign of the number falling as new Members become acquainted with the procedures of the House. We therefore decided that it was time to look at this issue again.

Number of questions

35. In the week beginning 24 January 2011 the number of questions handled by the Table Office was:
Ordinary Written1,113
Named Day280
Carded 313
total questions2,536

This includes questions processed by the Table Office but not printed, either because they could not be brought into order that week ("carded" questions)[22] or, in the case of oral questions, they were not successful in the shuffle.[23]

36. Such figures indicate that we are on course to continue the record levels which had been reached when our predecessors expressed concern. In 2008-09, the most recent parliamentary session of normal length, the total number of questions printed (not including carded questions or unsuccessful orals) was as follows:
Number of Questions which appeared on the Order Paper:
for written answer on a named day 8,907
for ordinary written answer 47,285
Total for written answer 56,192
for oral answer 4,113
number reached for answer in the House 1,314
Total number of Questions 60,305
average per sitting day 440
of which for written answer 410

Value of parliamentary questions

37. The heavy use made by Members of written parliamentary questions indicates the value placed on them as a form of parliamentary scrutiny. Despite new ways for the public to access information through Freedom of Information requests or the internet, parliamentary questions remain a unique way in which Members can ask for government information quickly, directly and in a non-bureaucratic way, in the knowledge that their request is public, that the response will be seen by a Minister and that the information provided will be published openly in a readily accessible way. WPQs play an important role in keeping departments informed of rising issues by registering and forcing a response to issues which Members raise on either a national or smaller scale.

38. There are concerns, however, that the rise in the number of questions threatens to undermine the value and effectiveness of this valuable form of parliamentary scrutiny. For Members, the danger is that good sharp questions may get swamped by the sheer volume of questions published. For Ministers and departmental staff, excessive numbers of questions impose a disproportionate burden on time and resources. For the House and the services it offers to Members, the Table Office, despite increases in staff, has less time to advise Members on individual questions and there is greater room for error in misprinting questions or misunderstanding a Member's intentions.

39. There is also the cost. Each question involves significant costs both to the House and to Government departments. The House Service estimates the average cost of processing a question as £44 and of reporting the answer of £36, giving a total unit cost of £80 per question which includes direct staff and staff-related costs and printing costs.[24] There is also the cost to departments of answering the question which the Government calculates as £425 for an oral and £154 for a written.[25] In sum each oral question may be estimated as costing £525 and each written question over £230 on average. Taking the figures from session 2008-09, that is an approximate cost per sitting day of over £110,000. Clearly, much of this is a fixed cost and the total would not decrease proportionately as the number of questions fell but it illustrates the size of the overall burden of a very expensive system of extracting information. Whilst we do not believe that scrutiny should be driven by considerations of resource allocations alone, we also recognise that in the current economic climate the cost of parliamentary questions can only be justified by their effectiveness, both individually and as a category of parliamentary action.

40. Finally, there is a perception that some questions, especially those submitted electronically, are devised and tabled by Members' staff without always the explicit approval of Members which in itself reduces the significance of the process. In the last inquiry into this subject by our predecessor Committee, the then Leader of the House, Jack Straw MP, argued that such questions were making a significant contribution to the rise in the number of questions[26] and the Table Office reported that:

the Office has the impression that Members may on occasions countenance the tabling of Questions in their name of whose content they have little or no knowledge, since when asked to discuss Questions about which there is a problem it is evident that they are seeing them for the first time. On other occasions the content is such that it is hard to believe that it could have been seen and approved by a Member.[27]

Although we appreciate that individual Members may adopt their own, quite legitimate, arrangements for the involvement of staff in parliamentary questions, written parliamentary questions are proceedings in Parliament and as such should only be initiated by Members.

41. For all these reasons, we conclude that it is time to ensure that there are fewer, better questions tabled in the House and that these are processed and answered in the most efficient way. In an internet age there are many other sources of information and much greater access to government data than in the past. The role that parliamentary questions now fill may therefore be narrower than before and a restriction on the number of questions that a Member might ask would be less likely to have a detrimental effect in terms of the quantity or type of information made available by Government. We believe that every question should have the maximum impact and the system should be designed to elicit the information sought by the Member with the greatest efficiency. The recommendations that follow are designed to boost the effectiveness of parliamentary questions as a key part of the scrutiny of Government by Members of the House.

Options for change

42. For the reasons set out above as to the value of WPQs as part of parliamentary scrutiny, we have not considered the more radical and restrictive options for change such as abolishing WPQs altogether, abolishing ordinary written questions but retaining named day questions, restricting the opportunities for Members to delegate responsibility for questions to others or making changes to oral questions in order to release resources to handle written questions. Nor, at the other extreme, do we think it would be sensible to leave the system as it is. Other more acceptable options could be: setting a quality threshold; introducing quotas; or changing deadlines for tabling. Of these, whilst setting a quality threshold so that only effective questions were tabled might be desirable, we decided that it would be difficult to implement because of its subjective nature. We therefore considered the options of quotas and deadlines which we have explored in more detail.

43. We have borne in mind that questions may be submitted to the Table Office for tabling by a variety of means. The previous Procedure Committee report drew a distinction between questions tabled in person or by post and those submitted by secure e-tabling. E-tabling is undoubtedly popular and a useful facility for Members, especially when away from the House. Of the 485 Members who now have e-tabling accounts, 284 Members used this method in January 2011. A significant number of questions are delivered to the Table Office in this way. Of the 4,936 questions for ordinary written answer in November 2010, 3,023 were e-tabled - that is just over 60% of the total or 151 per sitting day. We do not believe that the e-tabling facility should be withdrawn, nor do we believe that questions tabled in this way are less valid than other questions. We do, however, consider that this facility can be viewed separately from other means by which Members may table questions in hard copy direct to the Table Office and that restrictions on e-tabling could have a significant impact on the number of questions tabled. Our recommendations therefore concentrate on restrictions applying only to written questions tabled electronically.


44. Quotas are already in use for tabling parliamentary questions. There is a limit of one per departmental slot on the number of oral questions which a Member may enter into the shuffle for each Question Time and also a quota of five named day questions tabled on any sitting day which was introduced as a result of a previous Procedure Committee report.[28] The quota principle could be extended to electronically-tabled written questions more generally, operating on a daily, weekly, monthly or sessional basis. This would reduce the number of questions overall and would, we hope, lead to Members being more selective about the questions they do table, leading to an improvement in quality and effectiveness.

45. The familiarity of the quota system which already operates might make an extension to cover ordinary written questions acceptable to many Members, if not all, although we recognise that this would depend upon the level at which the quota was set. Possible disadvantages would include the complexity of the system if a timeframe other than a daily quota was chosen and the possibility that a quota system might lead to a shadow market in trading quotas between Members. It could also encourage portmanteau or multi-part questions. Nevertheless, we believe that a limit placed on written questions tabled electronically would not be so restrictive that it impaired the ability of Members to scrutinise the Government effectively, especially as it would leave open the possibility of tabling crucial questions in person if the need arises.


46. All questions submitted by Members are processed by the Table Office on the day on which they are tabled, subject to deadlines set out in the Standing Orders. In the report cited earlier, our predecessor Committee recommended earlier cut-off times for tabling questions electronically, leaving it open to a Member to table a pressing question in person later in the day. At present Members may table WPQs in the Table Office or via e-tabling until half an hour after the moment of interruption or until the rising of the House, whichever is the earlier. Any questions received via either method after these times are held over to the following day. Bringing forward the deadlines for e-tabling would lift the immediate pressure on the Table Office staff to deal with questions late into the evening with consequent gains for Members in terms of the attention their questions received. It may also reduce the numbers of questions but perhaps not substantially because questions received after the deadline would simply be processed the next morning (in the absence of any further change) and the possibility remains that Members may drop off large quantities of questions in the Table Office after the e-tabling deadline which would require processing that same day.


47. A combination of quotas and deadlines would enhance the effectiveness of these measures in controlling the growth of parliamentary questions whilst minimising the inconvenience caused to Members of any changes. We asked the Table Office to calculate for us the projected effect of a daily quota of five e-tabled written questions (named day or ordinary writtens) combined with a cut-off time for e-tabling of 7.00 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays and 6.00 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The Table Office told us that it would "significantly reduce the number of WPQs e-tabled".[29] Taking one day as an example, on Monday 31 January 2011, 93 WPQs from 13 Members would not have been tabled by this means.

48. The Table Office also told us that these measures might lead to WPQs being tabled earlier in the day which would be helpful to Members since the Clerks would be able to address issues such as sub judice more rapidly, leading to fewer questions being held over for that reason until the following day.[30] The implementation costs were estimated at £3,500 including VAT for changes to the e-tabling system and some costs from the revision of guidance on tabling WPQs. Against this could be offset the savings to be made from a reduction in the number of WPQs printed and answered.

49. We also asked the Table Office to look at a consistent cut-off time for e-tabled WPQs from Monday to Thursday. They pointed to the benefits to Members of reducing the complexity of the rules and suggested that in order to avoid a situation on Thursdays where the cut-off time for e-tabled questions fell after the cut-off for questions tabled in the office, the latest possible uniform time from Monday to Thursday would be 6.30 pm.[31]

The Committee's recommendations

50. We recognise that there are disadvantages, as well as advantages, to Members in adopting the restrictions outlined above. Their effect seems likely to reduce the number of WPQs, although we accept that the extent of this reduction cannot be predicted with any accuracy and would depend to some extent on changes in Members' behaviour. Nevertheless, we believe that the problem is such that it has to be tackled. We propose no alterations to the ability of a Member to table WPQs in the Table Office in person or by post. We recommend, however, that for an experimental period of three months the deadline for submitting written parliamentary questions electronically be set at 6.30 pm every sitting day from Monday to Thursday and 2.30 pm on sitting Fridays and that a daily quota of five e-tabled written questions (named day or ordinary written) be imposed on Members. At the end of the trial period, we undertake to assess the impact of the changes on Members and others involved or interested in the parliamentary questions process and to recommend either its continuation or abandonment.

51. We recognise that different rules should apply during periods when the House is not sitting. A strict quota of five questions per sitting day would mean that during recesses Members were restricted to that number for the whole of the non-sitting period because all questions submitted during recesses are treated as if tabled on the next sitting day.[32] We do not consider that this would be acceptable to Members or good for parliamentary scrutiny. We therefore recommend that the quota restriction be lifted on the first sitting day following a recess of a week or more.

52. There is the possibility that the changes we have outlined above might lead to a more questions being tabled in the later evening if Members respond to the e-tabling deadlines and quotas by delivering bundles of questions in person or by using another Member as a proxy just before the moment of interruption. The Table Office currently exercises its discretion on occasion to hold over some ordinary written questions to the following day on particularly busy days. We would hope that this would only occur on very rare occasions but we recognise the need for this discretion and we support the continuation of its use when absolutely essential.

Answers to written parliamentary questions

53. Much of our predecessor Committee's report was concerned with the answers to written parliamentary questions. We are currently undertaking a monitoring exercise to explore how widespread dissatisfaction is with answers received from departments and the lateness of answers. We will report the results of that experiment in due course.

54. The report also recommended that departments should provide sessional statistics in a standard format on the time taken to respond to WPQs. The Government accepted the recommendation, with effect from Session 2009-10.[33] It also undertook to provide explanatory memoranda with the statistics addressing "general factors which have an overall effect on a department's performance, such as a very large volume of questions being tabled on the same subject, rather than giving reasons for each individual delay". We finally received the statistics relating to the session which ended in April 2010 in February 2011.

55. We deprecate the delay in providing statistics on the performance of departments in responding to WPQs in the previous session. This has much reduced the usefulness of the data which we intend to send to the relevant departmental select committees to inform their scrutiny of departments as well as to use for our own purposes of monitoring WPQs. We understand from the Leader of the House that the change in administration and the rules regarding access to a previous administration's papers has been a contributory factor in the delay.[34] This will not apply in the preparation of the statistics relating to the current session. We recommend that the Leader of the House ensure that the sessional statistics on WPQs for the current session are provided to this Committee within three months of the end of the Queen's Speech at the start of the subsequent session.

56. In this inquiry we briefly considered the efficiency of the delivery of answers to Members. At the moment, this is done by individual departments sending messengers to the House with hard copy and it seemed to us that it would be of benefit to Members to receive answers electronically. A pilot project is currently underway within Parliament which could lead to this outcome in the near future. We look forward to its successful implementation. In the meantime, we see no reason why departments should not email answers direct to the Member at the same time as the answers are delivered in the conventional way to the House for processing. We recommend that the Government instruct all departments that the answers to written parliamentary questions be sent by email to the Member concerned at the same time as the answer is delivered to the House.

21   Third Report from the Procedure Committee, Written Parliamentary Questions, Session 2008-09 (HC 859) Back

22   So-called because the Table Office sends a card to the Member concerned asking them to call in to the office to discuss the question Back

23   The figures include oral questions to the Prime Minister and "topical" questions to other departments which in general require less attention from Table Office than other questions.  Back

24   HC Deb, 30 November 2010, c732W Back

25   HC Deb, 20 January 2010, 15WS Back

26   HC 859, Session 2008-09, Q2 Back

27   HC 859, Session 2008-09, Ev 44 Back

28   Third Report from the Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions, Session 2001-02 (HC 622) Back

29   Ev 2 Back

30   Ev 2. The resolution of the House of 15 November 2001 prevents questions being asked about matters which are currently before the courts. Checks are necessary by the Table Office where questions appear to be in possible breach of this rule. Back

31   Ev 3 Back

32   Standing Orders provide for possible tabling days in September during a long recess, but these have been superseded by the reintroduction of September sittings. Back

33   First Special Report from the Procedure Committee, Written Parliamentary Questions: Government Response to the Committee's Third Report of Session 2008-09, Session 2009-10 (HC 129) Back

34   Letter from the Leader of the House, 17 February 2011, published 2 March 2011 Back

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