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

Memorandum submitted by the Principal Clerk, Table Office (P30, 2010-11)

1.  The Procedure Committee has asked for a note to follow up the informal discussion on 27 October. I share the Committee's interest in restoring questions as an effective tool for backbench Members to press for action or seek information and as a key element of the House's scrutiny function.


2.  In the week beginning 18 October 2010 the number of questions handled by the Table Office was:

Ordinary Written1,018
Named Day395
Carded 551
total questions2,770

3.  In the last parliamentary session of normal length, the figures were:

Number of Questions which appeared on the Order Paper:
for written answer on a named day8,907
for ordinary written answer47,285
Total for written answer56,192
for oral answer4,113
number reached for answer in the House 1,314
Total number of Questions60,305
average per sitting day440
of which for written answer410

4.  At present 461 Members have e-tabling accounts and 263 Members used this method in October. Of the 5,114 Questions for written answer since 11 October to the end of the month, 2,366 were e-tabled—that is 46% of the total or, divided by 13 sitting days, 182 per day.


5.  The cost of asking questions has never been fully determined. The Government calculates the average cost of answering a question at £425 for an oral and £154 for a written (20 January 2010 15WS). There are substantial staff costs in processing questions as well as significant printing costs. Each question is retyped, printed at least twice and then printed with the answer in Hansard. We are seeking to reduce the printing costs as part of the savings programme initiated by the House of Commons Commission. The cost of publishing early day motions—including printing, staff time and technical support—was recently estimated at approximately £1 million in financial year 2009-10—of which printing alone accounts for some £776k.

6.  On the same basis, we have made a rough estimate of the cost of Questions: £1,360,000 for staff and £2,932,000 for printing, making a total of £4.5million in FY 2009/10. Dividing this by the total number of questions for the last full parliamentary session (2008-09)—some 60,000—this produces a unit cost of £75. This is only illustrative because the amount of staff work required differs between orals and writtens.


7.  The Committee has asked whether it would be possible to limit to ten the number of questions which could be tabled electronically each day.

8.  No Member regularly tables more than 10 every day. Recently one Member tabled 120 questions via e-tabling between 11 and 28 October at an average of 9.2 per sitting day. On Monday 26 October, 13 Members tabled more than 10 questions via e-tabling and a further 2 tabled precisely 10. So a quota of 10 would have affected 13 Members and reduced the number of questions via e-tabling that day by 90.

9.  A daily limit of 10 questions submitted by e-tabling is technically possible and would require some minor development work. In cases of immediate need it would always be possible for a Member to table further questions in person in the Table Office. Some Members do e-table their orals and in a few cases this might be up to ten orals sent to the Table Office on one day. To avoid inconveniencing such Members, a notice could be included on the e-tabling system asking for the limit to be lifted to enable them to clear a batch of oral questions.


10.  The service provided to Members attending in person in the Table Office could be improved if there was a cut-off time for e-tabling say 6.00pm each sitting day (and 1.00pm on Fridays). After that time, only questions tabled in person in the Office would be printed the following day. Such a standard limit, applying on all days, might also give greater clarity to Members—compared with the "rise of the House" which varies from day to day. A similar cut-off time for added names to EDMs would also be helpful. Members could still table new EDMs, and add names to EDMs tabled that day, up to the rise of the House.

11.   Another problem with e-tabling is the doubt whether the Member has actually authorised his or her staff to initiate a parliamentary proceeding or whether this is being done without authorisation by people who are not elected. A higher degree of authentication would be needed to ensure the integrity of this proceeding.

Andrew Kennon
Principal Clerk, Table Office

November 2010

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