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

Memorandum submitted by the Principal Clerk, Table Office (P43, 2010-11)

1.  The Procedure Committee requested a note on:

  1. (a)  the likely effects on the number of Questions tabled and on the operation of the Table Office of:
    1.   introducing a daily quota of five; and
    2.   an earlier cut-off time,
  2.    for Questions tabled for written answer via the e-tabling system:
  3. (b)  the potential for Members to receive answers to parliamentary Questions for written answer (WPQs) by email; and
  4. (c)  Members' access to tools to monitor the receipt of answers.


2.  The Committee is considering the merits of a daily quota of five PQs tabled for written answer via the e-tabling system in combination with earlier cut-off times for e-tabling from Monday to Thursday. At present Members, often with assistance from their staff, may continue to table WPQs, either in the Table Office or via the e-tabling system, until half an hour after the moment of interruption or the rising of the House, whichever is earlier. These cut-off times are vary from day to day depending on the House's sitting times. Members may continue to bring WPQs into the Table Office after the cut-off if the House is still sitting and to e-table but these Questions are not tabled until the following day.

3.  A daily quota of five e-tabled Questions in combination with cut-off times for e-tabling at 7.00 pm on Mondays and Tuesday and 6.00 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays would significantly reduce the number of WPQs e-tabled. Taking Monday 29 November 2010 as a snapshot, had a quota of five been applied that day to ordinary written and named day questions tabled electronically, 219 WPQs would not have been tabled, affecting 25 Members. Any effect on the overall number of Questions tabled may be mitigated or offset by WPQs tabled on subsequent days or by other methods once the quota or cut-off time had been reached.

4.  At present Members may use the e-tabling system to submit WPQs at times when the House is in recess. As Questions may only be tabled on sitting days, all Questions received during recesses are treated as being tabled on the next sitting day. The effects of the quota would be particularly noticeable at these times as it would limit Members to e-tabling five Questions between the rise of the House and the next but one sitting day. It would be possible to apply the quota only during sitting periods. This would afford Members the convenience of unrestricted e-tabling at times when they less likely to be Westminster and do not have the option of tabling in person as the Table Office is not open.

5.  These measures in combination may increase the propensity for WPQs to be tabled earlier in the day. This would help the Table Office plan and structure its work more effectively, particularly the organisation of staff on duty during evenings and nights. In particular, the measures may reduce the frequency with which WPQs which could otherwise be tabled immediately are held over pending inquiries, such as those required to establish whether certain WPQs engage the House's sub judice resolution; something which Members often, and understandably, find frustrating.

6.  The average cost to the House of processing questions - including the printing of answers - is now estimated to be £80. These measures are not likely to reduce Table Office costs in the short term because staff who process WPQs at night are also engaged in other duties, such as the preparation and printing of the Order Paper for the following day, tabling Early Day Motions and processing added names to such Motions. They would still need to be available to process oral Questions and WPQs tabled by a member in person or sent in by post.

7.  A consistent cut-off time for e-tabled WPQs from Monday to Thursday, which the Committee also contemplates, would have the benefit of being easier to understand and communicate. It would also avoid adding a further degree of complexity to the web of tabling rules which already frustrates some. As the cut-off points for WPQs tabled other than via the e-tabling system would remain unchanged under the Committee's proposals, the latest possible uniform Monday to Thursday cut-off time would be 6.30 pm; if any later the cut-off for e-tabled WPQs would fall after that for other WPQs on Thursdays.

8.  Occasionally, on particularly busy days, the Table Office already holds over some ordinary written questions to the following day. This has happened twice since the House returned in October. It is hoped the introduction of an earlier cut-off for e-tabling would not affect the discretion of the Office to continue this practice when necessary.


9.  Implementing these measures would require some changes to be made to the e-tabling system itself. The cost of this work is estimated to be £3,500 including VAT. The work commissioned would establish variable daily quotas and cut-offs in the electronic system itself so that the size of the quota and the precise time of the cut-off could be varied in the future without the need for further development. These costs assume the proposed quota working in the same way as the existing quota for named day Questions, with no facility to stack Questions from day-to-day on the e-tabling system. There will also be some costs arising from the revision and publication of guidance on tabling WPQs. No other implementation costs are anticipated.

10.  The Table Office stands ready to assist in short-term experimentation or more permanent implementation and in monitoring of the effects of any changes arising from the Committee's deliberations. The Office does not at present record the times of day at which WPQs are tabled but is considering how to do so in order to establish baseline information against which the effects of any changes in deadlines and quotas can be measured.


11.  Process changes affecting oral questions in the same vein as those under consideration in respect of WPQs would serve the same purposes of reducing the administrative burden upon Members, their staff and House staff associated with tabling without impinging on the potential for effective scrutiny of the executive. One way of achieving this may be to bring forward the shuffle for each oral question time but to shuffle Members' names rather than their Questions. Members successful in the shuffle would then have up until the existing cut-off time for orals to table the Question they wished to ask. Only Members successful in the shuffle, the number of which varies between 8 and 25, would need to research and craft oral Questions. Each would be doing so knowing that their Question will reach the Order Paper, rather than hundreds of Members spending time and effort preparing Questions each day which are never asked. As the deadline for tabling Questions would not change, there should be no effect on the topicality of Questions while Members may benefit from earlier knowledge of their Chamber commitments.


12.  The delivery of answers to Members, and the means of that delivery, is the responsibility of the Government body providing the answer. Individual departments could provide email copies of answers. There have been several attempts over the last decade to make electronic delivery of answers to Parliament routine. For the most part these have been frustrated by the complexity of bringing together such a large number of answering bodies in a single framework. The House itself has now taken the initiative. Work designed to improve the efficiency of the administration of printing and publishing answers offers the potential for routine electronic delivery of answers to Members.


13.  The Committee also asked for Members to have access to the Table Office's tools to check whether WPQs had been answered. The Committee may have in mind the reports on unanswered questions which are available to all those with access to the parliamentary network. These can be found on the parliamentary intranet on the Parliamentary Information Management System homepage at

14.  There are two such reports which provide real time information on unanswered questions, one breaking the information down by Department, and a second, "Tabled Questions", which provides a list of questions tabled by a Member but not yet answered regardless of the Minister to which the question was directed. The Table Office has no tools to monitor unanswered questions which are not available to Members.

Andrew Kennon
Principal Clerk, Table Office

December 2010

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