Ministerial Statements

Memorandum submitted by the Government (October 2010)

Ministerial Statements

Ministerial Statements to the House of Commons

Memorandum submitted by the Government

Introduction

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 matter.

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. [1] 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. [2] 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.

Oral statements

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. [3] 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. [4] 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; or

(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. [5]

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.

Written Ministerial Statements

9. Written Ministerial Statements (WMSs) were established in 2002, following a recommendation from the Procedure Committee. [6] 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 was retained. [7]

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. [8] 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. [9]

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 of WMSs.

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 statement-subject to the business managers’ agreement-or deferring the announcement to a later date. There is no requirement to give notice of a WMS in the House of Lords.

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 the department.

14. In cases where a department seeks to make an oral statement, but permission is not given on the day-a 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 importance-then 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. [10] 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.

Protocol and sanctions

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 , 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 departments. [11]

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

October 2010


[1] Cabinet Office, May 2010, paragraph 9.1.

[2] Paragraph 9.3.

[3] Ministerial Code , paragraph 9.2, and Guide to Parliamentary Work (Cabinet Office, May 2010), paragraph 8.7.

[4] 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

[5] Rebuilding the House , First Report from the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, Session 2008–09 (HC 1117), paragraph 187.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[8]

[9] Guide to Parliamentary Work (Cabinet Office, May 2010), paragraph 8.29.

[10] In the 13 weeks in which the House sits on Friday, then this interval is reduced to 3½ days .

[11] 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).