Procedure Committee

Session 2008-09, 16 July 2009


Written Parliamentary Questions

The system of Written Parliamentary Questions must be strengthened if it is to remain a valid and vital scrutiny tool for Members of Parliament.

The House of Commons Procedure Committee today publishes a report on Written Parliamentary Questions, proposing revisions to the existing scheme that would:

• help Members to table more effective questions

• allow questions to be tabled and processed quickly and efficiently

• introduce monitoring of the timeliness and quality of answers

An inquiry conducted by the Committee over the course of two years concluded that action needed to be taken to ensure that the system of written parliamentary questions was able to cope with the ever increasing number of questions being tabled by Members. In particular, it was vital to ensure that Government Departments had both the resources to respond to questions promptly and a commitment to answering questions fairly and in full.

The Committee’s conclusions echo recent rulings by the Speaker stressing the importance of timely responses to written questions.

The Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon Greg Knight MP said: “The use of Written Parliamentary Questions is vital to the scrutiny of Government and it would be wrong in principle to restrict the number of questions that Members can ask. However, the continuing increase in the number of questions asked has placed strain on systems both in parliament and government. Action must be taken to ensure that these systems are able to handle this level of questioning.

“We believe that many parts of the existing system work well and are valued by Members. As such, we have sought to improve and reform the existing system before considering more radical alternatives. We will evaluate the effects of these changes to see whether we need to return to this topic and make further recommendations.

“What we are asking for is a greater appreciation of the responsibilities linked to written parliamentary questions. Members have a duty to use questions appropriately and to take full responsibility for questions tabled in their name. The Government has a responsibility to provide full and prompt answers to questions, providing responses that meet the spirit of the question, rather than fulfilling only a very narrow interpretation.”

In the Report, the Procedure Committee proposes that it takes on, for an experimental one year period, the role of monitoring unsatisfactory answers referred to the Committee by Members. The Committee also intends to evaluate the performance of Departments in answering questions promptly.

“There is widespread concern that many answers are late, unsatisfactory, or both, and that a WPQ might receive a less complete answer than an FoI request. By volunteering the Committee to take on a monitoring role, we hope to be able to assess more clearly the extent of the problem, and to bring pressure to bear in cases of particularly disappointing performance.  We also expect Government departments to explain the reasons for a delay where an answer cannot be given on the day requested.”

The report is published today as the Third Report from the Procedure Committee, Written Parliamentary Questions, HC 859, Session 2008-09.

Copies of the Report may be purchased in The Stationery Office Bookshops or ordered from The Stationery Office by telephone (08457 023474).

Notes

Written Parliamentary Questions are used by Members of Parliament to try to extract more detailed information from the Government than would be available from an oral question. Written questions are also used to press for action and to follow up answers to previous questions.

The total number of Written Parliamentary Questions tabled has continued to rise steadily throughout recent years. The average number of written questions appearing on the notice paper each day increased from 414 in 2007 to 434 in 2008, and had reached 514 by March 2009. This is a significant rise from the average figure of about 350 written parliamentary questions per day that persisted between 2002 and 2005.

Members can table an unlimited number of ‘Ordinary’ written questions. These questions do not have to be answered on a specific date.

Members have a fixed daily quota of five ‘Named Day’ questions each. These questions must receive an answer on the date specified by the Member, which must be at least three days after the date on which the question was tabled.

Written questions can be tabled in person in the House of Commons Table Office, or submitted remotely through the ‘e-tabling’ system. Table Office Clerks assess each question to ensure it meets the guidelines laid down by the House for written parliamentary questions, and will help Members to adapt their question if the original question is not deemed to be ‘in order’.

Once tabled, written questions are printed and sent to the relevant government department for answer. When received, answers are printed in Hansard.