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Any MP (other than a minister or, by convention, the Leader of the Opposition)
may ask Questions of ministers by giving notice to the Table O¬ce. If an
oral answer in the House is required, the Question is marked with an asterisk;
other Questions are given a written answer. Questions to ministers ˜must relate
to matters for which those Ministers are o¬cially responsible. They may be
asked for statements of their policy or intentions on such matters, or for admin-
istrative or legislative action™: Erskine May, Parliamentary Practice (22nd edn
1997), p 348.
The requirement that a Question must relate to matters for which ministers
are responsible to Parliament will generally exclude Questions about matters
within the competence of the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales
and (upon the restoration of devolved government) Northern Ireland. Like-
wise out of order are Questions about the activities of local authorities, the
European Commission, privatised industries, public corporations, other non-
departmental public bodies and the police. For instance, when the Home
Secretary was asked a series of Questions about police investigations into the
murder of Carl Bridgewater, a Home O¬ce minister replied on behalf of
the Secretary of State: ˜These are all operational matters and the responsibility
of the chief constable of Sta¬ordshire constabulary™ (HC Deb vol 272, cols
630“1W, 29 February 1996). Ministers can, however, be asked about the
exercise of any powers they may have in respect of such bodies “ for instance,
powers of appointment, or to give directions, issue guidance, approve expen-
diture or call for reports. Also, ministers will sometimes respond to Questions
about the actions of public bodies for which they do not bear responsibility by
giving information supplied by the body concerned or requesting it to write to
the member.
Questions relating to the day-to-day operations of an executive agency are
referred by the minister to the agency chief executive for reply, but a member
who is dissatis¬ed with the reply given may raise the matter again with the
minister.
A minister is not compellable to answer any Question, and there are
many matters on which ministers customarily refuse to give answers. Among
these are con¬dential exchanges with foreign governments, matters a¬ecting
national security, proceedings in Cabinet and ministerial committees, internal
discussion and advice, matters that are sub judice, commercial con¬dences
and con¬dential information about individual persons and companies.
609 Parliament and the responsibility of government


Information requested may be refused on the grounds that it is not available or
could only be obtained at disproportionate cost. Departments apply a general
rule that a cost exceeding a certain sum “ £600 in 2006 “ justi¬es refusal to give
a written answer. All these are matters of ministerial practice, not of parlia-
mentary convention.
Although ministers cannot be compelled to answer Questions fully or at all,
they are required by the House in terms of its resolution of 19 March 1997
(above, p 572), as rea¬rmed in the Ministerial Code (2005), para 1.5d, to be:

as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only
when disclosure would not be in the public interest which should be decided in accordance
with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The Government agreed in 1996 that if ministers refused to provide a full
answer to a parliamentary Question, otherwise than on the ground of dispro-
portionate cost, they should give reasons which related to the exemptions
allowed then by the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.
(The undertaking was not always faithfully observed.) The Code of Practice
has since been superseded by the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The
Government™s Guidance to O¬cials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary
Questions now states:

If you conclude that material information must be withheld and the PQ cannot be fully
answered as a result, draft an answer which makes this clear and explains the reasons, such
as disproportionate cost or the information not being available, or explains in terms similar
to those in the Freedom of Information Act (without resorting to explicit reference to the
Act itself or to section numbers) the reason for the refusal. For example, ˜The release of this
information would prejudice commercial interests™.

(The Government was of the opinion that the deadlines for answering
Parliamentary Questions did not allow for full consideration of the public inter-
est such as is required by many provisions of the Freedom of Information Act
and that it was accordingly not appropriate to make explicit reference to exemp-
tions under that Act.)
A member who is refused an answer may raise the matter in an adjourn-
ment debate, or ask the Question again (but only after an interval of three
months, unless circumstances have changed). Another recourse for a member
who is refused an answer or is dissatis¬ed with the answer given is to write to
the department concerned with a request for the information. This brings the
matter within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act and may entitle
the member to obtain the information in accordance with the provisions of
that Act.
Draft answers to Questions are prepared for ministers by o¬cials. The
Government™s Guidance to O¬cials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary
610 British Government and the Constitution


Questions reminds o¬cials that ˜It is of paramount importance that Ministers
give accurate and truthful information to Parliament™ and should be ˜as open as
possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only
when disclosure would not be in the public interest™, and continues:

It is a civil servant™s responsibility to Ministers to help them fulfil those obligations. It is the
Minister™s right and responsibility to decide how to do so. Ministers want to explain and
present Government policy and actions in a positive light. Ministers will rightly expect a draft
answer that does full justice to the Government™s position.

O¬cials are admonished not to ˜omit information sought merely because dis-
closure could lead to political embarrassment or administrative inconvenience™.
The Public Administration Committee monitors the performance of gov-
ernment departments in answering Questions, and in reporting its conclusions
annually to Parliament may draw attention to failures in openness and accuracy
in answers given (see Hough [2003] PL 211).
Written answers are given to ˜unstarred™ Questions and also to Questions put
down for oral answer that are not reached in the time allotted on the ¬‚oor of
the House. A considerable amount of information is elicited from the govern-
ment in written answers. A member can put down any number of unstarred
Questions (whereas a member may not have more than two oral questions
tabled on any one day) and can coordinate his or her Questions to di¬erent
departments so that a picture is built up of the government™s whole operations
in the area in question.
Questions for oral answer are taken for about ¬fty-¬ve minutes on
Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Ministers answer in accor-
dance with a rota which is customarily arranged after consultation through
the usual channels, more time being set aside for the major (or most con-
troversial) departments. In addition ˜cross-cutting™ Questions, covering the
responsibilities of a number of departments, can be asked in the ˜parallel
chamber™ of Westminster Hall. The Prime Minister answers Questions for
thirty minutes on Wednesdays.
A member who receives an oral answer can go on to ask a supplementary
Question, of which no prior notice need have been given, and other members
may put supplementaries if they catch the Speaker™s eye. The Leader of the
Opposition has the right to question the Prime Minister through supplemen-
taries, and regularly engages in gladiatorial combat with the Prime Minister on
Wednesdays.
Among Questions to the Prime Minister, who accepts a responsibility to
answer for the whole range of governmental activities, are ˜open Questions™,
which are designed not to reveal the subject matter of the supplementary
Question that will follow. This allows the MP to raise a supplementary which is
topical on the day when the Question comes up for answer, and also provides
611 Parliament and the responsibility of government


an element of surprise. The inscrutable character of open Questions ensures
that they will not be transferred to other, more directly responsible, ministers,
which might happen if the real purport of the Question were apparent on
its face.

House of Commons, HC Deb vol 437, cols 834“5, 19 October 2005

Mr Bob Russell (Colchester) (Liberal Democrat) asked the Prime Minister if he would list his
official engagements for Wednesday 19 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues
and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later
today.

Mr Bob Russell: The right hon Gentleman is aware that some local authorities are warning
of big increases in the council tax next year, with job losses and cuts in services. Does he
agree that now is not the time to embark on grandiose projects, particularly those that will
rely on a heavy annual subsidy from the public purse?

It will be evident that the purpose of the supplementary Question was not to
obtain information. It may be questioned whether the kind of point-scoring
duel typically arising from open Questions contributes anything to the account-
ability of government.
In the 2003“04 session 3,687 Questions were tabled for oral answer by
ministers: 2,060 were reached for oral answer in the House and those not
reached were given a written answer. In addition 54,875 Questions were set
down by members for written answer. (Sessional Returns 2003“04, HC 1 of
2004“05.)
Questions put by backbenchers on the government side may re¬‚ect their con-
stituency and other interests or their unease about aspects of government
policy, and in this way they play their part in the scrutiny of ministers. Govern-
ment backbenchers may also table Questions with the object of balancing
hostile Questions asked by opposition members. On one occasion it came to
light that civil servants had assisted ministers in the preparation of a ˜bank™ of
favourable Questions to be supplied to sympathetic backbenchers. A select
committee which considered this incident advised that (Report from the Select
Committee on Parliamentary Questions, HC 393 of 1971“72, para 36):

it is not the role of the Government machine to seek to redress the party balance of Questions
on the Order Paper, and civil servants should not in future be asked to prepare Questions
which have this object.

The Government agreed to lay down a new rule in accordance with this recom-
mendation (HC Deb vol 847, cols 462“3W, 6 December 1972).
612 British Government and the Constitution


Select Committee on Procedure, Third Report, HC 178 of 1990“91
In evidence to the committee the Principal Clerk of the Table O¬ce outlined
the purposes of parliamentary Questions, whether oral or written:

(a) a vehicle for individual backbenchers to raise the individual grievance of their
constituencies;
(b) an opportunity for the House as a whole to probe the detailed actions of the Executive;
(c) a means of illuminating differences of policy on major issues between the various
political parties, or of judging the parliamentary skills of individual Members on both
sides of the House;
(d) a combination of these or any other purposes, for example a way of enabling the
Government to disseminate information about particular policy decisions. [Standing
Orders now make provision for written ministerial statements and policy announcements
are expected to be made in this way rather than in answer to ministerially inspired
Questions.]

The committee said in its report that there should be added to these ˜the obtain-
ing of information by the House from the Government and its subsequent pub-
lication™. The report continued (para 27):

[T]he relative prominence assumed by the different purposes of parliamentary questions
has tended to vary from one era to another. This is especially true of oral questions, which,
certainly so far as the main Departments are concerned, have taken on a markedly more
partisan aspect over recent decades, especially perhaps since the late 1960s. The notion that
an oral question is designed as a genuine enquiry to obtain factual information belongs “
sadly, some might say “ to a growing extent in the past. Increasingly, in recent Parliaments,
questions have become vehicles for supplementaries aimed at establishing a specific polit-
ical point as part of the ideological clash between the parties. Indeed, it is often claimed that
very few Members now table an oral question unless they already know the likely answer.

The committee noted other strands of Question Time which had been empha-
sised in evidence to it, ˜notably the raising of constituency matters and the
pursuit of campaigns on issues which either cut across party lines or which do
not have a strong ideological content™. In any event the committee did not
believe that parliamentary accountability was ˜incompatible with the increased
use of Question Time for the exposure of policy di¬erences between the parties™.
˜Urgent Questions™, which are not subject to the notice requirements for
ordinary Questions, may be allowed by the Speaker for raising urgent matters
of public importance for answer on the same day. The Speaker is not often
persuaded to permit them, unless applied for by opposition frontbench
spokespersons.
(See further Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions, HC 622
of 2001“02 and Government Response (Cm 5628/2002); Hough, ˜Ministerial
613 Parliament and the responsibility of government


responses to parliamentary questions: some recent concerns™ [2003] PL 211;
Giddings and Irwin, ˜Objects and questions™, in P Giddings (ed), The Future of
Parliament (2005).

(iii) Select committees
Besides ad hoc committees set up from time to time for particular investiga-
tions, the House of Commons has some twenty-¬ve select committees which
are appointed each session in accordance with standing orders. They include
the Committee on Standards and Privileges, whose predecessor the Committee
of Privileges dates from the seventeenth century, the Committee of Public
Accounts, ¬rst set up in 1861, and such more recent creations as the European
Scrutiny Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee and the Select
Committees on Public Administration and Modernisation. Not all of these
committees are concerned with the control or scrutiny of the executive, but
this is the essential function of the select committees established in 1979 ˜to
examine the expenditure, administration and policy™ of the principal govern-
ment departments and the public bodies associated with them.
Governments have not always regarded with enthusiasm the establishment of
select committees which can question their policies and investigate the details
of administration. The ˜departmentally related™ select committees set up in 1979
owe their existence to backbench pressure and the persistence of a reform-
minded Minister and Leader of the House, Mr St John-Stevas, just as an earlier,
more limited experiment with specialist committees is associated with Mr
Richard Crossman as Leader of the House from 1966 to 1968. The committees
established in the 1966“70 Parliament “ on Agriculture, Science and
Technology, Education and Science, Race Relations and Immigration, Scottish
A¬airs, and Overseas Aid “ did some useful work but were at ¬rst regarded with
scepticism by many MPs and with suspicion by the Government, which tried to
in¬‚uence the selection of members and the choice of subjects to be investigated.
The Committee on Agriculture, which showed a particular independence of
spirit, was soon wound up. It became evident that too great an assertiveness by
the committees would result in counter-measures by the government “ a
reminder that the traditions of British parliamentary government do not easily
accommodate rival institutions which will ˜balance™ the power of the executive.
Nevertheless it was increasingly realised by backbenchers that in select
committees they could take part in a concerted and informed scrutiny of the
administration which was more e¬ective than their sporadic e¬orts on the ¬‚oor
of the House. The system developed in a rather piecemeal way until in 1978 the
Select Committee on Procedure recommended a new structure of committees
which ˜would cover the activities of all departments of the United Kingdom
Government, and of all nationalised industries and other quasi-autonomous
governmental organisations™ (First Report, HC 588-I of 1977“78, para 5.22).
The new departmentally related committees were established on a ¬rm footing
in the standing orders of the House in 1979. In 2006 there were eighteen of these

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