Fixing Ottawa: Question Period

(This is the second in a series of posts on Fixing Ottawa. Other installments are: Fixing Ottawa: Committees, Fixing Ottawa: Draft Legislation and Fixing Ottawa: Empowering Backbenchers.)

Canada’s Liberal Party released its election platform (manifesto) this weekend, and it included this pledge (p. 72):

Liberals believe that all parties must act to increase the civility and substance of Question Period. Many observers believe a model closer to that of the British Parliament would be better, with more time for both questions and answers, scheduled themes and rosters of required ministers, and a weekly Prime Minister’s question period (though the Prime Minister should still be expected to attend all days possible). A Liberal government will advance such reform in Parliament.

I’m maybe the only person in the country who has fixated on this one pledge. To me, it’s the most interesting proposal put forward by the Liberals. I firmly believe the British model for oral questions, while certainly not perfect, is still superior to what transpires in the Canadian House of Commons. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve written about Question Period many times. Two of my more recent posts can be found here and here. There will be some repetition in this post – I apologise in advance to those who’ve read the earlier posts.

As I’ve repeated many times on this blog, the purpose of Oral Questions is to seek information from the government and to hold the government to account. Please bear that in mind as you read the rest of this post.

How Question Period unfolds in Ottawa

Question Period is a daily occurrence lasting 45-minutes. It begins with the Speaker recognizing the Leader of the Opposition, or the lead questioner for the Official Opposition, who then asks a question of a minister. This lead question is usually followed by two others, called supplementary questions. Normally, the Leader of the Official Opposition will direct his or her questions to the Prime Minister, regardless of the topic of the question. By that I mean, they won’t restrict their questions to subjects that are specifically the remit of the PM, but will ask the PM questions about foreign policy, the economy, etc., – matters that fall under the mandate of specific ministers.

Each of the lead questioners of the other officially-recognized opposition parties is permitted an initial question and one supplementary question. Again, the lead questions from the other party leaders are generally directed to the Prime Minister. Throughout the rest of Question Period, other Members representing parties in opposition to the Government continue the questioning, and these questions are directed to the various ministers present. They may direct questions to the PM, but questions that are not from other party leaders will normally be deferred to the appropriate minister or Government House Leader.

Members representing the governing party, Members of political parties not officially recognized in the House and independent Members are also recognized to ask questions, though not as often as Members of officially-recognized opposition parties. Typically, the questions asked by government backbench Members are considered “softball” questions, meaning they are staged questions written by the government to allow the government to promote some of its policies and achievements. Some government backbench questions are nothing more than attacks on the Opposition parties. It should also be noted that while the questions of government backbenchers are scripted, so are the questions asked by opposition backbenchers. It rarely happens that an MP is free to ask a question of specific interest to them or their constituents.

Participation in Question Period is managed to a large extent by the various caucuses and their Whips, and can be the subject of negotiations among the parties. The recognition pattern of questioners varies depending on party representation in the House and the number of Members in each party. As well, the parties may negotiate a maximum time limit for each question and answer. Currently this limit is 35 seconds for each (remember, the goal of Question Period is to get information and hold the government to account). On average, about 40 questions get asked.

Each party decides daily which of its Members will participate in Question Period and provides the Speaker with a list of their names and the suggested order of recognition. However, the ultimate authority to recognize Members rests with the Speaker.

There are a few other points worth mentioning. The Prime Minister usually takes part in Question Period from Monday to Thursday, but rarely, if ever, on Friday. In fact, few front-bench ministers and shadow critics take part in the Friday session; it is usually left to parliamentary secretaries and junior critics. Also, ministers do not have to answer questions; they can refer them to a cabinet colleague, or simply refuse to answer.

Question Time in the UK House of Commons

Question Time takes place for an hour Monday to Thursday, and each day, it is a different government department that faces questions. Smaller departments are grouped together and share the allotted time – either half an hour each, sometimes less. Each government department answers questions according to a rota called the Order of Oral Questions, which you can view here. The questions asked must relate to the responsibilities of the government department concerned.

Oral questions are tabled by MPs at least three days in advance of Question Time. This is to allow the  ministers responsible to prepare their answers. The questions are then printed in the Commons Questions Book. The order in which the questions are asked is determined randomly by a computer. You can view the Questions Book here.

MPs who are called by the Speaker to ask their question do not read it out, but simply call out its number. After the Minister has responded to the original tabled question, the MP who asked that question is normally the first to be called to ask a follow-up (supplementary) question on the same subject. When that supplementary has been answered by the Minister, the Speaker may call other Members to put forward supplementaries, usually alternating between the Government and Opposition sides of the House. Quite often, Members will rise from their seats in order to attract the Speaker’s attention. Sometimes, a Minister chooses to give a single reply to two or more questions on the Order Paper relating to the same topic. In that event, the Speaker will usually call for supplementaries from those Members whose questions have been answered together.

The last 10-15 minutes (depending on the length of that department’s question time) of question time is reserved for ‘topical questions’. During the topical questions slot, MPs can ask supplementary questions on any subject relating to the department’s responsibilities. Ministers do not have advanced notice of these questions, but must still be prepared to answer. There is no pre-determined time limit for questions and answers, but there is a quota for each department. For a department that gets the full 60 minute question time, the quota of questions is set at 25.

Note that each day’s Question Time features questions dedicated to a specific ministry or ministries only, and that the Secretary of State and junior ministers responsible must answer the questions asked. Other ministers from other government departments are not present (except maybe as spectators). The Prime Minister is not present during these sessions, but does answer questions during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Prime Minister’s Question Time

The Prime Minister answers questions from MPs in the Commons for half an hour every Wednesday. The session normally starts with a routine question from an MP about the Prime Minister’s engagements. This is known as an ‘open question’ and means that the MP can then ask a supplementary question on any subject.

Following the answer, the MP then raises a particular issue, often one of current political significance. The Leader of the Opposition then follows up on this or another topic. They are permitted to ask a total of six questions. The Leader of the Opposition is the only MP who is allowed to come back with further questions.

Most MPs will table the same question about engagements and if they do, only their names will appear on the question book. After the first engagements question has been asked, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled, supplementary question. This means, in theory, that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked of him.

Urgent Questions and Ministerial Statements

While the UK format seems to me to be far more productive, and succeeds better at providing the House with information and allowing MPs to hold the government to account, the obvious objection is that since a department will be scheduled to appear only once every 2-3 weeks, what if something urgent occurs that requires the House to question that minister? The answer to that is: Urgent Questions and Ministerial Statements.

The UK Question Time is supplemented very nicely by Urgent Questions and Ministerial Statements. Besides being subject to the standard rules for questions, Urgent Questions (UQ) are also judged against two additional and special criteria laid down in the rules of the House: they must be urgent and of public importance. Sudden developments or emergencies fulfill these criteria, although these can quite often be covered in the form of a Ministerial Statement. A Member must apply to the Speaker before noon on Monday or Tuesday, 10.30am on Wednesday, 9.30am on Thursday or 10am on a sitting Friday on the day in question, to put forward such a question. The relevant government department would be informed at once. It is up to the Speaker to decide whether or not to allow an Urgent Question, and if it is allowed such questions will be taken immediately after Question Time, or at 11am on a Friday.

The procedure on Urgent Questions is similar to ordinary oral questions.  The main question will be asked, the Member who has put the question down is then allowed to ask a supplementary. Other Members will then be called to ask further questions on the same subject.

Ministerial Statements are initiated by the Government rather than by a Member or Members of Parliament. The PM or one of his or her cabinet ministers will address the House on a given topic – usually to brief them on ongoing developments such as a disaster relief effort, an on-going military engagement, the economy, etc., and then will take questions from MPs. Ministerial statements exist in Canada as well, but could not be more different. In Canada, ministers are expected to make brief and factual statements on government policy or announcements of national interest. Members speaking on behalf of parties recognized by the House are normally the ones who speak in response to a Minister’s statement. In responding to the statement, Members are not permitted to engage in debate or ask questions of the Minister. Most ministerial statements tend to focus on commemorative matters (i.e. commemorating Veterans’ Week or the anniversary of some event) and explaining key pieces of government legislation. You can read more about the differences between Canadian and UK ministerial statements here.

While the Liberal Party’s pledge to adopt an oral questions format more closely resembling the UK model, while a huge improvement over the current Question Period format, it alone won’t be enough. The UK practice of Urgent Questions would need to be adopted to deal for emergency situations that would require the immediate questioning of a specific ministry, and the current format of Ministerial Statements would have to be overhauled to mimic more closely what occurs at Westminister. The current ministerial statements format used in Ottawa is, to be frank, rather pointless and contributes little.

The Liberals also proposed changes to strengthen parliamentary committees, but sadly, these did not include changes to how membership on committees is determined. Still, at least there’s a faint hope for some reform of Question Period.

(Edit: After posting this earlier today, I learned that today in the UK House of Commons, after the usual hour of departmental questions, there will be an Urgent Question on armed forces redundancies, followed by no fewer than four oral statements by ministers: William Hague on the situation in Libya and the Ivory Coast; Andrew Lansley on NHS Reforms; Owen Paterson on the Omagh bomb; and Steve Webb on pensions. Remember that ministers take questions after delivering a ministerial statement to the House, which means a significant proportion of today’s proceedings will be taken up by questions and answers on key areas of policy.)

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