Standing Orders and Oral Questions: the UK House of Commons

In part three of our comparison of Standing Orders governing Question Period, we now turn our attention to the mother of all parliaments, Westminster.

While Australia and New Zealand both had very clear rules in place governing their version of Question Period, rules which outline the content of both questions and answers, there are actually very few standing orders in place governing Questions in the UK House of Commons. I think this is an important point. There has been a lot of discussion recently in Canadian political circles about the need for tougher, clearer rules as a means of improving the quality of the Canadian Question Period. Australia has fairly clear rules governing both answers and questions, yet Question Time in Australia can be every bit as loud, raucous and disrespectful as any Canadian Question Period. The UK House of Commons meanwhile has very few actual rules, relying more on accepted practice and conventions, and for the most part, Oral Answers to Questions are very calm, quiet, respectful proceedings. The one exception, of course, is Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). Consequently, I think it is very clear that having quite detailed, specific rules in place will not guarantee a better oral questions session; ultimately, it comes down to how Members choose to act during these proceedings, rules or no rules.

The standing orders specifically dealing with Questions are fairly straightforward. What follows will be a discussion of the standing orders which deal with Oral Questions to ministers ONLY. I will not discuss the rules dealing with Urgent Questions or Written Questions.

SO 21(1) outlines when Questions will take place (Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) after private business and motions for unapposed returns have been dealt with. In the UK, as was the case in New Zealand, Members must table their questions in writing with the Table Office “in a form determined by the Speaker”, we learn in SO 22(1). The UK also uses a rota system for questions to ministers, meaning that the entire cabinet is not present every day for questions. SO 22(5) explains that Members who wish to question a particular minister must submit their questions by a certain deadline as specified by the Speaker, and that only those questions which have been chosen in the “shuffle” will be printed on the Order paper:

(5) Notice of a question for oral answer may be given only for answer on the next day on which the Member to whom it is addressed is due to give oral answers; and in respect of each such day the Speaker shall specify the latest date and time at which notice may be given and how many questions are to be printed for each Member answering; and only that number of notices of questions (selected at random from those received in a manner to be prescribed by the Speaker) shall be treated as valid notices received on the day concerned:Provided that the latest date and time specified by the Speaker shall be such as to enable the notices selected to be printed and circulated
(a) in the case of questions to the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the Advocate General at least four days (excluding Friday, Saturday and Sunday) before the question is to be answered, or
(b) in the case of questions to other Ministers, at least two days (excluding Friday, Saturday and Sunday) before the question is to be answered.

The other standing orders deal with written questions and urgent questions.

The Standing Orders also include a rule on relevancy. Standing Order 42 states:

The Speaker, or the chair, after having called the attention of the House, or of the committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or tedious repetition either of his own arguments or of the arguments used by other Members in debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech.

According to Erskine May (24th ed.), the procedural manual of the UK Parliament, there isn’t the stipulation that the rule of relevance in debate does not apply to Questions. A Member’s speech “must be directed to the question under discussion or to the motion or amendment intended to be moved, or to a point of order (May, p. 438).” The Speaker has full authority to intervene when a Member strays from the matter under discussion (p. 452). Indeed, the Speaker has cut off Ministers if their answer was not addressing the main point of the question asked of them. You can see examples of Speaker Bercow doing that to the Prime Minister here and here during PMQs, for example. I will add that I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Speaker cut off a Minister during the other daily Answers to Oral Questions. I’m sure it has probably happened, but the point is that if we leave PMQs out of the equation, the other oral question sessions are conducted in such a way that the Speaker very rarely has to intervene. If and when he does, it is usually to cut off a Minister whose answer has gone on a bit too long. More often than not, the Speaker will simply ask the Minister to try to be a bit more succinct. This is why I think that the regular refrain here in Canada for more and better rules rather misses the point. Yes, the Canadian House of Commons Speaker could be more interventionist to enforce the rules and agreed-to conventions that do exist; but adding more rules won’t necessarily address any of the current problems if Members, both MPs and ministers, aren’t willing to make them work.

While there aren’t many rules governing Questions spelled out in the Standing Orders, there are extensive conventions in place that Members must respect. According to Erskine May, the purpose of a question is “to obtain information or press for action; it should not be framed primarily so as to convey information, or so as to suggest its own answer or convey a particular point of view, and it should not be in effect a short speech.” (p. 358) Questions to ministers must relate to matters for which the minister is officially responsible. A number of decisions by Speakers have defined the interpretation of “ministerial responsibility”. Any of the following will be ruled out of order:

  • questions on statements in the press or comments made by individuals or unofficial bodies;
  • questions on matters under the control of local or other statutory authorities or of bodies or persons not responsible to the Government;
  • questions on evidence of witnesses or other matters before a Royal Commission or parliamentary committee or matters within the jurisdiction of a parliamentary committee;
  • questions on the actions of a minister for which he or she is not responsible to Parliament;
  • questions seeking an expression of opinion on a question of law such as the interpretation of a statute, or of an international document, or a minister’s own powers, etc.
  • questions on matters that are more the responsibility of another minister, or ask a minister to influence the actions of another;
  • questions suggesting amendments to bills before the House or in committee;
  • questions which relate to opposition party policies rather than the Government’s policies;
  • questions on matters which have been devolved to the national assemblies of Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland.

Erskine May also has a few words to say about answers to oral questions. They should be confined to the points contained in the question. Because the questions are tabled, proposed answers should not be revealed in advance. Ministers may refuse an answer on security grounds. (pp.  366-7).

The Speaker has a great deal of control over the entire questions process. For example, he or she is the final authority as to the admissibility of questions (p. 356). The Speaker can refuse  any question deemed irregular, even if it stands on the Order paper. The Clerks at the Table have full power to sub-edit questions. The Speaker will curb any Member whose question is too long. If a Member asks a question that was “of so general a character as to provide a wide area for supplementaries”, the Speaker will refuse to call Members to ask supplementaries. The Speaker will normally call no more than one Official Opposition front bencher during topical questions because of the expressed view that questions are intended for the benefit of backbenchers. (pp. 366-7).

As I’ve previously stated in other posts, it is difficult to explain why things work so much better in the UK. The political culture is quite different, with British MPs appearing to have a better understanding of, and respect for, parliamentary procedure. I get the impression that they take parliament more seriously. Maybe they have a better understanding of procedure – I don’t know. I can’t prove that this is actually the case, however; it’s just how things appear to be when you watch their proceedings as much as I tend to do. It is also very difficult to compare Canada’s Question Period with Oral Answers to Questions because the procedure in the UK is so very different. I have blogged rather extensively about these differences, but it doesn’t hurt to highlight again some of the things that I think make the British version better.

First, as mentioned above, the UK House of Commons uses a rota for ministerial departments. This means that on most days, only one ministry is being questioned. The larger departments get the full hour to themselves. Smaller departments will share the allotted hour, but not at the same time. For example, most Canadians will be quite familiar with Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly half-hour during which the UK Prime Minister takes questions. This happens every Wednesday from noon to 12:30. What you might not know is that PMQs is the second half-hour of Wednesday’s one-hour questions slot, which runs from 11:30 to 12:30. PMQs is always preceded by questions to one of four smaller ministries: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or International Development. Other departments will get 40 minutes and then a smaller agency will get the final 20 minutes of questions.

The second thing to understand is that the UK government maintains a clear distinction between the Ministry and Cabinet. Not all ministers are members of the Cabinet. Each department is headed by a Secretary of State, e.g. the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Education, etc. They are part of Cabinet. Each Secretary of State will have a number of Ministers of State, who are not part of cabinet, assigned to their department. The number will vary depending on the size of the department, from one to perhaps as many as 7-8. These ministers will usually be responsible for one specific part of the department’s mandate. For example, the Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP is Secretary of State for Education, and she has five ministers of State and one Parliamentary Under Secretary of State assigned to the Department. When it is the Department of Education’s time to face questions, the only Ministers present will be the Secretary of State, her five Ministers of State and the Under Secretary. No other cabinet minister will be present. In contrast, the Northern Ireland Office has the Secretary of State and one Minister of State, so they will be the only two fielding questions. Because only one department is up for questions at one time, Ministers cannot defer questions to some other minister as occurs here in Canada. There is one exception to my statement that no other cabinet ministers being present except the minister facing questions, and that is for PMQs. During PMQs, most of the cabinet will surround the Prime Minister on the front bench; however, the PM will never defer a question to another minister. If the Prime Minister is not available on a given Wednesday, he or she will delegate PMQs to another senior minister who will answer on his or her behalf. Prime Minister Cameron usually delegates this responsibility to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, but recently, both Cameron and Clegg were in Scotland on the Wednesday and so House Leader William Hague stood in. If another cabinet minister is away for their department’s oral questions, the other ministers assigned to that department will field all of the questions.

Which MPs get to ask questions is determined by lottery — the shuffle as it is known. All of the questions tabled by MPs for a particular department are shuffled and drawn by lottery. This means that the party whips cannot control which of their MPs will ask questions. They can certainly provide their MPs with questions that they would like to see asked, but they cannot control the outcome of the lottery. Nor can the whips stop any of their MPs from asking questions that are of interest to them. The right to ask a topical question is also determined by lottery. Topical questions differ in that the actual text of the question is not tabled. Or rather, all MPs who want to ask a topical question submit the same question: Will the Minister make a statement on his or her departmental responsibilities. This is an open question, meaning that MPs are then free to ask supplementary questions on any topic that touches on the minister’s departmental responsibilities. Topical questions are asked during the last 15-20 minutes of a question session, but only of the larger ministries. The four smaller ones which share their time slot with PMQs don’t have topical questions, while the first question asked of the PM during PMQs is a topical question, and all other questions are then in essence, supplementaries.

The Speaker has full control over which MPs to call on to ask questions. The order of the main questions drawn in the shuffle is predetermined, but the Speaker controls which MPs he or she will call on to ask supplementaries. The only pre-established “list”, if we can call it that, is that the Speaker will alternate between sides. If the main question was asked by an opposition MP, the Speaker will then turn to the government side for a supplementary, then back to the opposition side, then back to the government side, etc. Sometimes, there may be only members on the government side who stand to ask supplementaries on a given topic, sometimes mostly opposition members. In the end, however, most question sessions result in a fairly even division of questions between both sides of the House. This is so not the case here in Canada.

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