Topical questions might seem a bit odd to Canadians but I will attempt to explain. Essentially, every MP interested in asking a topical question submits the same question: “If he/she will make a statement on his/her departmental responsibilities.”

On questions on notice

The Hill Times has an interesting article describing how the current Canadian Cabinet prepares for the daily Question Period. One former staffer, Chad Rogers, states:

“Look at Westminster, our mother system. They’re given notice of every question that’s asked in advance so the ministers can be prepared for it. There’s no such thing in ours. It’s a surprise every day when the clock hits 2:15 p.m.”

This isn’t correct.

It is true that MPs in the UK must table questions for ministers a few days in advance; however, not all questions that will be asked of ministers are known to them in advance.

As I have explained over and over again (apologies for boring regular readers), at Westminster, each ministry is questioned separately, unlike here in Canada when the entire Cabinet is (in theory) present at the same time. MPs who wish to question the ministers of a certain department must table their questions in advance. These questions are reviewed by the table officers to ensure they are in order, and then all of the questions submitted by the deadline are “shuffled” three times to determine which MPs will see their questions appear on the order paper. That’s right, the questions are drawn in a lottery.

Here is an example of the Questions on an upcoming order paper:

Monday 13 October 2014: Oral Questions to the Secretary of State for the Home Department

1. Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): What steps she has taken to reduce bureaucracy in the police.
2. Nia Griffith (Llanelli): What progress her Department has made on setting up its recently announced inquiries into child abuse; and if she will make a statement.
3. Helen Jones (Warrington North): What assessment she has made of the findings of the report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary on Cheshire Police’s handling of rape cases; and if she will make a statement.
4. Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton): What steps she is taking to improve police emergency response times.
5. Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty): What steps she is taking to tackle serious and organised crime.
6.  Ian Austin (Dudley North): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of UK border controls.
7. Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): What steps she is taking to improve the service offered by the Passport Office.
8. Philip Davies (Shipley): How many illegal immigrants have been granted asylum or indefinite leave to remain in the UK since 2010.
9. Julie Hilling (Bolton West): What steps her Department is taking to prevent cybercrime.
11. Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk): What plans she has to tighten up asylum regulations; and if she will make a statement.
12. Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): What assessment she has made of the reasons for the rise in immigration from (a) EU and (b) non-EU countries between March 2013 and March 2014.
13. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham): What progress her Department has made on setting up its recently announced inquiries into child abuse; and if she will make a statement.
14. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What steps she is taking to tackle Islamic extremism on the internet; and if she will make a statement.
15. Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke): What steps she is taking to protect the UK from the threat posed by terrorism.
16. Mr Robin Walker (Worcester): What steps she is taking to protect the UK from the threat posed by terrorism.
17. Graham Evans (Weaver Vale): What steps she is taking to eliminate modern slavery.
18.Chris White (Warwick and Leamington): What assessment she has made of recent trends in the level of crime.
19. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering): What the reasons are for the reduction in the number of asylum seekers returned under the Dublin Convention in each year since 2010.
20. Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West): What progress she is making on tackling problems associated with new psychoactive substances.
21. Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall): What assessment she has made of the effect of recent reductions in spending on specialist domestic violence services on the incidence of domestic violence.
22. Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North): What guidance she has given to police and crime commissioners on replicating pilot early intervention programmes across the country.
23. Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion): What progress her Department has made on its study of international comparators on drug policy.
24. Paul Flynn (Newport West): What estimate she has made of the cost to her Department of making overtime and compensation payments to people whose passport applications have been delayed.
25. Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): What steps she is taking to prevent violent crime.

At 3.15pm – Topical Questions to the Secretary of State for the Home Department
The Members listed below have been selected by ballot to ask a Topical Question.
T1 Paul Flynn (Newport West): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.
T2  Nia Griffith (Llanelli):
T3 Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk):
T4 Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow):
T5 Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East):
T6 Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe):
T7 Mr Robin Walker (Worcester):
T8 Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire):
T9 Stephen Mosley (City of Chester):
T10 Jessica Morden (Newport East):

You will note that there is some repetition, meaning that identical or very similar questions may appear more than once. For example, questions 2 and 13 are identical, as are questions 15 and 16. This may happen for a number of reasons, but the main two will be 1) the issue is very current and of great interest, therefore it is not surprising that more than one MP would be seeking an answer to that particular issue; 2) this would apply particularly in instances where the same question is being asked by two or more MPs from the same party, in particular, the opposition, there is a good chance that this is a question that the party leadership wants answered and it has asked some of its MPs to submit the question in the hope that at least one will be selected in the lottery and make it onto the order paper. In the case of an identical question being asked by more than one MP form the government side, it could possibly indicate a planted question, one that the minister would like raised. However, this is not necessarily the case. In our examples above, both questions 2 and 13 are being asked by Labour MPs, while questions 15 and 16 are being asked by Conservative MPs.

The Speaker will call on the MP whose question is first on the Order Paper. That MP will not read out his or her question, they will simply say “Question number 1, Mr. Speaker.” The Minister will rise to reply to the question. The MP is then allowed to ask a supplementary. Supplementaries are not tabled in advance, therefore the minister will not have prior knowledge of these questions. He or she will know that there will be questions related to the issue raised in the tabled question, but not exactly what angle MPs will want to pursue. After the first supplementary, the Speaker will then call on other MPs to ask supplementaries related to the initial question (or previous supplementary). The Speaker will alternate between sides of the House; if an Opposition MP asked the tabled question and first supplementary, the Speaker will then call on an MP from the government side of the House for the next supplementary, then back to the Opposition side, etc. MPs who wish to ask a supplementary simply stand in their place to be recognized.

If two or more MPs have asked identical or near identical questions, the minister will begin by stating that (using our examples above) he or she will answer questions #2 and #13 at the same time. When it comes to the supplementaries, both MPs will be able to ask a supplementary before the Speaker opens it up to other MPs.

Similarly, when there questions that, while not identical, touch on different aspects of the same topic, the minister will again often choose to address both at the same time. If we look at our list of questions above, we see, for example, that questions 8, 11, and 19 all relate to asylum seekers, so there is a good chance that the minister will address all three in one answer. Similarly, questions 7 and 24 deal with different aspects of problems at the Passport office, while questions 5 and 25 ask about dealing with various types of crime (serious, organized and violent). The minister will likely address all similarly-themed questions at the same time.

The last 15-20 minutes of the Oral Answers to Questions hour is reserved for what are called “Topical Questions”. Topical questions might seem a bit odd to Canadians but I will attempt to explain. Essentially, every MP interested in asking a topical question submits the same question: “If he/she will make a statement on his/her departmental responsibilities.” You will note on our example above, that this question appears only once, next to the name of the first MP selected to ask a topical question. The minister will reply with a brief statement of his or her duties. The MP who had the first topical question will then ask a supplementary — on any issue that falls within the minister’s area of responsibility. Every other MP who has a topical question slot will also be able to ask any question of the minister, as long as it falls within the minister’s area of responsibility. Ministers have no advance notice of what these questions will be. Readers may not know that Prime Minister’s Questions consists entirely of topical questions. The lead off question (“Question number one, Mr. Speaker!”) is similar to that asked of ministers: “If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.” The PM almost always answers with something like: “This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.” All the other questions are in effect supplementaries based on that answer, permitting a wide range of topics to be put to the PM.

So yes, while the main questions are submitted on notice in the British House of Commons, it isn’t correct to say that ministers have advance notice of all the questions that will be put to them. They will be able to guess at the sort of supplementary questions they will get based on the initial questions submitted, but they can’t know for certain which aspects of that topic an MP will want to pursue in more detail. They have no advance notice of the topical questions, and so must be prepared to answer on anything, as is the case with Canadian ministers.

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