While most are quite familiar with Question Period or Question Time – the parliamentary proceeding during which MPs question government ministers – you may not know that in addition to oral questions, MPs can ask government ministers questions in writing. These written questions are often used to obtain more detailed information about policies and statistics on the activities of government departments that would require too long an answer to be asked as an oral question during Question Period.
Rules surrounding written questions vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, in the Canadian House of Commons, 48 hours notice is required before a written question is placed on the Order Paper. Each MP is allowed a maximum of four questions on the Order Paper at a time. They can also indicate that they would prefer to receive an oral response to the question, which will be delivered during Routine Proceedings. They do this by marking the written question with an asterisk when it is submitted. These are known as “starred questions”, and a maximum of three starred questions are allowed out of the MP’s total of four. MPs can also request an answer within 45 calendar days.
In the UK House of Commons, both MPs and Lords can submit written questions to Ministers. There are different types of written questions. Ordinary questions do not have to be answered on a specific date. An MP will date a written question for two days after they have tabled it, but the convention is that the MP can expect it to be answered within seven days of the question being tabled. However, there is no parliamentary rule that states ordinary written questions have to be answered by a certain date. All House of Lords written questions follow a similar procedure. Lords enter questions on the Order Paper via the Table Office. Lords may table up to six questions each day and can expect an answer within 14 days.
Named day questions only occur in the House of Commons. The MP tabling the question specifies the date on which they should receive an answer. The MP must give a minimum of two days’ notice for these types of question. MPs may not table more than five named day questions on a single day.
As well, it should be noted that questions originally tabled for oral answer that do not get answered at oral question time are submitted to the government department as named day questions.
While there are variations in the rules governing how MPs use written questions from one parliament to the next, there is one thing MPs in most, if not all, legislatures have in common, and that is a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of answers provided by ministers.
On a number of occasions in the Canadian House of Commons, MPs have raised matters of privilege over the answers they’ve received to written questions – unsuccessfully (see, for example, 4 December 2002, 27 January 2003, and 13 December 2004). None of these cases was found to be a prima facie breach of privilege and Speakers have ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate nor to “assess the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct”.
In the UK, the House of Commons Procedure Committee released a report during the 2008-09 session looking at Written Questions and noted:
There is widespread concern that many answers to WPQs are unsatisfactory. We are particularly concerned that, in some cases, information is refused under a WPQ but later granted through a Freedom of Information request. The Government has a duty to answer WPQs accurately and in full. It is unacceptable that some answers fall short of these standards, and the Government must reiterate these responsibilities both in guidance provided to officials and in the Ministerial Code.
As a remedy, the Procedure Committee proposed that, on a trial basis, it take on the role of monitoring unsatisfactory answers referred to the Committee by Members. This would enable the Committee to assess the extent of any problems, and would send a message to Government that if it failed to meet its responsibilities in answering WPQs these shortcomings would be recorded and pursued.
The Committee began monitoring written questions in the following Parliament, in October 2010. They invited MPs to refer to them specific instances where they were dissatisfied with the answer received to a question they had tabled. This dissatisfaction could be due to an answer clearly not addressing the question or where information is refused when requested through a WPQ but is made available by other means. The Committee would then examine every submission and in cases of particular concern, would refer questions to Ministers for comment and review. The Committee received just over 50 complaints, and of those, about half merited further investigation. In their report, Seventh Report: Monitoring written Parliamentary questions, tabled in April 2013, the Committee noted that the experiment had been quite successful:
As a result we have obtained answers for Members on a number of occasions in circumstances where they would otherwise have found it difficult or impossible to follow up on an inadequate response, and we have been able to use the opportunity to emphasise to Ministers the importance and value of engaging adequately and appropriately with this particular form of Parliamentary scrutiny. We now intend to bring this trial period to an end and put the exercise on a more permanent footing.
The Committee’s second monitoring report was released in January 2014 and found that while the timeliness of ministries in answering written questions had improved over the previous session, certain ministries were still under-performing and were “on notice”:
Overall performance in timeliness of answering of written Parliamentary questions has improved since 2010-12, from 69% to 76% in respect of ordinary written questions answered within a working week of tabling and from 69% to 73% in respect of named day questions answered on the named day. The performance of certain departments, however, remains poor, and those with whom we have been in correspondence this year should consider themselves to be “on notice” that if the improvements which have been promised do not materialise when we come to examine the statistics for 2013-14, we will be considering very carefully what action, possibly including further oral evidence sessions, it is necessary to take.
The UK Parliament has also just launched an online written questions and answers module. Previously, one had to look in Hansard to find the answers to questions tabled by MPs — this new module makes it much easier to search through the questions and read ministerial replies. As the Procedure Committee noted in its first monitoring report, written questions “are a vital tool for the accountability of Government. The effectiveness of this form of accountability depends on Members receiving answers which are both timely and which respond adequately and appropriately to the question which has been asked.” Perhaps making it easier for people to read the replies to WPQs will encourage ministers to provide more thorough answers.