Written Parliamentary Questions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 28th June 2006.

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Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Chair, Trade & Industry Committee 5:25 pm, 28th June 2006

I am grateful for that point, with which I agree. I am about to offer the Government a case for the defence, because there are issues that the House needs to address, too. In the particular case of the home computing initiative, I think that there was a deliberate attempt to withhold information, but other answers have a more innocent explanation so far as the Government are concerned, and we must look to ourselves for a significant share of the blame, some of which we all must share.

Four years ago, the Procedure Committee conducted a survey of Members' views on questions and received 167 responses. Broadly, it concluded that the system was generally thought to be pretty effective, but that the speed of answers was not sufficient and there was a problem with the quality of many answers. I submit that those problems have got considerably worse in the four years since then.

The Select Committee on Public Administration has also been monitoring ministerial answers and their quality for several years, but I see no evidence that that important work is having the effect that it ought to have.

Let us put our own House in order, however, before we tell the Government what to do. Members of Parliament are tabling too many questions—far too many questions. This has no doubt led to many Ministers feeling, quite fairly and legitimately, swamped and unable to deal with the deluge in sufficient detail and with sufficient speed. It also leads, I suspect, to the setting up of centralised answering units in Departments, which are an extremely unwelcome development.

The use of the questions procedure has grown significantly. Perhaps some historical perspective will help. In the Session of 1847 there were 129 questions—an average of about one a day. I think that they were all oral questions, as the principle of written questions had not then been established. I have a lengthy exposition at my disposal on the development of the number of questions asked, but I shall cut straight to the more relevant, recent dates. The Table Office has helpfully provided me with figures for the questions tabled in each financial year since the millennium. The House, of course, operates its Sessions over a different year, but these figures are for the financial years because that is the basis on which the House of Commons Commission works, and they are useful.

There were an average of 302 questions each day in 2000-01; there were 460 in 2001-02; there were 463 in 2002-03; there were 472 in 2003-04; there were 456 in 2004-05; and there were 596 in 2005-06. Those figures include orals, which account for between 20 and 30 a day. There is a different procedure for orals—the shuffle, in which only those that come out on top are printed—and orals are a constant, and a small proportion of the total. The figures give a measure of growth—from 300 to 600 over that period.

Those figures are described in the House of Commons Commission annual report as

"dealt with by the Table Office each day".

They represent questions that appear on the Order Paper, so refer to orderly questions. For questions offered to be tabled, including those that are "carded"—the procedure by which a question challenged at the Table Office will bring the Member a card asking him or her to go to discuss it with the Clerks—the figure for 2005-06 was 656 per day. The overall trend is sharply up. At the end of that year, the Table Office was receiving 33 per cent. more questions every day than it had just 12 months previously.

I have not done my research in detail, and I shall not name and shame anyone this evening, but it seems that the increase is caused by a relatively small number of Members. For example, on 15 June last year, of the 367 ordinary written questions that appeared in the blue pages of the Order Paper—not including 73 named-day questions and 25 orals—some four Members accounted for 174, or 47 per cent. of the total. It is not always the same four Members, of course, but I understand that there is a pretty strong pattern identifying 20 or so Members who make a significantly greater use than the rest of us of written questions.

What are the reasons for that increase in question numbers? First, it has become too easy to ask a question. The Procedure Committee found that there was overwhelming support for electronic tabling of questions: something like 74 per cent. of those who responded were in favour, with 24 per cent. against. I say, however, that popularity is not always a good guide to propriety. Although questions may be received only if a Member signs up for e-tabling and uses the dedicated system, when a question comes to the Table Office by that route there is no way of determining whether there really is a Member at the other end. Strictly speaking, of course, a Member will use the system personally and not give his log-in details or his password to anyone else. But we live in the real world, and we know what really happens.

The use of e-tabling has increased sharply. At present, 310 Members are signed up for the system. In May, 176 Members tabled one or more questions by that method and the top tabler tabled 197 e-questions. Over the whole year 2005-06, the percentage of all questions e-tabled was 29.6, but the proportion is increasing, and hit 40 per cent. for the first time in February 2006. E-tabling has made things too easy.

I shall be even more controversial by saying that another reason for the increase in questions is pure and simple laziness. There has been a significant change in the character of parliamentary questions. More than ever, they are used for acquiring large chunks of statistical information or general knowledge, not to inquire into aspects of Government policy, which I consider to be their prime purpose. One might think that a Library, a website or a reference book would have provided the Member with an answer more easily and much more cheaply.

Some Members do not first check whether the information is already in the public domain; Departments provide a great deal of information online; I have reservations about their use of websites—but that is the subject of another debate. Members do not need to ask parliamentary questions to find the information but, without betraying any confidences, I can tell the House that I have heard Members engage in exchanges, often robust, with Table Office staff about their right to ask questions, after they have been called in because their question was carded. I have also seen Members happily throw away significant numbers of carded questions without a second's thought. Obviously, their commitment to those questions varies—probably in inverse proportion to their authorship. A question drafted by a Member has more emotional capital invested in it than one drafted, and tabled, by a researcher.

When I asked how many carded questions drew a Member into the Table Office to discuss them, I was really surprised by the reply. Detailed records are not kept so the figure is only a guess, but the order of magnitude is right: the Table Office estimates that only about 30 per cent. of questions carded as not being in order and needing to be discussed are actually followed up by the Members who tabled them. The other 70 per cent. just lapse and go into the wastepaper basket. Not much commitment there, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall make an enemy with my third accusation. Why are we so obsessed with volume? It is a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, and the danger of performance indicators. I put much of the obsession down to a desire on the part of some MPs to provide tangible evidence that they have been working. Some MPs table long lists of questions in an attempt to appear active, just as some Members table and sign large numbers of early-day motions to pretend the same thing. We all know that early-day motions are usually parliamentary graffiti, and many written questions are not much better these days. Researchers are often drafted into helping with the task of giving the appearance of usefulness. The questions are then submitted, with no scrutiny at all from the Member, on pre-signed forms, and dropped into the box outside the Table Office or tabled electronically.

Chief among the villains is a well-meaning website, www.theyworkforyou.com, which provides numerical rankings of MPs' parliamentary activity, referred to as "performance data". For example, to choose a Member at random, the website includes the revelation that my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron has received answers to 35 written questions in the last year—323rd out of 644 MPs. It also states that he has attended 36 per cent. of votes in Parliament, coming 628th out of 644 MPs. Those are hardly high scores, although I suspect that they are much higher than those of one or two members of the Cabinet—I name no names—but they are certainly not an accurate reflection of the work done by the Leader of Her Majesty's official Opposition. Those activities are not the best use of his time.

More obscurely, the website lists such bizarre things as how often my right hon. Friend

"has used a three-word alliterative phrase (e.g. 'she sells seashells')".

He has used such a phrase 208 times in debates in the last year, placing him 119th out of 644 MPs.

Such websites do, to some extent, help people to engage with politics, but it is entirely misleading to imply that an MP's performance can be judged simply in terms of the numbers of questions asked, votes participated in or even alliterations uttered. Numbers are a very crude indicator of effectiveness. One good question is better than 100 bad ones. Indeed, often one short question—particularly in oral questions—is better. The single word "Why?" can often floor a Minister much more effectively than anything else. However, we are now in an arms race in which what can be measured will always count for more than intelligent analysis of what has been achieved. That is very worrying.

Annotations

Chris Lightfoot
Posted on 29 Jun 2006 10:29 am (Report this annotation)

Actually the growth in the number of questions is in no way as alarming as claimed, and may not even exist.

Basically the number of written questions tabled per sitting day was constant through the 2001-2005 Parliament, and it was constant -- though slightly smaller -- through the 1997-2001 Parliament. This is consistent with the number of questions asked being a function of the set of MPs elected to a given Parliament, and there being no secular increase as claimed. Now, it is possible that over future years the number of questions tabled per sitting day will rise, and if so it would be useful to ask what caused this. But since as yet there has been no significant rise during this Parliament, I don't think there's any reason to look for causes of one!

Data here: http://ex-parrot.com/~chris/wwwitter/20051207-question_every...
--in particular the graph at the bottom,
http://ex-parrot.com/~chris/images/20051207/per-sitting-day....

Martin Keegan
Posted on 29 Jun 2006 10:34 am (Report this annotation)

Alliterative phrases may be a loose proxy for the extent to which an MP has worked on preparing a speech in advance, and so counting them is not as "bizarre" as Mr Luff suggests.

Julian Todd
Posted on 29 Jun 2006 3:00 pm (Report this annotation)

It is possible that the government is more reluctant than before to answer written questions properly, which means that MPs have to ask them again and again, or pose six slightly different questions at the same time in the hope of covering what they are trying to find out. This is what I have observed with the questioning about the firing of Jose Bustani.

Perhaps it has always been this bad. A great deal of analysis and marking up might reveal it.

As a first approximation, you could graph the number occurances of the word "pursuant" on average in written questions by year and by department.

Chris Lightfoot
Posted on 29 Jun 2006 6:04 pm (Report this annotation)

OK, I now (thanks to Matthew Somerville) have the data for the number of questions answered per session day from the Question Book. Contrary to my conclusion from January, this indicates that so far in the 2005-6 Parliament there has been a small -- but just about significant (p = 2.5%) -- increase in the mean rate at which questions are asked, compared to the last session of the last Parliament. There's a plot showing data for the last few sessions here:
http://caesious.beasts.org/~chris/tmp/20060629/pqs-per-day.0...
-- again, this tells us nothing about the cause of any effect; were I looking for the cause, I would probably start by considering the fact that there was a general election last year, so there are lots of new MPs sitting in the chamber. Perhaps they ask more questions.

Owen Pearman
Posted on 17 Oct 2006 9:50 am (Report this annotation)

The ranking system has now been replaced by a rating of whether this is above, below, or roughly: average.
If these statistics are used a part of a wider political interest then they are then of real value!