A guide for those who work for an MP
Updated: 26 October 2011
MPs ask thousands of Parliamentary Questions every Session. Some ask more than others, but they are a crucial technique for eliciting information from the Government.
While your MP may well draft and table many questions himself/herself, you will also have to do this for them, by filling them in on the orange forms provided by the Table Offiice. Your MP can also e-table, and you are not supposed to do this on their behalf; if they ask you to do so for them in an emergency, you will need to log onto the system under their username. E-tabling is under the A-Z.
While you can table an unlimited number of Ordinary Written questions on any one day on paper, you can only e-table five.
Always get Parliamentary Questions authorised by your MP before they go to the Table Office.
Further down this page you will find our advice on dealing with PQs but first have a look at this advice on when using research may be more appropriate.
Finding information: when to use PQs and when to use research
When you have to find out some obscure facts and figures, and you don’t have long to do it in, it’s very tempting to reach for a Parliamentary Question. After all, the government has got to provide you with an answer; they’ll usually do so pretty quickly; and it shows that your Member is being active on behalf of his or her constituents. Right?
Well, not always. PQs can be a very useful tool if they are used well. But it’s also often the case that the information you want can be obtained either from departmental websites, or from the Library. Remember that if a PQ is placed, in your Member’s name, the answer to which is readily available (either in an existing answer or elsewhere in the public domain) the Table Office will often return such questions suggesting this is the case.
It may be best to look at Library publications, or search on the Web, when you are looking for:
– Regularly published statistics for the constituency or the surrounding area. Some of the key data sets are available on the Library webpage [link]. A large number are available from the Office for National Statistics.
– If you are seeking statistics in a different format from what you already have – for instance, by constituency rather than by local authority area – a PQ may be worth trying. Often, however, if the data set you want isn’t public, then it doesn’t exist. It may be easier simply to ring the relevant department before submitting a PQ. As PQs are subject to ‘reasonable cost’ constraints, the Government won’t recalculate data from scratch merely in response to a PQ.
– Government policy on specific issues. Government websites are pretty reliable for recent policy papers. For slightly older papers, you can use a search engine to turn up documents on the National Archives websites. As a rough guide, that will take you back to 2001. For documents older than that, it’s worth consulting the Library’s specialists – they often have copies of older documents, and the Library can sometimes obtain them from elsewhere (e.g. the British Library)
– Do you want to know how many people in a given constituency claim a particular benefit? These figures can be obtained with the DWP’s tabulator tool: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/index.php?page=tabtool.
– Immigration and asylum statistics are made available here on a monthly basis: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/science-research/research-statistics/publications/statistical-publications/
– Economic forecasts are now part of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s remit, and not the Treasury’s. They can be found at http://budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/publications/economic-and-fiscal-outlook/
– Impact assessments. Your member may want to know whether the Government has done an impact assessment of a particular policy. There have been regulatory impact assessments for Acts of Parliament for the last few years. You can obtain these from the Library or from the department directly.
– You may be interested in a specific document, which you know is in existence, but which has not been made public by the department that originated it. In this case, a PQ can be used to ask the relevant minister to place a copy in the House of Commons Library.
There are 3 types of Parliamentary Questions – all must be directed at a particular Government Department
- Oral – added to the ballot for the Question Time of each Department on the Floor of the House. Limited time means not all can be answered.
- Written – sometimes called Ordinary Written, these will be answered with a written answer sent to your MP, and also printed in Hansard. There is no time limit imposed on the Government to answer these, but the Speaker encourages ministers to ensure that responses are “timely”. Civil servants in the relevant Government department will draft the answers for the relevant Minister.
- Written for Named Day – when you need an answer fast, you can table a question for Named Day Answer by a certain date (minimum of three sitting days after tabling). An answer is guaranteed, but whether it is a “substantive” answer depends on the ease with which the information can be collected. Otherwise, you may receive a “holding” answer asking you to wait.
A PQ is simply for obtaining information from the Government; it can’t be used to make a point or pass an opinion. So:
- It must not be biased – your language needs to be neutral. For example, if you table a Question using the word ‘failure’, this is accusing the Government. The Table Office will remove it and change it to ‘performance’ or something similar.
- It also can’t convey information or make an argument. So you couldn’t say, 100 people in my constituency have written to me about rabbit welfare, doesn’t the government need to act?
- It cannot seek opinion - only information. You can draft around this, however – so instead of asking what a Minister thinks of something, you can ask ‘what assessment he/she has made’, or ‘what estimate he/she has made’. You can also add “and if (s)he will make a statement” at the end if you are seeking further general ministerial comment.
- Keep language simple and the Question as concise as possible – use the minimum number of words you need to, and do not use words which are too descriptive. For example, most Questions asking a Minister what ‘action’ or ‘measures’ he/she is taking will be changed to ‘steps’.
- There must be a basis for the question – it cannot be based solely on, for example, newspaper speculation.
- It cannot ask information for which that Department is not responsible – check you’ve got the right Department, and that the issue is not the responsibility of one of the devolved administrations.
- Also check the Question hasn’t already been asked and answered recently – by using the PIMS database.
- Check that the information isn’t blocked – e.g. discussions taking place during Cabinet meetings, which are not obliged to be disclosed.
- Be careful of asking for information which it would be considered sub judice to provide (information which would prejudice a court case). In a PQ you cannot make reference to an active court case. A case is considered active in a criminal court when a charge has been made and in a civil court when the case has been ‘set down’ for trial.
Check all the following are correct before submitting to the Table Office:
- You’ve ticked the correct box for the type of question.
- If written for named day, your ‘named day’ is a minimum of three days later.
- It is written for the correct department. Note: this is particularly important for oral questions.
- It is legible.
- Grammar is correct and any acronyms are spelled out.
- Question is in the right style.
- It has been authorised by your MP.
It’s useful to scan the Questions Book each day to look at what other MPs are tabling, especially if your MP has a portfolio.
Members can also table Questions electronically if they have an e-tabling account, and you may be asked to prepare Questions for tabling by this means. At present, Members can table up to five written questions per day via e-tabling up to 6.30 pm from Monday to Thursday, and up to 2.30 pm on Fridays. The limits only apply to e-tabling – Members may still table as many Questions in person or by post as they wish.
If the Table Office has any problems with a Question they receive, your MP will receive a card in the post or an email asking them to contact the Table Office to discuss the Question and how it might need to be changed. This is known as the Question being ‘carded’. If a Question is carded, Members’ staff can call to discuss or clarify Questions. However, they may still need Member authority if a Question is substantially redrafted.
Every day (except Fridays) MPs ask ministers questions in the House about various government policies or recent events.
Ministers from each government department must come to the House roughly once every five sitting weeks, on a rota basis, to answer these Oral Questions. Questions must be drafted in an orderly fashion just like written questions and can be submitted up to three sitting days before the relevant Question Time, giving the minister and his or her civil servants enough time to prepare detailed replies.
After the minister’s initial reply, the questioner is free to ask a “supplementary” question, as long as it is on the same general topic. Other Members may then intervene.
If your MP has a Question selected in the ballot, you’ll need to prepare a supplementary Question. The relevant adviser or researchers should be able to provide one for you, if it’s not an area you’re familiar with. The minister and his/her civil servants will have tried to predict the supplementary and formulate an answer in advance. Therefore, in Opposition, the more unpredictable the supplementary, whilst staying on the topic, the better. You want to try and put the Minister on the spot!
What’s more, your supplementary can be a lot more flexible than the “substantive”, which appears on the order paper- i.e. it doesn’t need to follow the same strict drafting rules. Often, it is in the supplementary that your MP seeks to deliver the “killer blow”, by using some clever or punchy language or stats, making a joke or undermining the “prepared” civil service answer.
From your point of view, Oral Questions particularly can also provide excellent opportunities for getting some press, especially locally if your MP is challenging a Minister, or even the Prime Minister, about a pressing constituency matter.
What if your MP can’t attend?
If your MP can’t attend a Question Time in which he/she has had their Question selected by the ballot, you need to have the Question withdrawn or ‘unstarred’ (i.e. made into a written question).
First, phone your Whips’ office and let them know; then you need to call the Table Office. You should also call the Speaker’s Office directly. If you forget to do this, the Speaker will be calling your MPs name in the Chamber while your MP is at the dentist, or in the constituency or whatever other task meant they could not attend, followed by the cry of “Not Here”. This is considered to be a major discourtesy and will result in considerable displeasure and the possibility of your MP being disfavoured by the Speaker for some time afterward.
You can use the Parliamentary Search Function on the Intranet to look up all the Questions your MP has tabled, regardless of whether or not the Question has received an answer or not.
You can also see all answered questions on theyworkforyou.com.
Written Parliamentary Questions cost £149 to be answered. Oral ones cost £410!
Questions can be tabled during the recess and are printed on the first sitting day back
On a final note, make the best use of Parliamentary Questions that you can. They are a simple and effective way of scrutinising the work of ministers, and you’ll find countless ways to utilise the answers, from debates in the Chamber to generating proactive press stories.
With grateful thanks to Rob Cope in the Table Office for advice on updating this guide – October 2011
Updated ES March 2013