Rules governing questions
The rules governing the form and content of questions are set down in standing orders or have become established by practice. In addition to rules specifically applying, the content of questions must comply with the general rules applying to the content of speeches.
Questions without notice by their very nature may raise significant difficulties for the Chair. The necessity to make instant decisions on the application of the many rules on the form and content of questions is one of the Speaker’s most demanding tasks. Because of the importance of Question Time in political terms, and because of the need to ensure that this critical function of the House is preserved in a vital form, Speakers tend to be somewhat lenient in applying the standing orders, with the result that, for example, breaches of only minor procedural importance have not prevented questions on issues of special public interest. The extent of such leniency varies from Speaker to Speaker and to some degree in the light of the prevailing circumstances. In addition, some latitude is generally extended to the opposition leaders in asking questions without notice and to the Prime Minister in answering them. The result of these circumstances is that rulings have not always been well founded and inconsistencies have occurred. Speakers have commented that only a small proportion of questions without notice are strictly in order and that to enforce the rules too rigidly would undermine Question Time. Only those rulings which are regarded as technically sound and of continuing relevance are cited in this chapter without qualification.
In disallowing a question the Speaker may permit the Member to re-phrase the question and to ask it again, immediately or later in Question Time. This indulgence is not automatically extended. Similarly the Speaker, having ruled part of a question out of order, may or may not choose to allow that part of the question which is in order, and a Minister may be directed or permitted to ignore part of a question that is out of order. If the Speaker considers that Members have been unable to hear a question the Speaker may permit the Member to repeat it.
The rules governing questions are applied strictly to questions in writing which are submitted to the Clerk before being placed on the Notice Paper (see page 565).
Although the standing orders place no restrictions on who may ask questions, the following is accepted practice.
Any private Member may ask a question.
Ministers do not ask questions, either of other Ministers, or where permitted, of private Members. However, on occasion Ministers have directed questions to the Speaker.
Parliamentary Secretaries do not ask questions, either of Ministers, or where permitted, of private Members. This restriction is a recent development, accompanying the expansion of the role of Parliamentary Secretaries, who now perform some duties formerly performed exclusively by Ministers (see Chapter on ‘House, Government and Opposition’). Parliamentary Secretaries have, however, asked questions of the Speaker.
The restrictions on Parliamentary Secretaries apply equally to Assistant Ministers who are Parliamentary Secretaries.
It is not the practice for questions to be asked by the Speaker. Nevertheless Speaker Nairn, who, exceptionally, was a member of the Opposition, placed questions on notice during the period 1941 to 1943.
Direction of Questions
All but a very small proportion of questions are directed to Ministers. Questions may not be put to one Minister, other than the Prime Minister, about the ministerial responsibilities of another except that questions may be put to Ministers acting in another portfolio. Where a question may involve the responsibility of more than one Minister, it should be directed to the Minister most responsible. Questions relating to the responsibilities of a Minister who is a Senator are addressed to the Minister in the House representing the Senate Minister.
A Minister may refuse to answer a question. He or she may also transfer a question to another Minister and it is not in order to question the reason for doing so. If a question has been addressed to the incorrect Minister, the responsible Minister may answer, but a Member has been given an opportunity to redirect the question. In many instances the responsibilities referred to in a question may be shared by two or more Ministers and it is only the Ministers concerned who are in a position to determine authoritatively which of them is more responsible. It is not unusual for questions addressed to the Prime Minister to be referred to the Minister directly responsible. No direct statement, request or overt action by the Prime Minister is required to indicate that another Minister will answer a question addressed to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister may also choose to answer a question addressed to another Minister.
Misdirected questions in writing are transferred by the Table Office, upon notification by the departments concerned.
Rostering of Ministers
Although there is no rule to this effect, it has been traditionally expected that all Ministers who are Members of the House, unless sick, overseas or otherwise engaged on urgent public business, will be present at Question Time.
In February 1994 a sessional order was agreed to providing for a roster of Ministers at Question Time. Ministers were rostered to appear two days each week (out of four), with the Prime Minister appearing on Mondays and Thursdays. These arrangements were introduced as a trial, and followed Procedure Committee recommendations for a more limited experiment. The sessional order providing for the roster was not renewed in the following Parliament.
To Parliamentary Secretaries
It is considered that Ministers alone are responsible and answerable to Parliament for the actions of their departments. Even though the Ministers of State and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2000 provided for the appointment of Parliamentary Secretaries to administer Departments of State, standing order 98 specifically excludes the asking of questions of Parliamentary Secretaries. Additionally, as Parliamentary Secretaries could be in charge of government business in the House without ultimately being responsible for it, they may not be questioned under the provision of standing order 99 applying to questions to private Members (see below). This exclusion makes Parliamentary Secretaries the only Members of whom questions cannot be asked under any circumstances. This is not to suggest that there is no accountability to the House, for the relevant Ministers may be questioned about matters in which Parliamentary Secretaries have been involved and a Parliamentary Secretary’s conduct can be challenged by substantive motion. A Minister who has been a Parliamentary Secretary may not be asked questions directly about actions taken as a Parliamentary Secretary, however, if a Minister has made a statement or given information, as a Minister, about actions taken as a Parliamentary Secretary, questions which refer to such statements or information may be permitted. The restrictions on Parliamentary Secretaries apply equally to Assistant Ministers who are Parliamentary Secretaries.
To private Members
Only rarely are questions directed to private Members, and even then they have often been disallowed for contravention of the strict limitations imposed by standing orders and practice. Standing order 99 provides that during Question Time, a Member may ask a question orally of another Member who is not a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary. Questions must relate to a bill, motion, or other business of the House or of a committee, for which the Member asked is responsible. There is no provision for questions in writing to private Members, the standing order refers to questions without notice only.
Questions most often allowed have concerned private Members’ bills listed as notices on the Notice Paper. A question asking when the bill will be introduced, whether the bill has been drafted, or whether the questioner could see a copy of the bill would be in order. A question has been allowed to a Member in charge of a bill actually before the House, but the Procedure Committee has indicated its support for such questions being confined essentially to matters of timing and procedure. Questions have been asked in connection with a notice of motion, but the scope is very limited—for example, a question has asked whether there was any urgency in a matter and whether the Member could indicate when a motion might be debated. A question may not be asked of a private Member about a question in writing in the Member’s name—such a matter is not regarded as business of the House for which the Member is responsible.
Questions not meeting the conditions of standing order 99, such as questions concerning party policies and statements made inside or outside the House, notably by the Members to whom such questions are directed, have been ruled out of order. The following cases are illustrative of the type of question which may not be asked:
- to a private Member asking if he had been correctly reported in a newspaper;
- to a private Member regarding a statement outside the House;
- to the Leader of the Opposition as to whether he would ‘give a lead’ to the members of his party on certain issues;
- to the Leader of the Opposition with regard to his conduct in connection with a Royal Commission;
- to a private Member concerning a petition he had just presented;
- to the Leader of the Opposition regarding his statements on television;
- to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition regarding a statement he had made in the House; and
- to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition concerning the platform of his party.
It is not in order to question a private Member about matters with which he or she is, or has been, concerned as a member of a body outside the House, nor to question a private Member concerning the Member’s past actions as Prime Minister or Minister. Such questions would clearly contravene standing order 99. A Member’s responsibility to the House for ministerial actions, after ceasing to be a Minister, is more appropriately discharged by action pursuant to a substantive motion in the House.
In 1995 and 1996 Leaders of the Opposition were asked questions about private Member’s bills they had introduced, and gave answers which the Procedure Committee noted, in its 1996 report on the matter, as going beyond the previous limits. Following the 1995 occasions, the equivalent standing order to current standing order 99 was suspended on the initiative of the Government, for the remainder of the period of sittings. In its report the Procedure Committee recommended that the standing order be retained in its present form, but that the limits traditionally applied should be enforced—that is, questions should be tightly confined, essentially to matters of timing and procedure, and occasionally to brief explanations of a particular clause. The committee stated that ‘Issues of substance and policy are addressed more appropriately in debate (such as a second reading debate on a bill) than in a question without notice’.
To committee chairs, etc
While questions in writing to committee chairs have never been accepted, it has been the practice to allow a question without notice of a strictly limited nature to be addressed to a Member in his or her capacity as chair of a committee. Standing order 99 now allows questions without notice to any Member (other than a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary) relating to the business of a committee for which the Member asked is responsible.
A question to a committee chair asking when a report would be tabled has been permitted. A question asking if a committee had been requested to inquire into a certain matter has not been permitted. The Speaker has ruled out of order a question to a chair which asked that the committee examine certain matters. Questions concerning statements by a committee chair are not permitted. A question to the chair of a subcommittee has been ruled out of order on the ground that the chair is responsible to the committee and not to the House. A question addressed to a committee chair has been answered by a Minister, at the request of the committee chair, the Minister being able to respond to matters within his responsibility. The timing of a government response to a report is outside a chair’s responsibilities and not therefore something he or she can be questioned about.
Opportunities to ask questions about committee business are restricted by standing order 100(e), which prevents questions from referring to proceedings of a committee not reported to the House (see page 760).
To the Speaker
At the conclusion of Question Time, Members may ask questions orally of the Speaker about any matter of administration for which he or she is responsible. However, Members seeking information on a matter of order or privilege must raise the matter under the appropriate procedure; such matters cannot be put to the Speaker as questions. Any Member may direct a question without notice to the Speaker, including Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries.
Once exceptional, questions without notice to the Speaker have become more frequent in recent years. Many of these questions have related to procedural rather than to administrative matters. As such they fall outside the provisions of standing order 103, and also deviate from the principle that a procedural matter should be raised at the point at which it occurs.
In 1994 standing orders were amended to provide for questions to the Speaker to be taken at the conclusion of Question Time, recognising what had in fact been the practice for some time. In earlier years the rare questions to the Speaker would be asked during Question Time proper, sometimes between questions directed to Ministers. When these arrangements operated Speakers suggested that Question Time was an inappropriate time to deal with minor or detailed matters of parliamentary administration and that they would be better dealt with by an approach to the relevant domestic committee, by correspondence or by personal interview with the Speaker.
Occurrences in committees may not be raised in questions to the Speaker as the Speaker has no official cognisance of such proceedings.
While the standing orders provide for questions in writing to be directed only to Ministers, written requests for detailed information relating to the administration of the parliamentary departments may be directed to the Speaker. Such requests are lodged with the Clerk in the same way as questions in writing addressed to Ministers. However, a question to the Speaker, if in order, is printed in the daily Hansard rather than the Notice Paper. Answers provided by the Speaker are also printed in Hansard.
Length of questions
The duration of each question is limited to 30 seconds.
Form and content of questions
To relate to Minister’s public responsibilities
A Minister can only be questioned on matters for which he or she is responsible or officially connected. Such matters must concern public affairs, administration, or proceedings pending in the House. The underlying principle is that Ministers are required to answer questions only on matters for which they are responsible to the House. Consequently Speakers have ruled out of order questions or parts of questions to Ministers which concern, for example:
- statements, activities, actions or decisions of a Minister’s own party (including party or party/union activities which may have had some connection to a Minister), or of its conferences, officials, representatives or candidates, or of those of other parties, including opposition parties;
- what happens or is said in the party rooms or in party committees;
- party leadership and related issues where there is no connection with a matter in respect of which the (Prime) Minister is responsible to the House;
- arrangements between parties, for example, coalition agreements on ministerial appointments;
- policies of previous governments;
- statements in the House by other Members;
- statements by people outside the House including other Members, notably opposition Members, and Senators;
- the attitude, behaviour or actions of a Member of Parliament or the staff of Members;
- matters of a private nature not related to the public duties of a Minister;
- actions taken as a private Member before becoming Minister,
- actions taken by the Minister when a Parliamentary Secretary;
- matters in State Parliaments or State matters, but this rule does not prevent questions about State matters where there is a connection with Commonwealth Government activities;
- the internal affairs of a foreign country, although it is in order to ask a Minister, for example, about the Government’s position or action on a matter arising in or concerning a foreign country.
As is clear from the above examples, it is not in order for Ministers to be questioned on opposition policies, for which they are not responsible. The Speaker has been critical of the use of phrases at the end of questions, such as ‘are there any threats to…’, that could be viewed as intended to allow Ministers to canvass opposition plans or policies, and has ruled parts of questions using such terms as ‘are there any other policy approaches?’ and ‘what risks are there?’ out of order on the assumption that they invited comments about opposition policies or approaches.
A Minister may not be asked a question about his or her actions in a former ministerial role. However, in a case when a Minister had issued a statement referring to earlier responsibilities, a question relating to the statement was permitted. Similarly, questions have been permitted relating to a statement a Minister has made, as a Minister, about actions taken while a Parliamentary Secretary.
It is not in order for questions to reflect on or be critical of the character, conduct or private affairs of a Minister. A Minister’s conduct may only be challenged on a substantive motion.
The nature and degree of ministerial responsibility for the policies and operations of statutory authorities or corporations varies. The practice of the House has been to allow questions about such bodies and substantive replies have usually been provided. However, a Minister may choose not to answer any question or may answer it as he or she sees fit. Ministers have exercised this discretion in relation to some questions on statutory authorities, particularly in instances where a large degree of autonomy exists or where an answer may be to the commercial disadvantage of an authority operating in a competitive commercial environment. A Minister has answered that publication of information sought by a Member might be to the commercial disadvantage of an authority and asked that the information be provided direct to the Member on a confidential basis.
Questions to seek factual information or press for action
The purpose of questions is to enable Members to obtain factual information or press for action on matters for which the Minister questioned is responsible to the House. The standing orders, particularly standing orders 98 and 100, contain detailed provisions, outlined in later sections of this chapter, whose primary objective is to ensure that this purpose is given effect. In particular, they attempt to restrain the questioner from giving unnecessary information or introducing or inviting argument and thereby starting a debate.
Debate, argument, etc.
Questions must not be debated, or contain debate; nor can they contain arguments, comments or opinions. They may not become lengthy speeches or statements and they may not in themselves suggest an answer. In short, questions should not be used as vehicles for the discussion of issues. The call may be withdrawn from a Member who prefaces a question with an extraneous remark.
Questions must not contain inferences, imputations, insults, ironical expressions or hypothetical matter; nor may they be facetious or frivolous or attribute motive. Speaker Andrew acknowledged that many questions convey an element of imputation; and that his general attitude was not to intervene where the imputation was directed to a difference in philosophy or viewpoint, but to intervene where the attribution of personal motive was such that it could not be ignored. A question has been ruled out of order on the ground that it contained scorn and derision.
References to debates
References in questions to debates in the current session, concluded or adjourned, are out of order. The rule does not preclude questions on the subject matter of such debates, which may be so broad as to cover, for example, the country’s whole foreign policy, but rather precludes reference to the debate itself and to specific statements made in it. The Chair has interpreted this rule as applying equally to debates in the Senate. Questions mentioning decisions of the Senate are permitted where they are connected with a Minister’s area of responsibility.
It has also been held to be out of order to ask a question repetitive of a matter already determined by the House, or which reflects upon any vote of the House.
References to committee proceedings
Questions must not refer to proceedings of a committee not reported to the House. However, no exception has been taken to questions merely coinciding in subject matter with current committee inquiries. The following private ruling of President Cormack has equal relevance to the House:
…if I were to rule that questions should not be allowed on any matters which may be under examination by committees, such a rule strictly applied would operate to block questions on a very wide variety of subjects.
The practice which I follow, and which I shall continue to follow unless otherwise directed by the Senate, is to allow questions seeking information on public affairs for which there is ministerial responsibility provided that such questions are not of a nature which may attempt to interfere with a committee’s work or anticipate its report.
Information, comment, etc. in questions
Questions must not contain statements of fact unless they can be authenticated and are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible. Thus, Members may not give information under the guise of asking a question—otherwise questions cease to be questions and can become excessively long and so limit the number of questions that can be asked. While short introductory words may be tolerated, the use of prefaces is to be avoided and a Member called to ask a question places the retention of the call at risk if comment is made relating to an answer just given or some other extraneous matter. Similarly, rhetorical questions should not be asked; these have been seen as a device to put information forward. A question seen as producing an orchestrated chorus of support has been disallowed. The Chair frequently interrupts Members to warn them that their questions are excessively long and requires them to come to the point quickly. A Member who persists in giving information or who does not come to the point of the question when asked to do so may have the question ruled out of order, or be directed to resume his or her seat. Alternatively, if enough has been said to make the point of the question clear, the Speaker may require the Member to resume his or her seat and call the Minister to respond.
The requirement that information contained in a question be authenticated by the questioner is rarely applied unless the accuracy of the information is challenged. In such cases the Speaker simply calls on the questioner to vouch for the accuracy of the statement and, if the Member cannot do so, the question is disallowed. If the Member vouches for the statement’s accuracy, the Speaker accepts the authentication. Questions based on rumour—that is, unsubstantiated statements—are not permissible.
References to newspaper reports, etc.
It is established practice that, provided the Member asking a question takes responsibility for the accuracy of the facts upon which the question is based, he or she may direct attention to a statement, for example, in a newspaper or a news report, but may not quote extracts. It has been held that the questioner must vouch for the accuracy of any such report referred to, not simply for the accuracy of the reference to it. When a Member could not do so a question has been ruled out of order, but Speaker Andrew indicated he would not seek to impose a strict application of past practice.
In 1977 a Member’s authentication of a newspaper report referred to in his question was challenged by the Member whose speech was the subject of the report. As he was in no position to adjudicate on the matter the Speaker accepted the questioner’s authentication at face value and suggested that if any misrepresentation was involved this could be corrected in a personal explanation after Question Time. Instead leave was granted for the full text of the reported statement to be incorporated in Hansard. In a similar case in 1978, when leave was not granted for incorporation of the reported statement, the Member concerned made a personal explanation. In 1981 the Speaker stated that he only asked for Members to vouch for the accuracy of press reports over which there was clearly controversy.
The restriction on quotations in questions, which reflects UK House of Commons practice, has always been applied to questions in writing but the Chair has often chosen not to apply it to questions without notice, perhaps on the basis that, where a statement of fact is strictly necessary to render a question intelligible, a succinct quotation may more readily achieve this objective. In permitting quotations the Chair has ruled that they may not contain matter which would otherwise be ruled out of order, for example, comment, opinion, argument or unparliamentary language. In 1962 the Standing Orders Committee recommended that standing orders be amended to make explicit provision for questions not to contain quotations. Consideration of the proposal was deferred by the House and subsequently lapsed.
It has been the practice, following that of the House of Commons, that it is not permissible to ask whether a reported statement is correct. A Minister, although he or she may have responsibility for a matter, does not have responsibility for the accuracy of reports by others on the matter. It is in order to ask whether a Minister’s attention has been drawn to a report concerning a matter for which the Minister has responsibility and to ask a question in connection with the subject of the report.
Questions seeking opinions
Questions may not ask Ministers for an expression of opinion, including a legal opinion, for comment, or for justification of statements made by them.
Legal opinions, such as the interpretation of a statute, or of an international document, or of a Minister’s own powers, should not be sought in questions. Ministers may be asked, however, by what statutory authority they have acted in a particular instance, and the Prime Minister may be asked to define a Minister’s responsibilities. Speaker Morrison of the UK House of Commons explained the basis for not permitting questions seeking an expression of opinion on a question of law:
A Question asking a Minister to interpret the domestic law offends against the rule of Ministerial responsibility, since such interpretation is not the responsibility of a Minister …But it also offends against the rule that a Question may not ask for a Minister’s opinion. The interpretation of written words is a matter of opinion.
Questions asking about the extent to which federal legislation would prevail over State legislation or administrative action have been permitted. In addition it has been ruled that in response to a question dealing with the law a Minister may provide any facts, as opposed to legal opinions, the Minister may wish to give. Questions asking whether legislation existed on a specified subject, whether an agency was entitled to take a particular action, whether a specified Act provided certain protection, whether certain actions were in breach of regulations, whether offences against Commonwealth laws may have been committed, and what the consequences of certain actions had been, have been permitted.
In 1951, a question seeking a legal opinion from the Prime Minister having been disallowed, a Member asked the Prime Minister if he would table legal opinions he had received on the matter specified. The Prime Minister declined, stating that it was not his practice to table opinions received from the Crown’s legal advisers. The Attorney-General has also answered a question in writing (which did not explicitly seek a legal opinion), to the effect that that he did not consider it appropriate to provide the substance of a legal opinion in response to a question in writing.
Announcement of government policy
Members must not ask Ministers to announce government policy, but may seek an explanation about the policy and its application, and may ask the Prime Minister whether a Minister’s statement in the House represents government policy.
This rule is often misunderstood but the practice of the House is quite clear. A question which directly asks a Minister to announce new policy is obviously out of order but a request for an explanation regarding existing policy and its application, or regarding the intentions of the Government is in order.
Questions regarding persons
Questions must not contain names of persons unless they can be authenticated and are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible. A question with or without notice which is laudatory of a named individual or contains the name of an individual in order to render the question intelligible is permissible. A Member has been warned after repeating the name of a person in a question after the Speaker had stated that the inclusion of the name was not necessary, and a Minister has been asked to ignore a sentence in a question containing the name of a person.
Questions must not reflect on or be critical of the character or conduct of a member of either House, the Queen, the Governor-General, a State Governor, or a member of the judiciary: their conduct may only be challenged on a substantive motion. This rule applies to both questions without notice and questions in writing. (See also ‘Inferences, etc. at page 760)
Questions critical of the character or conduct of other persons must be in writing. Although this rule is generally applied to named persons, it has also been applied to unnamed, but readily identifiable, persons. Such questions may, however, be placed on the Notice Paper. The purpose of the rule is to protect a person against criticism which could be unwarranted. A question in writing does not receive the same publicity and prominence as a question without notice and the reply can be more considered.
The standing orders do not prevent criticism of Ministers or others in high office but rather preclude such criticism from being aired in questions. A substantive motion relevant to the criticism must be moved so that the House may then debate the criticism and make its decision. It has been held that once the House has made a decision on the matter, further questions, whether containing criticism or not, are out of order on the ground that the House has made its determination. In modern practice, in matters such as the actions of a Member of the Government, questions having a somewhat critical cast have been permitted although the House may have made a decision on the matter.
In 1976 Speaker Snedden, referring to a question about the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, said:
I have ruled that the reference in May’s Parliamentary Practice which would prevent even the mention of such an office holder …is far too restrictive and that there can be discussion about such an office holder provided that the discussion relates to a statement as to whether the actions were right or wrong, is conducted in a reasonable fashion and does not attribute motive to or involve criticism of the office holder.
Although not specifically referred to in the standing orders, it has been a practice of the House that opprobrious reflections may not be cast in questions on rulers or governments of Commonwealth countries or other countries friendly with Australia, or on their representatives in Australia. The application of this rule has, however, tended to vary according to particular considerations at the time. A recommendation by the Standing Orders Committee to include such a requirement in the standing orders was rejected by the House in 1963. In 1986 the Procedure Committee stated its opinion that the rule was unduly restrictive and recommended it be discontinued, but no action was taken on this recommendation.
Questions concerning the Crown
Questions may be asked of Ministers about matters relating to those public duties for which the Queen or her representative in the Commonwealth, the Governor-General, is responsible. However, just as in debate, a Member in putting a question must not refer disrespectfully to the Queen, the Governor-General, or a State Governor, in debate or for the purpose of influencing the House in its deliberations. As noted above, a question must not reflect on or be critical of the character or conduct of the Queen, the Governor-General or a State Governor. Their conduct may only be challenged on a substantive motion.
In 1956 Prime Minister Menzies presented documents relating to the double dissolution of the Senate and the House by the Governor-General in 1951. The documents referred to an interview which the Prime Minister had had with the Governor-General and contained copies of a letter from the Prime Minister to the Governor-General and the latter’s reply. Questions seeking the tabling of these documents had been asked by the Leader of the Opposition some five years earlier. In answer to those questions the Prime Minister acknowledged the importance of making the documents public as historical records and guides to constitutional practice but indicated that he would not present them until the Governor-General concerned had left office so that they would not involve the incumbent Governor-General in public debate. In 1979 Prime Minister Fraser presented documents relating to the dissolution of the House in 1977 and the double dissolution of 1975. These included correspondence between the Prime Minister and the Governor-General relating to the grounds for the dissolutions. He indicated that he was presenting the documents in response to a question asked earlier by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
The practice in the UK House of Commons not to permit questions to the Prime Minister on advice given to the Crown concerning the granting of honours has not been followed in the House of Representatives, although care has been taken to ensure that nothing in such a question could bring the Queen into disrespect.
The sub judice convention
Questions should not raise matters awaiting or under adjudication in a court of law. In such cases the House imposes a restriction upon itself to avoid setting itself up as an alternative forum to the courts and to ensure that its proceedings are not permitted to interfere with the course of justice. This restriction is known as the sub judice rule or, more properly, as the sub judice convention. The convention, which is discussed in detail in the Chapter on ‘Control and conduct of debate’, also applies to questions and answers. It is for the Speaker to determine whether a question (or an answer) which may touch on matters before, or due to come before, a court may be permitted, just as the application of the convention in debate is subject to the discretion of the Speaker.
The Speaker may direct a Member to change the language of a question asked during Question Time if the language is inappropriate or does not otherwise conform with the standing orders, and may, on the same grounds, change the language of a question in writing.
Repetition of questions
A question fully answered must not be asked again. A question may however contain a reference to a question already answered. Members occasionally place questions in writing asking Ministers to up-date information provided in answer to earlier specified questions.
UK House of Commons practice is that Members are out of order in renewing questions to which an answer has been refused; that where a Minister has refused to take the action or give the information asked for in a particular question, he or she may be asked the same question again after three months; and that a question which one Minister has refused to answer cannot be addressed to another Minister. However, Ministers rarely refuse to answer questions in the House of Representatives and circumstances in which these House of Commons rules could have been applied do not appear to have arisen.
Question without notice similar to question on Notice Paper
It has been the general practice of the House that questions without notice which are substantially the same as questions already on the Notice Paper are not permissible. It is not relevant that the questions on and without notice may be addressed to different Ministers. However, in 1986 the Speaker ruled such a question acceptable, as it had been asked by the Member who had placed the original question on the Notice Paper. In that case the Speaker’s view was that the purpose of the rule was to prevent a Member asking a question in writing from being disadvantaged and the Member’s question being pre-empted, and logic and common sense dictated that the practice should not apply in respect of a Member’s own question. The Procedure Committee subsequently recommended that past practice be continued, despite this precedent to the contrary. A Member may withdraw a question in writing at any time by informing the Clerk of the House, and the withdrawal is effective immediately. As the withdrawal could take place as a preface to a question without notice, the previous restriction could be easily circumvented.
A Member asking a question need not disclose any personal interest he or she may have in the subject matter of the question. The resolution of the House effective from 1984 until 1988 providing for the oral declaration of interests by Members participating in debate and other proceedings specifically excluded the asking of questions.
Questions requiring detailed response
If a question cannot reasonably be expected to be answered without notice, it is disallowed, and the Chair suggests that it be placed on the Notice Paper. This rule is mainly applied to questions seeking very detailed replies or to questions with many parts. Ministers themselves occasionally indicate that they are unable to answer a question without notice and ask that the Member place it on notice or, alternatively, they undertake to provide the Member with the information in writing. In the latter case, if the Minister provides a copy of the reply to the Clerk of the House, the question and reply are printed in Hansard.