Questions in writing
‘Questions on notice’ were originally part of the order of business in the House, a period during which Ministers read to the House answers to questions in writing, the terms of which had been printed on the Notice Paper. Questions were placed on notice to be answered on a particular day, either the next or one in the near future, and were commonly answered on the day for which notice had been given. Questions without notice were also asked during this item of business. In the early Parliaments relatively few questions on notice were asked, only two or three usually appearing on the Notice Paper for a particular day and more than eight or nine being unusual. These figures included any questions remaining unanswered from the previous sitting.
Over the years more and more time was taken up with questions without notice, and in order to save the time of the House, a new standing order was adopted in 1931 to provide that the reply to a question in writing could be given by delivering it to the Clerk, who would supply a copy to the Member concerned and arrange for its inclusion in Hansard. Soon afterwards answers, which until then had been printed in Hansard immediately after questions without notice, were added at the end of the report of the day’s proceedings. Questions themselves, however, remained listed prominently as the first item of business on the Notice Paper until 1950 when ‘Questions without notice’ replaced ‘Questions on notice’ in the order of business.
By the early 1980s an average of 50 questions was being asked each sitting day, with a record number of 711 questions being placed on a single day’s Notice Paper. In the years 2008–2014 only about 8 questions in writing were being asked each sitting day, but this number increased to 19 in 2015, and was 14 in 2016.
Notice of question
Members may ask questions in writing by having them placed on the Notice Paper. Neither the question nor the answer is read in the House. There is no rule limiting the number of questions a Member may place on the Notice Paper at any time or on the length of a question, although in very extraordinary circumstances practical considerations, such as printing arrangements, could impose a limit.
A Member lodging a question for the Notice Paper must deliver it in writing, to the Clerk at the Table or to the Table Office. The question must be authorised by the Member. Authorisation generally implies a signature. However, this is not insisted on when the Member delivers the question in person. Questions forwarded by email are accepted if the message comes from the Member’s official email address or the Member’s office. Questions for the next Notice Paper must be lodged by the cut off time determined by the Speaker, otherwise they will be included in the Notice Paper for the following sitting. The Speaker has determined that questions for the next day’s Notice Paper should, in normal circumstances, be lodged by 4 p.m., although if a proposed question requires extensive editing or checking it may not be included in the next Notice Paper.
Questions are not accepted from Members while they are suspended from the service of the House.
Form and content
In general, the rules governing the form and content of questions without notice apply equally to those asked on notice, but they are able to be applied more strictly to the latter because of the opportunity to examine them closely.
The Speaker has authority to ensure that questions conform with the standing orders, but, in practice, this task is performed by the Clerks, who have traditionally had the Speaker’s authority to amend questions submitted before placing them on the Notice Paper. The Clerks also edit questions to adapt them to the style of the Notice Paper, to eliminate unnecessary words, to put them into proper interrogative form, and to ensure that they are addressed to the correct Ministers. Where changes of substance are involved, if practicable the amendments are discussed with the Member concerned or a person on the Member’s staff. No question is amended so as to alter its sense without the Member’s consent. Only in instances where agreement cannot be reached does the Speaker become personally involved, and any decision then made is final.
Printing of questions on Notice Paper
Notices of questions are placed on the Notice Paper in the order in which they are received. Each question is numbered, and the question retains the same number until it is fully answered and the reply is delivered to the Clerk. On the first sitting day of each sitting fortnight all unanswered questions appear in full on the Notice Paper. On other days only new questions for that day are printed, along with a list identifying by number the unanswered questions not printed. An electronic ‘questions paper’ on the House website, updated daily, gives the full text of all unanswered questions.
Removal of questions from Notice Paper
A Member may withdraw a question appearing on the Notice Paper in his or her name by informing the Clerk. Withdrawal does not need to be notified in writing; oral advice is sufficient. The withdrawal is effective immediately, and the responsible department is advised as soon as practicable. When a Member ceases to be a Member or becomes a Minister, any questions appearing on the Notice Paper in his or her name are automatically removed.
Any questions remaining on the Notice Paper at the time when the Parliament is prorogued or the House is dissolved lapse.