Parliamentary procedure

Parliamentary procedures provide adequate opportunities for backbenchers to scrutinise government policy.’Do you agree?

1.Scrutiny of government administration

It is a fundamental requirement of the rule of law and doctrine of constitutionalism that the government should be fully accountable to the elected representatives of the people, and that government should command the support of Parliament and the electorate. Accountability can only be a reality if the procedures exist for adequate scrutiny. There are three principal means by which backbenchers can scrutinise government policy: first, through questions asked of ministers at Question Time; secondly, in general or specific debates in the House of Commons; thirdly, through cross ‘ examination of ministers appearing before select committees.

A. Question time

The effectiveness of Question Time as a means of scrutiny of ministers by backbenchers is limited by a number of factors. Generally, the backbencher is no match for the minister with his Civil Service brief. When a parliamentary question is submitted it is passed immediately to the relevant government department, and the officials in that department will give priority to preparing a brief for the minister enabling him to answer not only that question, but also any supplementary questions that the officials anticipate. The department knows by whom the question is asked and in preparing the brief will bear in mind the interest and concerns of the questioner and other MPs who are similarly interested and likely to put supplementary questions. Ministers rarely gain or lose in reputation at Question Time. Most of them can cope quite satisfactorily with it, having risen through the House themselves. Often a minister will deal with a question simply by a party gibe, stonewalling or evasion.

Question time is not a spontaneous affair and it should not necessarily be criticised on that basis. Members wishing to ask questions are required to give a minimum of two sitting days’ notice, and a , maximum of ten days’ notice. This time span for notice is designed to ensure that there is both adequate opportunity for Ministers to prepare answers and that the issue being raised is still fresh and relevant. The number of questions which an individual Member of Parliament may have pending at any one time is eight during a period of 10 sitting days and no more than two on any one day.

The rules concerning questions have been developed over time by the Speaker of the House, who is responsible for enforcing them. Only questions on matters, which are directly within a Minister’s responsibility, may be put.

i) Questions posed to ministers

Approximately once a month each Minister will answer questions put by Members of Parliament on matters for which he or she is responsible. It is to be noted that while few oral answers are given, because of shortage of time, all questions receive an answer, either oral or written, and all answers are recorded in the Official Journal of the Commons.

(ii) Questions posed to prime minister:

Prime Ministerial question time takes place once a week (Wednesday) for 30 minutes. Questions put to the PM may relate to aspects of government policy. Frequently, questions put to the PM will simply request that the PM ‘list his engagements for the day’. The purpose of this form of open question is to avoid the possibility that the PM will simply refer the questioner to another Minister with responsibility for the particular matter. The open question therefore provides a neutral peg on which to hang the supplementary, and real, question. Once the PM has answered that initial question, a ‘supplementary’ question will follow which may concern any matter for which the PM carries responsibility or matters which do not fall within any individual Minister’s responsibility. If, however, a question is addressed to the Prime Minister, which should be addressed, for example, to the Secretary of State for Social Security, the Prime Minister will decline to answer and suggest that the matter be referred to the responsible Minister. The strength of PM’s question time lies in the lack of notice given and the need for the PM to demonstrate his/her competence across the full range of government policy.

iii) A private notice question:

A private notice question is an oral question put to a Minister without the need to observe the normal tice. Standing Orders define private notice questions as raising matters, which are of an urgent character. Private notice questions enable a matter of urgency to be raised for immediate discussion in the period. Following question time. Because private notice questions take priority over other parliamentary business, rules provide that a member who wishes to put such a question must give notice to the Speaker before noon on the day s/he seeks to put the question; the Speaker has absolute discretion as to whether to allow or disallow the question to be put. Many applications for a private notice question are made, but few are granted – approximately one per week.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Question Time as a method of scrutinising – Questions can be a very effective way of embarrassing ministers including the PM. Robin Cook suffered over the Sierra Leone affair from tough questioning in the Commons, and Mrs. Thatcher said in her memoirs she considered resigning over the Westland affair in 1986. But the fact is she did not and neither did Robin Cook who blamed his civil servants. No one resigned over the Arms to Iraq affair despite a damming report on the Tory administration by Sir Richard Scott. The convention of ministerial responsibility in the individual sense has become politicised in as much as it depends more on the political support for the particular minister.

2.Special debates

Apart from the opportunities for debate during the legislative process, there are various other opportunities for debate in the House of Commons.

i) Applications for emergency adjournment debates.

Any Member of Parliament may apply to the Speaker to raise an urgent matter for debate. If this is granted then the matter will be raised immediately after question time and private notice questions. At that time the matter is briefly introduced and a substantive three-hour debate will be arranged for the following day. Because emergency debates disrupt the parliamentary timetable they are confined to matters deemed to be of urgent national importance and applications are sparingly granted: only one or two per session is the norm.

ii) General Debates (Debates in the chamber and in Westminster Hall):

The most public form of scrutiny takes place both at question time and in debates on the floor of the House. It is here that the government is required to defend its policies and to answer its critics. General debates take many forms. The government will determine general debates, although the opposition has 20 days on which it can dictate the subject matter. There are also adjournment debates at the end of the day’s business, and before Parliament goes into recess for annual breaks.

iii) Early day motions (EDMs)

Early day motions are written requests by Members of Parliament for a debate to be held at an ‘early day’ on particular matters. It is a procedure for airing views and attracting support for any matter, and should significant support be given it may lead to a formal debate.

Devices for curtailing debate

Delay of Bills in the House of Commons is a threat to the government’s legislative programme. To . overcome this threat, various methods of curtailing debate have been adopted by the House.

• Standing Order 22: The Speaker or Chairman may require a member to discontinue his speech if he persists in irrelevance or tedious repetition.

• The Closure: Any member may move ‘that the question now be put’. If not less than 100 members vote for the motion the debate ceases and the motion under discussion must be voted upon.

• The Kangaroo: This is the power of the Speaker at the Report Stage to select from amongst the various proposed amendments those which are to be discussed.

• The Guillotine Motion: Such a motion provides that one or more stages of a Bill be disposed of either by a fixed date, or by a fixed number of sittings.

3) Parliamentary committees

The committees of the House of Commons fall into two main categories:

i)   Standing committees

These are responsible for the committee stage in the passing of a Bill.

ii) Select committees

• Ad-hoc select committees: These are set up for a specific purpose when the need arises.

• Sessional select committees: These are set up at the beginning of the session and remain throughout the session.

• Departmental select committees: These are appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments and associated public bodies.

Select Committees provide the forum for the most in-depth scrutiny of government administration. Select Committees in the House of Commons are of some antiquity, although the current structure of Committees dates back only, to 1479. Select Committees take several forms, dealing with diverse matters such as:

•           Public accounts

•           Consolidation bills

•           Statutory instruments

•           Privileges of Parliament

•           Members’ interests

•           European Community legislation

•           Domestic matters relating to the House

•           Procedure of the House

•           Selection (of members to Committees of the House)

• Broadcasting.

A group of MP’s would examine a topic of current concern, with power on behalf of the House to take evidence from witnesses with first hand knowledge of the issue. Select Committees provide the forum for the most in depth scrutiny of government administration.

The functions of departmentally related Committees are defined as being: ‘to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the department with which they are concerned and associated public bodies’.

The most powerful select committees are those shadowing the work of government departments. The present system of committees was instituted in 1979, with the aim of strengthening the accountability of ministers to the House for the discharge of their responsibilities. The committees can send for persons, papers and records, and from time to time report to the House. The committees have proved to be a very effective way of allowing backbenchers to question ministers, and their reports frequently engender publicity embarrassing to the government of the day, but a number of limitations still exist.

There is still no effective sanction available against a minister who refuses to appear, or refuses to allow civil servants to appear, before a select committee to give evidence. In the past, ministers have sometimes refused to appear or to answer certain questions.

Membership of Select Committees, unlike that of Standing Committees, lasts for the life of a Parliament, thus providing stability of membership and the opportunity for members to develop a degree of expertise in a subject. Membership is largely limited, by convention, to backbenchers. Each Select Committee has fixed membership between 9 and 11 (most have 11) MPs. The only Ministers who are members are the Leader of the House, the government Deputy Chief Whip and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Opposition front-bench spokespersons are not appointed to select Committees. Select Committees may be chaired by a member of any political party. The decision as to which party should chair a particular Committee is a matter for negotiation between government and opposition. Once that decision has been reached, it is for the Committee members under the ‘advice’ of the whips to formally elect the Chairman.

Members of the committees are chosen by the committee of selection. The devise has been criticised because the committee itself nominated by the whips. In recommending mp’s for membership committee of selection reflects the party balance in the house as a whole.

The formal powers of Select Committees are defined in Standing Order.

l.          Committees have the power to send for papers and persons and to appoint specialist advised where necessary.

2.         It is for the Committee to determine, within the confines of the work of the relevant department what subject matter to examine and what evidence the Committee needs to assist in the examination.

3          To facilitate the working of Select Committees, each has a permanent staff of some three to four people, and some have the power, under Standing Orders, to establish sub-committees. .

4          The departmental Select Committees provide a forum in which Ministers, civil servants and others can be cross examined at length and more thoroughly than in any other way at present open to the HC.

5         The committees usually publish unanimous reports which can cross party lines so as to present powerful all party criticism of the Govt.


1          Only about 25% of all Select Committee report published in any session will be debated on the floor of the house.

2          Parliamentary procedure does not make specific provision for debate on reports.

3.         Select Committees have faced problems in ensuring that Ministers and civil servants give full and complete evidence to them. The Committees do not have the power to compel a Minister to attend, or to impose sanction for failure to cooperate.

4.         The extraction of evidence from witnesses is not an easy process. Govt continues to insist that civil servants remain subject to ministerial direction and in any case may not give evidence at all on certain matters.

Only about 25 per cent of all Select Committee reports published in any session will be debated on the floor of the House. This fact is one, which has given rise to criticism of the effectiveness of Select Committees, although it must be conceded that the time given for debate on reports has increased in recent years. Parliamentary procedure does not make specific provision for debate on reports. The Procedure Committee has suggested that eight days per session should be devoted to such debates but this proposal has not been acted upon. Sufficient, but not too much, weight should be attached to this alleged defect, and four arguments may be advanced which limit its impact (see Barnett, pp. 428-429).

Select Committees have faced problems in ensuring that Ministers and civil servants give full and complete evidence to them. The Committees do not have the power to compel a Minister to attend, or to impose sanctions for failure to cooperate. A reform has been introduced which requires that witnesses before Select Committees give evidence on oath, raising the possibility that charges of perjury may be brought against witnesses.

The evaluation of the work of Select Committees regarding the accountability of government must be approached with caution. The outcome of an appraisal is inevitably related to the expectations which an appraiser holds and, as a consequence, the evaluation of one commentator may not be the same as another’s. Caution is also urged against making sweeping generalisations as to, the effectiveness of Select Committees, which are diverse in nature and operation.


Suggested improvements in the Select Committee system include:

Civil servants’ evidence: The Trade and Industry Select Committee had investigated the Arms to Iraq affair prior to Scott but had failed to get at the truth; one reason for this was a block by the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler on retired civil servants giving evidence. Civil servants should be obliged to give their own evidence to MP’s rather than revealing only what ministers tell them to reveal.

Powers of subpoena (requiring a person to appear). They should be allowed to subpoena witnesses without first requiring a vote on the floor of the Commons. The committees should be able to commission proper investigation and research, as do American congressional committees.