Chapter 40 Questions
“Is it in contemplation by the Government to make any provision for reimbursing or compensating in land expenses incurred by families in bringing domestic servants to the Colony?” This question, addressed by Mr Hart to Mr Weld (a member of the Executive Council) on 22 June 1854, was the first question asked in the House of Representatives.
(The Government would give no undertaking on the matter.) Eighteen more questions were asked of Ministers that session in a procedure which was then entirely unrecognised by the Standing Orders and, indeed, was not clearly distinguishable from the ordinary motion procedure – questions at first being regarded as a form of motion. The practice ceased entirely the following year when there was no ministerial representation in the House. With the advent of responsible government in 1856, oral questions to Ministers were revived. As well as questions answered orally in the House, questions have, since 1903, been able to be lodged for written answer.
The practice has thus grown from such humble beginnings into a most important parliamentary industry, which saw nearly 60,000 questions answered during the course of the forty-seventh Parliament.
Nowadays, on each sitting day, Ministers can be observed fielding questions from members on widely diverse subjects. The question period offers members an opportunity to put potentially embarrassing questions to the Government and obliges the Government to respond publicly to them. The importance attached to questions is indicated by the fact that a question period is set aside for them in the House each day. During this period members address questions to Ministers, and Ministers, having had previous notice of such questions, give replies which may then be tested by further (supplementary) questions. Ministers have to answer supplementary questions to the best of their ability, drawing on their own knowledge of the subject and any supplementary information on it which their departments may have provided in anticipation of a follow-up to the original question.
Unlike in certain other legislatures, no questions are asked without previous notice of the question having been given to the person (usually a Minister) who is to answer it. The period of notice required varies depending on whether the questioner wants an oral or a written answer, and what type of oral question is being addressed.
Questions are usually addressed to Ministers, but oral questions may be addressed to other members in certain circumstances. There are, however, many fewer questions to other members each year. Of the total number of questions answered each year, there are invariably more written questions than oral questions. For example, there were 21,900 of these lodged in 2003/04, compared to 1,051 oral questions.
Types of questions
Questions may be either for oral answer in the House itself or for written answer, in which case the reply to the question is not delivered in the House but is published electronically.
A question for oral answer to a Minister may be either an ordinary oral question (including a supplementary question) or an urgent question. Oral questions are lodged during the morning of the day on which they are to be answered. There can be up to 12 of them lodged each day. Urgent questions can be lodged at any time up to the end of the question period but these must meet a stringent urgency test in order to be admitted. Oral questions can be asked of non-Ministers. There is no restriction on the numbers that may be lodged. There are no urgent questions to non-Ministers. A question for written answer (which may be asked of Ministers and non-Ministers) is lodged electronically. The addressee has six working days to reply to it.
Notice of questions
The idea for a question in the House might originate in many ways. A report in a newspaper or other publication, a query from a constituent, a chance remark by an acquaintance, an orchestrated campaign to gather information on Government actions – all of these may spark off what becomes a question. The point at which an idea becomes a part of the proceedings of the House is when notice of the question is given to the Clerk of the House. There is no provision for the lodging of a joint question. Each question must come from a single member.
Any member of the House, including a Minister,
can lodge a question, except a member suspended from the service of the House. Questions can be lodged to any Minister. There is no roster of Ministers specifying on which particular days questions can be addressed to them. Nor is there any special period set aside for questions to the Prime Minister.
A question lodged by one member may not be transferred into the name of another after it has been lodged.
Notice of oral questions
Members must give notice in writing of a question for oral answer. For this purpose printed forms are available (green for oral questions and white for urgent questions). The member inscribes a question on the form, signs it and delivers it to the Clerk.
Only 12 question may be lodged each day.
Occasionally, fewer than 12 may be lodged if a party does not utilise its allocation.
Notice of urgent questions
To lodge an urgent question, a member must furnish a copy of the question marked “urgent question” to the Clerk and a copy to the Minister to whom the question is addressed
(special forms have been printed for this purpose). It is the member’s responsibility to have these two copies delivered within a reasonable time of each other, and a question cannot be asked, even if it is accepted as being urgent, if a copy has been submitted to the Clerk but not to the Minister.
Notice of written questions
For written questions, a system of electronic lodging and processing has applied since February 2003. Notices of questions for written answer may be lodged only in electronic form.
For this purpose members use a secured template system to communicate their written questions to the Office of the Clerk affixing an electronic signature to authenticate the question.
The Speaker may authorise the lodging of written questions in hard copy form in exceptional circumstances, for example, if there was a failure of the electronic system.
Signing notices of questions
Every question must be signed by the member originating it or by another member on that member’s behalf if this member is unavailable.
The Speaker relies on the integrity of members in these circumstances as to whether they have given authority for questions to be lodged in their names.
In the case of notices of written questions, the notice must be signed by way of an electronic signature by the member or by another member on the member’s behalf.
This takes the form of a timed and dated stamp identifying the user logged on to the system. It is not a replica signature. Only authorised users have log-on access to the system. It is not possible to lodge a notice unless the signature is affixed.
Electronic signatures may only be applied by members or under their direction. How members give authority for their signatures to be affixed is a matter for them. They may put in place systems whereby they entrust a staff member with affixing an electronic signature to a question in their name.
It would be a contempt for any other person to attempt to mislead the House by impersonating a member through the use of that member’s electronic signature.
The party organisations within the House have members or staff appointed to oversee the lodging of questions by the members of the party, and all oral and some written questions pass through their hands before being submitted to the Clerk. This enables each party to co-ordinate its approach to question time and ensures that questions of significance to the party get priority. Indeed such party co-ordination is essential in respect of oral questions to Ministers since the 12 questions each day are allocated on a party basis. There are consequently no restrictions on how many questions may be lodged in the name of the same member provided the party has more than one question slot available to it. It is a matter for each party to decide how it utilises the question slots allocated to it each day.
Time for lodging notices of questions
What are now referred to as oral questions were first devised in 1986. Before 1986 all questions for oral answer were lodged two or more days in advance. Between 1986 and 1995 a mixture of questions lodged two days in advance and questions lodged on the same day were permitted (the latter were called “questions of the day”). Since 1996 all oral questions have been lodged in the course of the morning of the day on which they are to be answered.
Notice of an oral question may be given between 10 am and 10.30 am on the day the question is to be asked.
When a sitting of the House is extended into a subsequent calendar day and the next sitting day is lost, there is no question time and consequently no oral questions. However, notices of oral questions are often lodged during the morning of such a day just in case the House rises before 1 pm that day and a new sitting day is held that would enable the questions to be asked. Where oral questions are lodged for answer on a day that does not eventuate as a sitting day because urgency extends the previous sitting of the House or the House decides to adjourn for a period, the lodged questions are lost altogether. They can, however, be resubmitted by members.
There is no prescribed time by which an urgent question has to be submitted in order to be considered for answer at the next sitting of the House, though it would have to be lodged before the end of question time to be considered for answer at that sitting. Urgent questions have in fact been handed in at the Table during the course of question time itself and at least one has been accepted in these circumstances.
However, the greater the member’s delay in submitting a question once the member is in possession of the facts on which it is based, the less likely the Speaker is to be persuaded that it is, in fact, urgent.
Notices of questions for written answer may be given by 10.30 am on any working day during a session of Parliament.
(The Speaker may extend this time in exceptional circumstances, for example, if there was a failure of the electronic system for lodging questions.
) A working day includes any day on which the House is sitting under urgency. But notices may not be given after the last day on which the House sits each year or before the first sitting day in the new year.
There is no limit to the number of written questions that may be lodged on a single day, nor is there a limit to the number that may be lodged by an individual member on any one day, though the Business Committee has asked members to show restraint and the Standing Orders Committee reviews the overall numbers of questions lodged from time to time.
Questions for written answer may only be lodged in electronic form
and must be signed by way of an electronic signature by the member or by another member on the member’s behalf.
How the electronic signature is affixed is a matter for the member to decide as long as the member has authorised it. It does not have to be affixed by the member personally.
Processing of notices
When lodged with the Clerk, all questions are checked for compliance with the Standing Orders. If a question is not in order as lodged, it is returned to the member concerned or it may be accepted subject to amendment or authentication of a statement or quotation contained in it. Issues relating to the acceptability of a question can be raised with the Clerk at any time up to the commencement of question time.
These may lead to changes in the text of questions being made subsequent to their initial acceptance. The acceptability of a question can be challenged at any time up to its being asked in the House.
For example, circumstances may change after it is initially accepted or further information may become available indicating that it is in fact out of order.
Questions are not ruled out of order because they are ungrammatical.
Editing changes to questions are not made lightly and relate only to questions of grammar or style on the same principles as apply to the editing of debates.
Where a Minister transfers a question to any other Minister any consequential changes can be made in the text of the question.
When all notices of oral questions for that day have been lodged and checked, Ministers’ offices are advised and copies of the questions are distributed to them through Ministers’ boxes in the Bills Office. The text of oral questions is published on the parliamentary website at about 11.30 am, though questions are subject to further amendment if doubts about their wording arise subsequently.
A list of each day’s oral questions is printed on a paper circulated with the final order paper for that day. The text of the question as it appears on that paper is the official text to be answered in the House. Any change or discrepancy between the order paper and any earlier electronic version (including that published on the website) is irrelevant.
Written questions are distributed electronically to the Ministers to whom they are addressed shortly after they have been accepted and are then published electronically on the same day they are received.
Notices of urgent questions, because of the circumstances of their lodging, are not published at all.
Allocation of questions
Until 1996 the order in which oral questions were listed for answer depended upon a set of conventions designed to ensure equity to all sections of the House. Questions from different parties were intermixed so as to give all parties some regular prominence in the order in which they stood. This was especially important as questions not reached that day were answered in writing. As all 12 oral questions are now answered each day this is no longer important, but a formal mechanism for determining how questions are allocated among the parties and the order in which they are set down for answer is now provided in the Standing Orders rather than relying on conventions. Consequently, the Business Committee is given power to determine the allocation and rotation of questions.
The allocation of questions among the parties must be made on a basis that is proportional to party membership in the House.
However, for this purpose members who hold executive office (Ministers, Associate Ministers and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries) are excluded from the calculation of the number of questions available to Government parties.
Having made that calculation the Business Committee allocates question slots proportionately to parties over a cycle of several weeks.
The rotation of questions between the parties is similarly determined by the Business Committee in an endeavour to be fair to each party or independent member. An attempt is made to alternate between questions from Government party members and Opposition party members. Depending upon their size, each party will have an opportunity to lead off question time during the course of the cycle and will have to take its fair share of less prominent positions in the questions order. The Business Committee authorises the Clerk to issue a circular advising members of the allocation of question slots as each cycle concludes.
Parties are at total liberty to exchange slots with other parties or to surrender a slot to another party.
These arrangements are made privately between the parties with advice to the Clerk when a question is lodged in a different sequence from that on the roster prepared under the Business Committee’s authority.
Transfer of question from oral to written
It is entirely over to the member who lodges a question whether to seek an oral or a written reply to it.
However, there are certain types of questions which are more suited to written answer. These comprise questions which require a long or technical reply or masses of statistical data which is better presented in writing or in tabular form. When, after an oral question has been submitted, it becomes apparent that too long or complex an answer is called for if a reply is to be given satisfactorily, the Minister may approach the member and seek agreement for the question to be transferred for written answer. This must be accomplished by leave of the House, and it must be the member who lodged the question (or a member acting on that member’s behalf) who seeks such leave when the question is called. If leave is granted, the question is treated in every respect as if it had been submitted originally as a question for written answer.
Alternatively, a member may ask the question in the House and then have the reply, by leave, delivered in writing. This is different from the situation in which the question is not asked orally in the House at all but is forestalled by being transferred for written answer. A reply to an oral question which has been asked may be delivered in writing, but this does not alter the question’s status as an oral question and it continues to be treated accordingly in all respects.
Content of questions
The House has a number of rules relating to the content of questions. These have been considerably relaxed in recent years and are now much less prescriptive in nature than formerly. Nevertheless, rules on content are designed to give a formal structure to the process of asking questions. Most of these rules are reflected in the rules for the contents of answers to questions. The rules on content apply equally to all questions, including supplementary questions asked to oral questions. However, the nature of the process of asking supplementary questions makes them more difficult to enforce at this time.
Questions must be concise.
This is an important consideration with oral questions, where the Speaker must endeavour to get through all the questions on the order paper without allowing question time to run on unduly. There is a working rule that a member may not include more than two legs to an oral question.
However, the requirement for a question to be concise does not necessarily mean that it must be short. It means rather than it must be “spare” and not contain any material not strictly necessary to the bare asking of the question. The application of the other rules relating to the content of a question, particularly those related to the factual content of questions, also contributes towards the aim of conciseness in questions.
Statements of facts and names of persons
Questions must not contain statements of facts and names of persons unless they are strictly necessary to render the question intelligible and can be authenticated.
Individuals should not be named in questions unless there is a need for the disclosure of the person’s name. Questions designed to injure a named individual without any compensating need to disclose the name will not be accepted.
If it is necessary to name an individual, only relevant descriptive adjectives can be applied to that person (for example, identifying an office held).
The most common way in which factual statements are imported into questions is by way of quotations. The practice of members including in a question a quote from a source (most commonly a newspaper) is a longstanding and accepted one.
However, members are under two obligations if they do employ a quotation or make any other statement in a question. First, the quotation or statement must be truly necessary to the question being asked and, secondly, the member must provide authentication of it.
Whether the statement or quotation is necessary will depend upon the terms of the question itself.
One particular form of factual material that will be tested rigorously against the criterion of necessity before it will be allowed to be included in a question, is a statement that reveals facts that have been suppressed by a court order. If such an order is in force, members are enjoined to use the privilege of freedom of speech which they enjoy (and which enables them to override such an order with legal impunity) responsibly. To do otherwise would be to abuse their privilege.
In respect of a proposal to include such material in a question, the Speaker would have to be convinced that the public interest impelled the order to be disregarded to permit a question that did infringe a court order.
Members are not asked to verify the underlying truth of a quotation if they employ one;
but they must ensure that they are quoting accurately
and, if paraphrasing, that the paraphrase is a fair one.
However, if a statement is attributed to a member in a question and that member denies having made it, the question must be disallowed.
Such a denial can be made on a point of order; it does not have to be made by way of a personal explanation.
A question quoting another member which is challenged by that member can be resubmitted on a future day after having been authenticated, but it cannot be authenticated on the floor of the House.
Other statements of fact which a member includes in a question must be proved as accurate where any doubt arises.
The degree of inaccuracy determines whether a question inaccurate in some particular is altogether out of order or whether it can be asked subject to amendment.
A member’s duty to authenticate a statement or quotation is a duty owed to the Speaker, whose job it is to ensure that the Standing Orders have been complied with. It is not a duty owed to the House as such. A member is under no obligation to reveal sources to the House or to the Minister to whom the question is addressed by including such references in the question (indeed, such inclusion is discouraged as unnecessarily lengthening the question). But members using direct quotations are required to authenticate them to the Speaker as a condition of having their questions accepted.
Where a quotation is used, members must, on lodging their question, provide a copy of the newspaper or other document from which they are quoting.
A copy is not passed on to the Minister concerned as a matter of practice, although this will be done if the member makes it clear that this is desired, for example, by providing the Clerk with two copies for this purpose.
Apart from direct quotations, authentication of factual content in a question is also required as a matter of course in respect of paraphrases of statements or reports referred to in the question, the name of any person mentioned in it, and figures or numbers set out in the question. Factual material falling outside these areas does not have to be authenticated when lodging a question. The responsibility for citing facts accurately in a question devolves on the member lodging it.
A certain number of expressions or figures of speech are not permitted in questions.
•expressions of opinion.
Questions are, naturally enough, interrogatory in nature and are not a vehicle for a member to argue a point. This can be done in a speech. Arguments are, therefore, not permitted in questions. Nor are inferences or imputations. A member cannot hint at something (whether disreputable or not) in the text of a question. The member must come out and say what is meant, and then the question can be judged on the grounds of necessity, accuracy and authenticity. Questions must not contain epithets (these are in any case unnecessary, and only tend to lengthen a question) or ironical expressions, though, of course, the best of the latter may escape detection altogether. Such expressions could also be disallowed as not being necessary to render the question intelligible.
Questions must not contain expressions of opinion. The ban on a member injecting his or her own opinions into a question is intended to keep the member on the straight and narrow path of asking a question rather than indulging in debate on the issue. (Though the fact that the House does not wish to hear the opinion of a member asking a question, does not imply that it does not wish to hear the opinion of the member answering it. It may, and often does.)
Standing Orders prohibit certain references in questions on similar grounds to those prohibited in debate. Discreditable references to the House or to any member of the House, or any offensive or unparliamentary expressions, are not permitted.
The rules against unparliamentary language in debate also apply in respect of questions. What is not permitted in the one, is not permitted in the other.
A member’s personal explanation cannot be referred to or challenged in a question any more than it can be referred to or challenged in debate.
Seeking an opinion
Questions may seek an expression of opinion from the member to whom they are addressed, provided that that member has responsibility for the matter about which the opinion is sought.
But a question may not seek a legal opinion.
A Minister is not a source of legal advice for members through the question process. Members are not prohibited by this rule from asking Ministers under what legal powers they or their departments are acting or purporting to act in particular cases. Such questions do not seek a legal explanation and justification of the action taken; they seek the Minister’s or the department’s perception of its lawful authority for taking that action, and presumably in all cases one does exist. Indeed the rule of law requires that it do so.
Repeating a question
There is no rule against repeating a question for oral answer. If members wish to use their limited allocation of questions to re-ask a question, they are entitled to do so.
But with regard to written questions there is no limit on the number of questions that may be lodged. Consequently a rule against repeating the substance of a question already answered or disallowed in the same calendar year was introduced along with the introduction of the system of electronic lodging of written questions.
This is intended to put some constraint on the unnecessary lodging of questions for written answer.
Select committee and court proceedings
Finally, questions cannot refer to proceedings before select committees which are not open to the public (until the committee reports), or to a case pending adjudication by a court.
In respect of the latter, a question is not permitted about a case from the time proceedings are filed with the court or a prosecution is brought until the case is finally disposed of. (See Chapter 16 for the sub judice rule.)
Urgent questions are designed to cater for those situations that need to be dealt with by a question and reply in the House immediately, and for which the normal period of notice is inappropriate. With the development of questions lodged on the day that they are to be answered and notice periods of only some four hours, the need for urgent questions has been considerably reduced. Consequently, the Standing Orders Committee, as a guide to the Speaker, has recommended that an urgent question should only be accepted if it deals with a matter that has arisen since 10.30 am (the cut-off time for lodging oral questions).
Urgent questions therefore exist as a backstop to deal with a situation that suddenly arises.
When an urgent question has been submitted to the Clerk, it is for the Speaker to consider whether it should be allowed to be asked on the ground that it is one which, in the public interest, should be answered immediately.
For a member to be able to bypass the normal notice period for questions, there has to be a need inherent in the question for it to be answered on that day or before the member could obtain an answer by submitting it through the normal channels.
A classic instance is where some irrevocable course of events is about to happen – a demolition of a building or the sailing of a ship.
Questions are not accepted as urgent when they relate to something which has already happened. These, although they may be of great public interest, can be explored through the normal question system. The test for an urgent question is whether an important event is about to happen, not what has happened in the past. So a question asking whether the Prime Minister had that morning issued a request to the Rugby Union to call off the Springbok tour was not accepted as being urgent. Despite its obvious importance, it was exploring an event in the past. On the other hand, a question to the Minister of Police asking if he was considering giving the police authority to swear in special constables that day was accepted, because it was looking ahead to an important action which would be taken (if taken at all) before the member could obtain an answer to the question in the normal course of events.
A question does not become urgent merely because of the imminent departure overseas of the Minister to whom it is addressed. If the question relates to action to be taken at a conference which the Minister is to attend and which will be held before a question can be answered in the normal way, this may render the question urgent, for then the Minister’s departure would not be unconnected with the question. If it is simply the case that the questioner prefers an answer to the question by the Minister before the Minister leaves, rather than an answer by an acting Minister, the question will not qualify as urgent.
Urgent questions must also conform to the rules with regard to content and ministerial responsibility. Once the Speaker reaches a decision on the acceptability of the question, both the member who submitted it and the Minister are informed. If the Speaker does not accept the question as being urgent, the member may resubmit it as an ordinary oral or written question.
Amendment of questions
Where a question does not comply with the Standing Orders it is not accepted by the Clerk. However, the inadmissibility of a question or the inclusion of objectionable content can be inadvertently overlooked or not perceived at the time and the question accepted and published. For example, a Minister, on receiving notice of the question, may challenge it as being outside the Minister’s area of responsibility. In these circumstances the acceptability of the question must be reconsidered.
Even after a question has been initially accepted the Speaker has the authority to disallow the question.
In respect of a question for oral answer that appears on that day’s list for answer, the Speaker would order its deletion only by a ruling given in the Chamber.
Whether a question must be disallowed after having been accepted depends entirely on the extent of its non-compliance with the Standing Orders. For example, if the question contains an inaccuracy, it depends whether it is inaccurate to such an extent as to taint the whole question, in which case it will be ruled out, or whether it is inaccurate in respect of a minor detail only, in which case it may be allowed to stand.
The Speaker has power to permit questions otherwise out of order if they are revised or amended to bring them within the Standing Orders.
If an infringement can be corrected by amendment of the question without prejudice to the Minister who has to answer it, the Speaker usually allows it to remain as amended. Thus the Office of the Clerk may negotiate the rewording of a question to ensure that it complies with the Standing Orders.
If the infringement is revealed on a point of order as late as the actual asking of an oral question in the House, the Speaker may still allow it to be asked subject to amendment, provided that this does not seriously prejudice the answer that the Minister may have prepared.
But it is also possible in these circumstances for the Speaker to order it to be deferred so that it can be asked with notice in a correct form.
Questions to ministers
For a question to a Minister to be admissible, there must be ministerial responsibility for the subject matter of the question.
A Minister may be questioned on public affairs with which he or she is officially connected, and on proceedings in the House or any matter of administration for which the Minister is responsible.
In practice, this gives a very wide scope for questions to be addressed to a Minister relating to matters for which he or she has ministerial responsibility.
Whether there is ministerial responsibility depends in each case on a consideration of the legislative and administrative circumstances surrounding the question.
In respect of the public service, legislation specifically declares that for a range of decisions relating to the recruitment, promotion, disciplining and discharge of individual employees, chief executives of departments are not to be responsible to their Ministers but are to act independently.
Ministers, therefore, cannot be asked questions relating to personnel actions taken in respect of identified public servants, though they are answerable for employment policies generally as they are followed in departments.
Only general information, for instance of a statistical nature, can be sought from Ministers about such matters. It is expressly provided too that the Director of the Serious Fraud Office is not responsible to the Attorney-General (the Minister responsible for the office) in regard to any decision to investigate any suspected case of serious or complex fraud or to take proceedings under the legislation.
It follows that the Attorney-General is not answerable in respect of such matters.
But the mere fact that a Minister has no legal control over a certain action does not mean that there can be no ministerial responsibility to answer a question about it. Ministers, by convention, are responsible to the House for their official actions and for the general conduct of their departments and officials.
They become answerable to the House for many matters over which they have no legal powers or in respect of the actions of public officials who are not subject to the legal control of Ministers. Legal responsibility and political responsibility are different things.
Thus, questions relating to actions taken by the State Services Commission in the course of carrying out its legal functions in regard to the appointment of a chief executive were held to involve ministerial responsibility.
There has never been any doubt that questions may be put to Ministers regarding the activities of Crown entities. This is so regardless of the precise degree of legal control that Ministers exercise over the entity concerned. However, Ministers will often, in replying, make it clear that they are transmitting information from the entity concerned in response to the question, and do not have any legal or operational responsibility for the matters themselves.
Crown entities are under a general legal obligation to supply responsible Ministers with information relating to their operations and performance and thus to assist Ministers in fulfilment of Ministers’ responsibilities to answer to the House.
But Crown entities may refuse to provide information, even to a Minister, to protect the privacy of a person (if this is justified) or to enable the entity to carry out judicial or statutorily independent functions with which it is entrusted.
The creation of State enterprises in 1986, with Ministers’ legal roles being, in the main, limited to those of shareholders in the listed enterprises, caused a reconsideration of the basis of ministerial responsibility for questions relating to their work. The Speaker has ruled that questions about the activities of State enterprises will be accepted. If a Minister considers that a particular question does not disclose any ministerial responsibility, it is incumbent on the Minister to challenge the question’s validity. The Speaker will not take the initiative in ruling out such questions.
In fact, Ministers have not challenged questions about the activities of State enterprises as being out of order on the ground of lack of ministerial responsibility, although they have often declined, in their replies, to provide as much information as the questioner has sought. As a matter of practice, questions about individual State enterprises on matters for which Ministers are not directly responsible are referred by the Minister to the enterprise concerned for a reply which the Minister then delivers, making it clear that the information was obtained from the enterprise (for example, by using the phrase “I am advised”
). If the State enterprise considers that the release of information could be prejudicial to it, it informs the Minister, who will then normally avoid releasing the information in the answer.
State enterprises have express power to refuse to disclose to Ministers information relating to individual employees or customers if the information would enable the employee or customer to be identified.
Clearly Ministers have no responsibility for judicial decisions.
But, even so, Ministers can be asked to comment on judgments of courts where these have implications for official responsibilities which Ministers hold.
In practice, a wide view is taken of the concept of ministerial responsibility. There is no convention, for instance, (as there is in other legislatures) that Ministers are not answerable to the House for operational matters in the departments or agencies falling within their portfolio areas.
(Though a Minister may reply in those terms if the Minister chooses to.
Where there is doubt about whether a question involves ministerial responsibility, it has been the practice for the Clerk to refer the question to the Minister concerned and, if the Minister denies any responsibility in that area, for the question to be disallowed.
The Minister is presumed to know best what matters he or she is responsible for, although ultimately, of course, it is the Speaker who decides whether to accept or reject a question.
Personal or party capacity
Questions cannot be asked of actions of a Minister in a personal or party capacity. They must relate to the portfolio which the Minister holds. A Minister cannot be questioned about a statement he or she has made if that statement was not made in respect of one of the Minister’s own portfolios. Thus, only the Prime Minister is answerable in respect of the ministerial code on pecuniary interests. Other Ministers are not answerable in respect of their declarations under the code, as these do not relate to their portfolio responsibilities.
Nor is a question in order if it concerns the actions of caucus or seeks information about a party document.
While the Prime Minister is answerable for all statements made as Prime Minister, the Prime Minister is not answerable for statements or actions taken purely in a non-ministerial capacity such as party leader (though this can be a hard distinction to draw).
The coalition agreements negotiated between parties following general elections raise special issues of ministerial responsibility. Such agreements are agreements between parties and as such are not actions for which there is ministerial responsibility. But where an agreement is endorsed by the Government which subsequently takes office as a basis for the structure of that Government and how it is to take decisions, questions relating to these matters may be put to any Minister who has responsibility for them. Thus questions to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister about the 1996 Coalition Agreement’s provisions on the division of Cabinet posts between the parties were permitted. On the other hand, questions asking the Deputy Prime Minister to comment on the change of leadership in the party of his coalition partner, were not. The latter related to his party leader, not his ministerial, role.
One obvious area in which there is no ministerial responsibility relates to the policies advocated by opposition parties. Members (particularly Government members) may try to elicit comment from a Minister through the question system on items of opposition policy. Such moves usually fail because the question deals with an issue outside the Minister’s responsibility. The Minister is obviously interested in such matters but has no official connection with them. This disentitles members to question the Minister on them directly.
But the fact that Ministers cannot be questioned in a party capacity does not prevent them giving a party perspective in their replies. Nor is it obligatory for Ministers to use any particular form of words in replying so as to distinguish their official from their party capacities, though it is advisable that they do so, so that they are not misunderstood.
The House formerly followed a strict rule as to which Ministers could have questions addressed to them. A question could be addressed only to the Minister with principal portfolio responsibility for a particular matter. It could not be addressed to a Minister with subordinate responsibilities (Ministers designated as “Deputy”, “Associate” or “Assistant” Ministers). While the latter could answer a question on behalf of an absent principal portfolio Minister, they were not questionable in their own right even on statements they had made within their own areas of responsibility. Their position, as far as questions were concerned, was the same as Parliamentary Under-Secretaries.
Now, following a Standing Orders Committee recommendation in 1995,
questions can be asked directly of Associate Ministers within the limits of any responsibilities formally delegated to them by the principal Minister. (“Associate Minister” is taken to include all subordinate Ministers, however designated, but not Parliamentary Under-Secretaries.)
For this purpose, early in the term of a Parliament and at such other times as may be necessary, the Leader of the House presents to the House a schedule showing which areas of responsibility Ministers have delegated to Associate Ministers. This schedule definitively determines the areas in which Associate Ministers are answerable. If delegated responsibilities change, the Speaker should be informed of this.
Not all Associate Ministers have any specific areas assigned to them.
Until these areas of responsibility are known, questions must be addressed to the principal Minister.
When the delegations are announced questions relating to them can be addressed directly to the Associate Minister or continue to be addressed to the principal Minister as the member lodging the question sees fit. But the principal Minister can transfer a question to an Associate Minister who has delegated responsibility. However, an Associate Minister can be questioned only about matters delegated to the Associate. An Associate Minister cannot be asked a question ranging across the whole portfolio in a way that the principal Minister can be.
Nor can an Associate Minister be questioned about statements the Associate makes on matters outside his or her delegated responsibility even where they relate to another part of the portfolio.
A Parliamentary Under-Secretary may reply to a question on behalf of an absent Minister.
However, a question cannot be addressed to a Parliamentary Under-Secretary in his or her own right as if the under-secretary were a Minister. Questions to Ministers must be addressed to Ministers of the Crown (including now an Associate Minister). A Parliamentary Under-Secretary may answer a question on behalf of a Minister, but can have a question addressed to himself or herself personally as a non-Minister only in respect of parliamentary proceedings of which the under-secretary has charge (for example, as the chairperson of a select committee), not in respect of the wider range of responsibilities for which Ministers are answerable. Thus, a question to a Parliamentary Under-Secretary relating to a statement the under-secretary had made was not allowed, even though the statement was made in respect of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary’s official departmental duties.
Transfer of questions between Ministers
A problem related to ministerial responsibility is: who is the proper Minister to answer a question? When members lodge a question they address it to a particular Minister, but it may transpire on closer examination that it is not that Minister but another Minister who has the responsibility to answer it. This is particularly likely to happen when a Minister holds more than one closely related portfolio. The classification of questions for which there is ministerial responsibility is a matter for Ministers to decide, and a Minister may, on informing the Clerk, have a question transferred to another Minister if it has been misdirected in the first place.
The arrangements for these transfers are made administratively between Ministers’ offices and the Office of the Clerk, and the questions list and the parliamentary website are corrected accordingly.
A member cannot insist on a particular Minister or department dealing with a question. It may be transferred to another Minister without reference to the member who lodged the question if Ministers judge that its transfer is appropriate. If the member is dissatisfied with a transfer, the member has the right to withdraw it or to refuse to ask it.
Ultimately, however, the Speaker could refuse to allow a question to be transferred if the transfer would be an abuse; for example, where the responsibility for a subject was obviously held by a particular Minister.
This might happen, for instance, if the Minister concerned could be expected to have personal knowledge of an issue that it would not be likely that any other Minister would have.
In two known instances the Speaker has refused to permit the transfer of a question that was not inherently transferable.
This power to refuse to permit a question to be transferred has been called a “longstop protection” against abuse.
But, short of such an exceptional circumstance, the Speaker will not second-guess a ministerial transfer of a question, otherwise it would be the Speaker who was determining internal governmental arrangements rather than Ministers.
A Minister is under an obligation to transfer a question to the appropriate Minister if it has been misdirected. It is not satisfactory to reply to a question by saying that it should have been directed to another Minister. If that is so, the Minister should have arranged its transfer in the first place.
A question can be transferred at any time up to the time at which it is asked.
While it is desirable that the Clerk be advised of a transfer as soon as possible so that this may be reflected in the questions list, transfers frequently take place after the initial publication of the list, whether electronically or in hard copy. The transfer of a question will often involve changes to its text to reflect the different Minister who is to answer it. Provided that these are consequential and do not involve substantive changes, they can be made without recourse to the member who lodged the question.
Transfer of questions involving the Prime Minister
Objections to ministerial transfers of questions commonly arise in respect of questions addressed to the Prime Minister. Given the overall nature of a Prime Minister’s responsibilities, every question for which there is any ministerial responsibility necessarily entails prime ministerial responsibility too. On this basis all questions could be addressed to the Prime Minister. But members are expected to, and do, address their questions to the Minister with direct portfolio responsibility, reserving questions to the Prime Minister for matters for which there is direct prime ministerial responsibility or for questions affecting the Government as a whole.
Where the Prime Minister considers that a question should be redirected to a Minister, the question is transferred to the Minister. There is no specific Prime Minister’s question time. The Speaker has rejected suggestions that this permits the Prime Minister to avoid answering questions altogether. Prime Ministers cannot be seen to be continually avoiding potentially difficult questions and, in fact, this does not happen. During the course of 1998 up to August, for example, the Prime Minister answered an average of two of the 12 questions answered each day.
Questions to other members
As well as questions to Ministers, questions may be addressed to other members of the House (Government or opposition) but, as compared to questions to Ministers, in much more restricted circumstances.
A question to a non-Minister can be for oral or for written answer, except in the case of the Speaker, when it can only be for written answer.
Questions to non-Ministers are subject to the same rules regarding notice and contents as questions to Ministers.
Questions can be put to non-Ministers regarding any bill, motion or public matter connected with the business of the House of which the member has charge.
Only one matter may be raised in a question, not a number of items of business or a generality of issues. In respect of the Speaker, questions can relate only to any matter of administration for which the Speaker is responsible.
The range of answerable questions to non-Ministers is much narrower than in the case of questions to Ministers. Apart from the Speaker, they must relate exclusively to proceedings in the House of which the member has charge, whereas a Minister, as well as being answerable for proceedings in the House, is answerable for his or her department and for public affairs generally with which the Minister is officially connected. The Standing Orders do not, therefore, give members a general opportunity to cross-question each other over statements made outside the House on policy or procedural matters.
Examples of members who may be questioned under this provision include: members who have introduced a Member’s bill, a local bill or a private bill, on whether they intend to take a stage of the bill on a particular day; members who have presented a petition, on whether they or the petitioners intend to appear before the committee or withdraw the petition; and, most often, chairpersons of select committees, on the procedure being followed by their committees. (A question to the chairperson of a subcommittee has also been permitted.
Questions to select committee chairpersons
Questions to chairpersons of select committees can only relate to a matter of which the committee has charge, either because the House has referred it to the committee or because the committee has resolved to inquire into it.
Questions cannot probe about matters not before the committee or no longer before the committee.
References to proceedings in committees not open to the public are not permitted until such committees have reported to the House. After reporting to the House, the chairperson of the committee cannot be further questioned, because questions to non-Ministers can only be on a matter of which the member has charge, and once the committee has reported the matter is in the hands of the House. The chairperson is no longer answerable for it.
The responsibility of the chairperson of a select committee is only to chair the committee. In this capacity the chairperson can be asked questions about the process or procedure to be followed by the committee in respect of a matter that is currently before it – for example, the time of its meetings or the likely date of its report back to the House.
The chairperson is not answerable for the actions of other committee members or for their reasons for voting as they did in the committee,
nor for why he or she voted on a particular issue. Nor can the chairperson be questioned on his or her opinion of a matter before the committee. The chairperson’s views on such a matter are of no greater or lesser significance than those of any other member.
Also a chairperson is no more questionable on general statements he or she may have made outside the committee as a member of Parliament than is any other member.
Where a chairperson makes a statement under the Standing Orders informing the public of the nature of the committee’s inquiry,
questions on the statement may be asked even though the matter before the committee is not open to the public. However, such questions cannot seek the committee’s reasons for directing or initiating the statement where these have been discussed at the committee and constitute confidential committee proceedings.
Questions to the Speaker
Only written questions may be asked of the Speaker and then only in respect of matters of administration for which the Speaker is responsible.
The Speaker cannot be asked for procedural guidance by way of a written question. The proper way to raise a procedural matter is by a point of order in the House. The matters on which the Speaker can be questioned include the Speaker’s duties as chairperson of the Parliamentary Service Commission, and as the “Responsible Minister” for parliamentary departments such as the Office of the Clerk, the Parliamentary Service, the Office of the Ombudsmen, the office of the Auditor-General and the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. In these latter cases, the Speaker’s responsibility does not extend to answering for the performance of the officers’ statutory duties, but only for the financial and administrative issues associated with their organisations. Regardless of the capacity in which the question is being asked of the Speaker, a question is addressed to “the Speaker”. Where the Speaker chairs a select committee, the Speaker may be questioned in this capacity but, again, only by way of written question.
Preparation of replies
The building-in of a period of notice gives Ministers and other members to whom a question is addressed an opportunity to prepare a considered response to the question. How the preparation of replies is organised is a matter for those Ministers and members themselves. In the case of Ministers this will usually involve the Minister’s department preparing a draft or drafts of a reply and, in the case of oral questions, also providing the Minister with background information that will help the Minister to anticipate and deal with supplementary questions. Generally, such drafts and information can be withheld under the Official Information Act so as to allow Ministers to make their own decisions as to the most appropriate manner in which to answer parliamentary questions. Releasing a draft answer might lead Ministers to seek less assistance from departments in answering questions and thus diminish the quality of the information presented to the House. However, withholding such information will not always be justified. In a particular case there may be counterveiling public interest considerations requiring disclosure.
In the case of questions to other members, it is up to the member concerned whether to seek assistance in the preparation of a reply. For questions to select committee chairpersons, the clerk of the committee will automatically offer assistance in preparing a reply.
Oral questions are dealt with as the first substantive item of business transacted by the House each day.
The only items preceding it are the formal announcements by the Clerk of the petitions, papers and select committee reports presented that day and of any bills introduced. Therefore, questions are usually reached within a few minutes of the House assembling.
Until 1996 the length of question time was prescribed in the Standing Orders as 45 minutes (having been increased from 40 minutes in 1986). Now no time for questions is prescribed in the Standing Orders or even recommended by the Standing Orders Committee. There are 12 oral questions to Ministers each day and there may be urgent questions and questions to other members. The House deals with all oral questions set down for answer each day.
The time it takes to get through all of these questions (which includes supplementary questions) varies from day to day from between 45 minutes to over one hour.
Question time is particularly well-attended by most members. It is also the fastest-moving part of the proceedings, with relatively short contributions from a large number of members. Consequently, it can become disruptive at times. Strictly speaking, interjections are not permitted at question time (which is not a debate) but they do feature and will be tolerated as long as they do not get out of hand.
The Speaker’s chairpersonship is very much to the fore at question time; calling members to ask supplementary questions, making decisions about whether the questions and replies are in order, keeping members’ questions as brief as possible, preventing disorderly behaviour and ensuring that the House gets through the questions before it without taking an inordinate amount of time over this.
Asking oral questions
When a question is reached, the Speaker announces the number of the question and calls on the member in whose name it stands to ask it. A question is asked by the member identifying the Minister to whom the question is addressed and reading it out as it is printed on the list of questions circulated to members in the House.
Questions are read out even though printed on the list so that people listening on the radio will be able to follow proceedings. For the same reason an English interpretation is given of a question lodged in Māori even though a translation is also printed on the list.
Another member may ask the question on behalf of the member in whose name it stands if the latter is absent from the Chamber and has authorised that other member to do so.
Authority will be implied when members ask questions on behalf of absent members of their own party. But where a member acts for a member of another party, any authority must have been given expressly. A member asking a question on behalf of another member without authority risks committing a contempt of the House.
A question cannot be asked on behalf of a member who has not taken the Oath of Allegiance and who is, therefore, not entitled to sit in the House (an unsworn member is able to seek a written answer to a question, however).
Withdrawal of questions
Members are not obliged to ask questions standing in their names and are quite free to withdraw a question simply by informing the Clerk. The question will then be deleted from the question list. If the list has already been circulated, the Speaker, if informed beforehand that a member does not wish to ask a question standing in the member’s name, will not call it and will pass on to the next question on the list. Even when the question is reached and called, the member may still decline to ask it. No member can be compelled to ask a question standing in his or her name and no member can ask it on behalf of the member in these circumstances without the member’s permission.
Postponement of questions
A question may, with the leave of the House, be postponed.
A member may request that his or her question be postponed. Often this is done so that the Minister to whom it is addressed can be present personally in the House to answer it. Exceptionally, a Minister who wishes to answer a particular question personally will ask a member to agree to postpone a question so that the Minister can be present to give the answer rather than have another Minister answer. If leave to postpone a question is not forthcoming, the member can still withdraw it and resubmit it later. If leave to postpone is granted, the question is placed on the list of questions for the day to which it is postponed, for answer after other oral questions to Ministers that day.
A question may be postponed for more than one sitting day ahead.
Asking urgent questions
Urgent questions are dealt with immediately after oral questions to Ministers have concluded. If an urgent question has been accepted, then at the end of oral questions on notice the Speaker calls upon the member to ask it.
The member must then ask the question in the same form as it has been submitted to the Speaker
(it does not, of course, appear on the questions list) and it is answered in the normal way.
Asking questions to other members
Questions to non-Ministers are taken after questions for oral answer and urgent questions (if any) have been disposed of.
Another member may ask a question of a non-Minister on behalf of the member who submitted it if that member is absent.
Replies to oral questions
When the question is asked, the Speaker calls upon the Minister or member to whom it is addressed to answer it.
In the absence of the Minister, another Minister or a Parliamentary Under-Secretary may answer the question, prefacing the answer with an indication that it is being given on behalf of the Minister.
If an acting Minister has been appointed, then that Minister is the Minister for the time being and replies to a question in his or her own right and not on behalf of anyone. A reply may be in the English or the Māori language,
but it is not obligatory for a reply to a question asked in Māori to be given in Māori, or vice versa.
A question to a non-Minister is personal to the member to whom it is addressed and another member cannot deliver a reply for him or her. In the absence of the member to whom such a question is addressed, the question is held over.
However, if the question is to the chairperson of a select committee who is absent from New Zealand or while there is a vacancy in the chairpersonship, the deputy chairperson can reply.
Obligation to reply
A Minister cannot be forced to answer a question (unless the House orders the Minister to do so, in which case failure to answer could be punished as a contempt). An answer that addresses the question ought to be given if it can be given consistent with the public interest.
It may be refused if, in the Minister’s opinion, the public interest would be imperilled by giving the information sought.
These are matters for the Minister to judge.
Certainly a refusal to answer at all would be wholly exceptional. (An unsatis-factory answer is not a refusal to answer.)
If a Minister does not wish to reply at all to a question, strictly the Minister should not respond to the Speaker’s call when the question is asked. This is not a satisfactory way of indicating an intention not to answer, and the Speaker has indicated that Ministers in these circumstances should announce the refusal to answer by taking a point of order.
A Minister is not obliged to give reasons for refusing to answer, although it is preferable to do so.
The fact that a Minister does not intend to answer a question, or does not intend to answer it on that day and wishes to have it postponed, does not abrogate the right of the member who lodged the question to ask it if he or she so wishes. The member would, of course, be met with no reply at all or with the reply that the Minister declined to answer it on that day.
A Minister’s response to a question that he or she does not intend to answer it is in fact a reply, unsatisfactory as it may be to members. Sometimes Ministers may be reluctant to give an informative response on a matter that is under negotiation or consideration by another body. A response in these terms is not, strictly speaking, a refusal to reply. Whether to respond in this way is a matter for ministerial judgment.
However, Ministers are not expected to respond in an irrelevant manner; to do so is to act contrary to the spirit of the question process.
In such a circumstance the Speaker may allow more supplementary questions to be asked than would otherwise be the case. It is unparliamentary for a Minister to refuse to give information in a question to one member that the Minister is prepared to give to another member, and the Speaker has sought a further explanation from a Minister in such circumstances.
Formerly, Ministers could not be asked for their opinions in questions. This rule has been abolished and Ministers can now be asked for an opinion on a matter for which they have responsibility. Though Ministers can be asked for their opinions, they are not obliged to give them in answering such a question or to respond to a hypothetical situation suggested in a question.
Whether they do so or not is a matter for them.
If the Minister thinks that a question is not in order, the Minister’s proper course is to challenge it on a point of order and not to decline to answer it. The Speaker, not the Minister, decides whether it is in order.
Form of reply
The Minister’s reply must address the question asked. This involves a question of relevancy. The reply must be a direct response to the question; it cannot be a statement on an unrelated matter which it suits the Minister to introduce.
Answering questions in the House is an important element in ministerial responsibility.
Ministers are therefore expected to take questions seriously and to give informative replies to them,
though how they go about answering questions is largely up to them.
Members cannot stipulate how Ministers must reply (for example, by insisting on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer
), nor can the Speaker require a reply to be couched in one form rather than another.
Ministers in replying are not precluded from referring to newspaper reports that they have seen, rather than relying on official reports.
The Minister’s reply to a question is required to conform to many of the rules applying to questions. It must be concise and confined to the subject matter of the question asked.
It must not contain statements of facts and the names of any persons unless they are strictly necessary to answer the question.
Nor does a statement of fact in a reply require to be authenticated (as it would in a question).
The reply must be no longer than is necessary to answer the question adequately. But Ministers may add more than the bare facts in giving their replies. Any information which would supplement the reasons for the answer may be added.
Ministers must, however, confine themselves to giving information about matters for which they have responsibility. They cannot speculate about what may or may not be the effects of another political party’s policy.
Answers may not contain the plethora of expressions debarred from questions – arguments, inferences, imputations, epithets and ironical expressions
– and they must not contain any discreditable references to members or offensive or unparliamentary expressions.
Ministers may not, for example, make provocative remarks, such as commenting on the extent of the questioner’s knowledge.
Ministers, in their replies, are also under the general constraint against referring to select committee proceedings not open to the public, and to cases pending adjudication in a court.
The notes that Ministers use to answer questions are not official documents that, if quoted from, must be laid on the Table
but any other official document quoted by a Minister in answering a question can be required to be produced.
Adequacy of reply
While Ministers are required to “address” the question asked in their replies, whether the reply provided actually “answers” the question asked is a subjective judgment. It is no part of the Speaker’s role to make such a judgment.
The test of adequacy is whether the answer addresses the question by being relevant to it.
Essentially, the House itself and public opinion (assisted by the news media and reports of parliamentary proceedings) are the judges of the adequacy of a reply by making a political judgment on the matter.
This is the position whether the criticism of a reply is directed to its accuracy in terms of facts asserted or its comprehensiveness in answering the question asked. (The Speaker does have a role in ensuring that it remains relevant to the subject matter of the question.)
Thus the Speaker cannot be appealed to on the ground that the reply is inaccurate.
A deliberate attempt to mislead the House would be a contempt and if a Minister discovers that incorrect information has been given to the House the Minister is expected to correct the record as soon as possible. But subject to these circumstances, accuracy or otherwise is a matter that may be disputed and the Speaker is not the judge of it. It is a matter for political criticism of the Minister concerned if members believe that a Minister has answered incorrectly.
Questions often have more than one leg to them. If this is the case, members cannot demand that a reply addresses every leg of their question. The Minister has the latitude to address one or other of the legs of a question and ignore others. This is a risk that members run in asking multiple questions.
It is also permissible for Ministers to answer questions that contain a premise or statement by disagreeing with or controverting the premise or statement.
The widening of the scope of question time to permit members to ask Ministers for their opinions and to include hypothetical material in their questions has contributed to greater dissatisfaction with the replies to questions of much wider scope than formerly.
In essence, whether a reply emerges that answers the question satisfactorily, either in the questioner’s view or even in any “objective” sense, is a matter for political discourse. No one person is imbued with the power to make such a judgment. Question time allows issues to be raised. It does not necessarily resolve them to everyone’s satisfaction.
Follow-up to replies
Anyone giving inaccurate information in a reply to a question must correct this as soon as the error is appreciated. In the case of a reply to an oral question the appropriate procedure for correcting an answer is by way of a personal explanation.
Should leave be refused for this purpose (as has occurred on occasion), the Minister or member should write to the member who asked the question and to the Speaker, correcting the reply.
Where a Minister, in replying to an oral question, has promised to supply further information to the questioner, the Minister must follow up on this promise within a reasonable time. A member who does not receive the promised information can take this up with the Speaker.
Once the Minister has delivered his or her reply, members have an opportunity to ask supplementary questions at the discretion of the Speaker.
Supplementary questions are asked by members in their own right. They are not asked on behalf of other members.
The Minister naturally does not know exactly what supplementary questions may be asked, but is not entirely in the dark. Supplementary questions may only be put to elucidate or clarify a matter raised in the original question or in the answer given to the question.
Supplementaries must be relevant to the original question asked; they are not an opportunity to ask questions without notice, which is a practice unknown in the New Zealand House of Representatives.
A supplementary question must conform to all the rules of content and form in respect of questions generally.
Members may ask only one supplementary question at a time
and any second element in such a question must be closely related to the first part and by way of a wind-off to the question being asked;
it may not be prefaced with a statement.
But it is more difficult to apply the detailed rules – for instance, on authentication – to oral exchanges on the floor of the House than it is to analyse questions submitted on forms in an office, and supplementary questions that would be disallowed as primary questions are inevitably allowed from time to time.
Not all replies to questions provoke supplementary questions, although most do. Members wishing to ask a supplementary question rise in their places and seek the call. No member has a right to ask a supplementary question.
While it is entirely over to the Speaker as to whether supplementaries are permitted at all, in practice the House expects them to be asked and they are regarded as an integral, indeed vital, part of question time. As a matter of practice, the member who asked the original question is preferred first if he or she wishes to ask a supplementary question. If the questioner does not have a further question to ask, the Speaker will call any other member on the questioner’s side of the House instead.
After the member who asked the original question has had his or her turn, other members may ask supplementary questions.
While the Standing Orders repose the discretion entirely in the Speaker as to whom to call to ask supplementary questions and how many questions to permit on each question, in fact firm practices have evolved in the multi-party environment as to how this discretion is exercised.
Depending upon party sizes in the House, the Speaker allows each party a “quota” of supplementary questions. Even if there are fewer than 12 questions lodged on a particular day the Speaker allows the same number of supplementary questions overall. Those questions can then be utilised by members of each party as they see fit. In this way parties choose how they wish to distribute their allocation of supplementary questions. They are not obliged to ask a supplementary question to every primary question just for the sake of it. (In fact smaller parties would not have enough supplementary questions to do this in any case.) Parties usually advise the Speaker in advance which primary questions they intend to ask supplementary questions to.
After giving preference to the member who asked the primary question, the Speaker calls members to ask supplementary questions in order of the size of parties. The Speaker endeavours to give all parties a chance to ask their first supplementary question before a party is allowed to ask a second supplementary question on that question.
In respect of an urgent question, supplementary questions are restricted to one question from the member asking the urgent question.
In respect of a question to other members, the Speaker exercises an unfettered discretion as to how many supplementary questions to permit.
Replies to written questions
The member who has lodged a written question has nothing further to do to obtain the answer to the question. A question may be withdrawn by the member informing the Clerk at any time up to the receipt of the reply by the Clerk. After that time the question has already been answered and it is too late to withdraw it.
The reply to a written question must be lodged in electronic form with the Clerk.
The reply should be signed by way of an electronic signature by the Minister or one of the Minister’s colleagues.
How the electronic signature is affixed is a matter for the Minister to decide as long as the Minister has authorised it. Thus a Minister’s practice of authorising the affixing of his electronic signature by signing a hard copy of the reply was perfectly acceptable.
The reply must be lodged with the Clerk no later than the sixth working day following the publication of the question.
This effectively gives one week for the reply to be prepared. A reply due on a particular day does not have to be lodged at any particular time on that day.
There are a number of well-established governmental practices designed to co-ordinate replies to written questions. This is especially so where a question in similar terms is lodged to all Ministers and it is convenient for the Government to collect and collate information centrally or to respond with a single policy statement. Such questions might elicit a similar reply from all of the Ministers to whom they are addressed, or one substantive reply from one Minister and replies from the other Ministers merely directing attention to that substantive reply.
In the case of written questions addressed to the same Minister, the Minister may provide one amalgamated reply if this is warranted. But amalgamating replies cannot be used as a device to withhold information from the House, such as to avoid responding with disaggregated figures where this is material to the question asked.
The practice of amalgamating replies can only be resorted to where the questions concerned are themselves of a similar nature or are otherwise associated with each other. It is not acceptable to amalgamate replies to dissimilar questions into a single reply.
As Ministers have only six working days to prepare replies to often complicated questions, a practice has developed of giving “holding” or “interim” replies in some cases and following up later with full replies. Technically these holding replies are the replies in terms of the Standing Orders and the later full reply is in the nature of a direct communication between the Minister and member concerned.
But Speakers have emphasised that holding replies should only be used exceptionally and every endeavour must be made by the Minister to follow up with the full reply as soon as possible thereafter.
Ministers have been reminded that giving holding replies should not become the norm. It is not acceptable to issue holding replies because a Minister’s office has a large number of questions to deal with. A holding reply is only justified if a particular question will require considerable research to produce an answer.
If a Minister considers that this is the case, the Minister should say so in the initial reply. A Minister should not give a holding reply promising to supply the information and then follow up with a reply declining to provide it on the grounds of the expense involved. A promise having been given must be kept.
Nor should a holding reply be given where the Minister does not intend to follow up with a fully informative reply. It was thus wrong to give a holding reply and then some time later a short reply that could just as easily have been given in the first place.
Contents of replies
The same rules as apply to the contents of replies to oral questions apply to replies to written questions. However, a written answer to a question is primarily a matter between the Minister and the member concerned, and the Speaker will not become involved in it unless it is brought to the Speaker’s attention. The Speaker does not encourage this being done in the House, but will always consider objections by members to the replies they have received when they raise these with the Speaker in writing. In all cases, however, a member objecting to the contents of a reply must discuss it first with the Minister concerned to try to resolve any difficulties.
If the Speaker finds that a reply to a written question is not confined to the subject-matter of the question asked, or is otherwise out of order, it may be ordered to be amended and republished.
Publication of replies
All replies are published on the parliamentary website on the third working day following the day on which they are lodged.
(The Speaker may relax this requirement in exceptional circumstances arising from the operation of the website.
) This delay in publication is to ensure that the member who asked the question has advice of the reply prior to its general publication.
If a Minister discovers that information provided in a written reply is incorrect, the Minister must, as soon as practicable, lodge an amended reply with the Office of the Clerk. This is then provided to the member and published on the parliamentary website. A Minister should not merely correct an answer to an earlier question in replying to a subsequent question.
Where a Minister appreciates that there has been an error but needs further time to assemble the correct information, the Minister should still acknowledge the error immediately by lodging a further reply with the Clerk and provide a fully corrected reply in due course.