The Art of Questioning
One of the major opportunities that MPs have is the ability to ask oral and written parliamentary questions (PQs). Every question and answer is published in Hansard, and this provides a very useful opening for inquisition of government ministers and departments as each day starts. It’s important to pay close attention – a question asked in error can create quite a storm, as I found to my cost recently with a question on Albania!
All questions must go through the Table Office, the parliamentary channel that checks the suitability or appropriateness of a question. To be tabled, a question must fall within the responsibility of government and the ministry at which it is aimed. It must be couched in parliamentary language; it must be a question and not a statement; and it must be answerable without excessive charge.
The last criterion is sometimes an effective way for ministers to escape answering, but this can result in a storm in parliament if they are seen to be evading or obfuscating the issue.
Recently, parliament has introduced an electronic procedure which makes it much easier for MPs to get their questions tabled. Previously it was all done by pen and paper - not easy to read the submissions, if your handwriting is as illegible as mine!
I’ve always drawn my ideas for PQs from many different sources. Firstly, from my own reading, conversations or research. Secondly, from constituents who are concerned about specific issues – asking a PQ is a quick, effective mechanism for extracting an answer, though not always the answer they want to hear. Thirdly, I draw from the many groups and organisations I belong to or meet with. This is a rich vein for evidence trawling and can be mutually beneficial.
Each written PQ costs about £150 to answer, the cost relating to civil service time and printing charges, so one must be careful what one is asking.
Using PQs is an important part of an MP’s armoury. Members of the public can check what their representative is getting up to by going online, either to read Hansard or by accessing www.theyworkforyou.com.
This provides a fascinating insight into how Parliament functions.