Oral answers and supplementary questions

19.16An answer should be confined to the points contained in the question, with such explanation only as renders the answer intelligible, though a certain latitude is permitted to Ministers of the Crown.1 The Speaker has stressed that the length of both ministerial replies and of supplementary questions should be curbed.2 The Speaker has suggested that lengthy answers should be circulated with the Official Report instead of being given orally.3

In respect of a Minister's reply to the first topical question, the Speaker has indicated that this should normally take no more than one minute, and has also indicated that the use of this reply to make important announcements provides the opposition with less opportunity to ask questions than if a statement had been made.4 At the same time, the Speaker has indicated that no more than one Official Opposition frontbencher will normally be called during topical questions periods,5 and expressed the view that topical questions are intended for the benefit of backbenchers.6

Proposed answers to questions should not be revealed in advance.7 Following a recommendation of a Select Committee on Parliamentary Questions, the Speaker indicated that not every Member who had placed an identical question on the Order Paper would necessarily be called to ask a supplementary:8 in more recent times this has been addressed through the grouping together of similar questions. When an answer has been refused on security grounds, the Speaker has not allowed further supplementary questions.9 A supplementary question may refer only to the answer out of which it immediately arises,10 must relate to government responsibility,11 must not be read or be too long,12 or quote from letters,13 should contain only one question,14 must not refer to an earlier answer or be addressed to another Minister15 and is governed by the general rules of order affecting all questions.16 As a consequence of the rule against anticipation (see para 20.13 ), when a Member gives oral notice in the House of their intention to seek to raise on the adjournment a matter arising out of oral answers, further supplementary questions thereon are not permitted.17 Such notice is accepted only from the Member in whose name the question stands.18 The Speaker has ruled that a Member must give that oral notice immediately, and may not do so after other supplementaries have been asked.19

In respect of substantive oral questions, the Speaker has refused to call Members to ask a supplementary question to Ministers (other than the Prime Minister) when their original question was of so general a character as to provide a wide area for supplementaries; this has been interpreted as applying particularly to questions about meetings or visits.20

In 1996, following a report by the Public Service Committee, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster published a guide to civil servants preparing answers to questions, Guidance to Officials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions.21 Replies from chief executives of government agencies in response to parliamentary questions referred to them by Ministers are published alongside written answers from Ministers.22

Footnotes

  1. 1. Parl Deb (1861) 161, c 497; HC Deb (1983–84) 57, cc 647–49. For example, the rules governing the reading out of material and quotations from speeches at Question Time do not apply to ministerial replies, see eg ibid (1979–80) 986, c 1026.
  2. 2. HC Deb (1993–94) 238, c 433; ibid (1995–96) 267, c 461; ibid 278, c 609; ibid (2000–01) 363, c 315; HC Deb (23 June 2009) 494, c 643; ibid (29 June 2009) 495, cc 5 and 29.
  3. 3. HC Deb (1924) 172, c 1980.
  4. 4. HC Deb (17 November 2008) 483, cc 16–17.
  5. 5. HC Deb (17 December 2007) 469, c 589.
  6. 6. For example, HC Deb (17 March 2008) 473, c 614.
  7. 7. HC Deb (1989–90) 177, c 1055; ibid (1996–97) 292, c 386.
  8. 8. HC Deb (1972–73) 860, c 258.
  9. 9. HC Deb (1960–61) 635, c 1580; ibid (1961–62) 652, c 1263.
  10. 10. Parl Deb (1900) 82, c 12. For recent examples of the Speaker ruling supplementaries out of order because they went too wide of the lead question, see HC Deb (23 January 2008) 470, c 1481; ibid (12 June 2018) 642, c 700.
  11. 11. HC Deb (30 June 2010) 512, c 859; ibid (21 July 2010) 514, c 344; ibid (11 December 2018) 651, c 145.
  12. 12. HC Deb (1935–36) 313, c 995; ibid (1947–48) 452, c 2203; ibid (1956–57) 560, cc 731–32; ibid (1992–93) 221, c 597; ibid (2006–07) 461, c 1505; ibid (2007–08) 481, c 562. The Speaker has emphasised the need for supplementary questions, and answers, to be brief during the period of topical questions: ibid (28 October 2008) 481, c 724; ibid (16 January 2008) 470, c 929; ibid (23 June 2009) 494, c 659.
  13. 13. HC Deb (30 October 2006) 451, c 3.
  14. 14. HC Deb (21 June 2007) 461, c 1506; ibid (7 October 2008) 480, c 137; ibid (4 December 2008) 485, c 144; ibid (2 April 2009) 490, c 1046; ibid (23 June 2009) 494, c 643; ibid (12 October 2009) 497, c 1.
  15. 15. Parl Deb (1901) 91, c 103; HC Deb (1958–59) 599, cc 987–88. But supplementary questions in Westminster Hall (see para 23.13 and Erskine May (24th edn, 2011), p 323) may be addressed to any of the Ministers present.
  16. 16. Parl Deb (1907) 172, c 225; HC Deb (1935–36) 307, c 1381; ibid (1948–49) 463, c 1843; ibid (1960–61) 639, cc 1601–2; ibid (1979–80) 986, cc 1358, 1568; ibid (1996–97) 285, c 345.
  17. 17. HC Deb (1984–85) 74, c 14; ibid (2001–02) 372, c 1033; ibid (2002–03) 398, c 4; ibid (17 April 2007) 459, c 141.
  18. 18. HC Deb (1992–93) 216, c 752.
  19. 19. HC Deb (16 July 2007) 463, c 17.
  20. 20. HC Deb (1983–84) 54, c 130; ibid (1983–84) 56, cc 705–6; ibid (2002–03) 410, cc 154–55; in practice, an oral question which does not indicate, in broad terms, a particular subject-matter would anyway not be admissible (see para 22.3 ).
  21. 21. HC 313 (1995–96); HC Deb (1996–97) 285, c 53W. The latest version of this guidance, dated February 2005, is published as an annex to the Cabinet Office's Guide to Parliamentary Work.
  22. 22. HC Deb (1992–93) 221, c 267W.