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UK Parliament – Controlling the Executive through Questions

Much of what Government decides is not in legislation, which only provides a framework, but in day to day decisions and the whole area of foreign policy is given a legal basis by the Royal Prerogative and not by legislation agreed by Parliament.

Parliament therefore has to find ways of examining Government policy and, in this area, it is generally more effective than with legislation and finance. Subsidies to farmers for nature conservation, making land available for housing, changing the level of benefits, renewing Trident, relationships with China are all areas that Parliament may look at.

One of the ways that Parliament scrutinizes Government policy are:-


There are two types of questions though they have more or less the same purpose:-

Oral Questions

Questions can be asked direct to Ministers in charge of each Department about every month. Members of Parliament have to notify questions in advance but when the Minister has replied, generally with an answer prepared by civil servants, the MP or other MPs can ask follow up questions.

Written Questions

MPs can put down question that Ministers will reply to in writing. They have to be in the right form and MPs’ offices become skilled in drafting them.

The advantage of these is that it is possible to ask more questions if the Minister and civil servants are trying to evade the first question, to gradually pin down what is actually happening. Ministers can though refuse to answer because it is held that it would be too expensive to collect the information or the matter is confidential.

There are also questions to the Prime Minister every Wednesday but, since Parliament has been televised, this takes place in front of a packed House and is mainly point scoring between Government and Opposition, especially between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who is allowed the first questions, both knowing that what they say may well appear on the television news that day.

Jeremy Corbyn tried to change the format by asking questions that he had received from the public but the sessions have pretty much reverted to the previous style.

The format is that the first question is a non-question about the Prime Minister’s engagements for the day and then MPs can answer a question they want to.

Prime Ministers hate the process and spend all morning going through the answers to possible questions though Government whips get some Government MPs to ask friendly questions.


A typical exchange – Communities and Local Government Oral Questions 3rd June 2013 put to Mark Prisk, Housing Minister

Mary Portas, the retail expert, produced a report on how to revive declining shopping centres and the Government has allocated some money to local authorities to bid to carry out pilot projects. Simon Danzuck, the Labour MP for Rochdale, had put down an innocuous question on how the pilots were getting along and their effect.

The Minister didn’t really answer the question probably because only the local authorities really have much idea at this stage about how they are working. He makes a general statement about the Government’s objectives.

Simon Danzuck comes back with his real question which he loosely links to the Portas pilots and which is one attacking the Government for increasing business rates for shops, which is a big issue with small shopkeepers at present. Labour has since made an election commitment to keep the rates down.

The Minister answers pretty well saying that they go up with the retail price index just as they had done under the Labour Government and flags up some of the rate relief that the Government is giving in certain cases.

Justin Tomlinson, the Conservative MP for Swindon North, comes in with a more friendly question asking whether, if local authorities and retailers in a town centre can’t agree on how to spend the money, it could be allocated to other centres.

The Minister can’t say yes because the criteria for giving the money has already been settled but recognises that it could be a problem.

James Gray, the Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, comes in with a question attacking out-of-town stores for ruining town centres.

The Minister can’t be too hostile towards out of town as the superstores are a powerful lobby but says that the Government have strengthened planning policy in favour of town centres, which they have.