In either House there are two principal usages for the word question. Curiously, the two are procedurally direct opposites. The sequence of Member moving a motion, and the Speaker ultimately putting the same proposition as a Question to the House is the basic building block of parliamentary procedure. As Thomas Erskine May wrote in the first edition of his Treatise in 1844, ‘Every matter is determined in both houses, upon questions put by the Speaker, and resolved in the affirmative or negative, as the case may be’. Examples are ‘That this House do now adjourn’, or ‘That, in the opinion of this House, black is white’. The other usage – a specific request for information addressed (usually) to a government Minister to be answered on the floor of the House or in writing – breaks the key principle established by the first: in order to have a discussion about anything, the House must have been given a proposition – a Question – to argue over. A request for information is not a proposition. Parliamentary questions (PQs), on the other hand, were from the eighteenth century regarded as a valuable way of obtaining information quickly and without fuss, and they have now become central to the way in which government is held to account. But for procedural purists and those responsible for ensuring that concrete decisions emerged from the deliberations at Westminster, they long invited the tedious prospect of dragging the House into the chaos and confusion of informal conversational exchanges between two Members, delaying scheduled business far into the night.
Insisting on a formal proposition for the House to debate, rather than allowing a broad-based discussion based on, say, a title, means that it comes to a decision with at least some measure of clarity (such broad-based discussions have happened in the past and do happen, it should be said, although the question before the House in such cases will be one about process, rather than about the subject itself – for example, ‘That this House do now adjourn’, or ‘that the Clerk proceed to read the Orders of the Day’). It is probably impossible to determine how the House arrived at the basic principle of having a question, and perhaps it is so natural that historical inquiry is beside the point; yet the practice has much in common with the standard procedure of medieval scholasticism as followed in all European universities, where students were required to take opposing sides in a public disputation on some knotty philosophical question: if so, it would not be the only instance of parliamentary practice closely imitating the procedure of early ecclesiastical assemblies. Arguing ‘pro et contra’, it was sometimes labelled; and the phrase is occasionally used in the early manuals of parliamentary procedure (Scobell, p. 22).
Parliamentary Questions had none of that formality. The problem with PQs was that a response to a question could very easily suggest a further question, or an argumentative response, and before one knew it, the House would be drawn along the path of a new and unexpected debate very different to the one that it was expecting to have, and with no formal proposition to guide it. The proper, and very well-documented way of seeking information from government ministers in the early eighteenth century was through a formal motion, usually to request papers on some particular topic. Yet given that the enforcement of procedural rules in either House could be lax, and the frequency of occasions on which Members found themselves sitting around without any debate happening at all, it seems quite possible that there were questions asked and answered outside a formal debate before the ‘first recorded parliamentary question’ was asked in 1721 in the Lords (the first in the Commons was in 1757). Peter Thomas has suggested that it was very likely that the more informal debates of the Committee of Supply would have permitted exchanges between members and Ministers which looked very much like questions. Ministers often resisted answering questions addressed to them and claimed that it would have been improper to do so; but (no doubt because they did answer from time to time when they wanted to) they, and the Speaker, and the House, would tolerate the practice up to a point. In the 1770s, when more comprehensive recording of debates became possible, questions are more visible, and apparently more common. In 1783, in the course of a row over the conduct of Edmund Burke as paymaster-general, the Speaker (Wolfram Cornwall) clarified his attitude to the practice:
he had often repeated, and wished to impress it on the mind of the House, that conversations were disorderly; but any member had, in his opinion, a right to put a question to a Minister, or person in office, and that person had a right to answer or not to answer, as he thought proper, and, if he pleased, to explain and enter into a justification of his conduct, and give his reasons before he gave his answer to the question.
Some Members were distinctly unhappy with this statement: the former minister Richard Rigby, a man ‘infinitely more rude than any other member in the House’, exploded to say that ‘If the practice prevailed’, what would be the consequence? Their time would be taken up with asking questions of each other, and instead of the great national business going on, the best part of the session would be spent in questions and answers.’ And while questions continued to be tolerated, it continued to be acceptable for Ministers to sidestep them: in 1816 Castlereagh was still refusing to respond to a question from Henry Brougham, claiming that ‘the system of putting those species of questions was incompatible with the ancient usages of Parliament… they only tended to embarrass, and not to facilitate, the public business’ (20 Feb. 1816, col. 738-44). And those who feared that questions would too often become rambling semi-debates were often proved right: in 1808 the foreign secretary George Canning moved a motion to back up the Speaker who came under severe criticism after he intervened (at the hint of the government) to curtail one particularly long exchange.
Despite such incidents, questions continued to be asked at just about any point in the daily proceedings of the Commons. Occasionally Members would give previous notice of their questions, in the same way as they did for motions, and from 1835 their proposed questions were printed on the order paper along with (and mixed up with) notices given of motions, though it remained possible to ask questions without giving previous notice, whether orally or in writing, until 1886.
It’s just as hard to pin down when the House began to corral questions together into a special period of the day – ‘Question time’ – rather than allowing them to occur at any time during a day’s sitting. From 1849, a special section of the order paper was devoted to questions, which might indicate an assumption that questions were separated as a class from the rest of the day’s business. The procedural manual (not the Treatise) published by the Clerk of the House, Thomas Erskine May, in 1854, showed that by then the House was dealing with Questions in roughly the same way as it does now – after private business, and before entering into the main public business of the day – on a normal day this would mean around 4.15 in the afternoon. In the mid-nineteenth century there would only be one or two questions a day, so the process occupied relatively little time. But the customary time — before the House embarked on the main government business, was a dangerous one: it was potentially highly frustrating for the government if questions started to go on too long, and too tempting for Members who were so disposed to prolong proceedings on questions in order to disrupt key pieces of legislation. There were particular worries about the increasingly popular practice of moving for the adjournment of the House if a Member wanted to follow up his question — and thus preventing the Speaker from calling him to order for turning a question into a conversation. The 1861 committee which reviewed the House’s procedure in public business pondered the possibility of abuse, but decided not to take action to curb questions:
It is necessary… to be watchful, and to guard against the inroad of new causes of delay. A practice has arisen of putting questions to Ministers on notice, when no Motion is before the House; and these questions, and the answers to them, are confined within narrow limits, intended to be precautions against irregular debate. There is convenience in this course; but to prevent this license degenerating into abuse, it is most important that both the questions and answers should be as concise as possible, and not sustained by reasoning, which might give rise to debate. Recourse on these occasions has been sometimes had to the expedient of moving the Adjournment of the House for the express purpose of opening debate. This proceeding is to be regarded with the greatest jealousy. It is in reality an abuse of one of the forms of the House, with the avowed intent of virtually breaking its essential rules. Your Committee have come to the conclusion that this evil has not reached the point where special interference by a new Standing order would be expedient. They are disposed still to rely on the forbearance of Members in the use of forms which respect for ancient usage leaves unaltered; and the marked disapprobation of a large majority of the House may check the growth of so objectionable a practice.
Over the next quarter of a century, it became obvious that something did need to be done. In 1850 212 Questions had been tabled. In 1860 it was 699; in 1870, 1,203; in 1880 1,546. Three years later, in 1883, it had more than doubled, to 3,185; by 1890 it was 4,407. As Sir Norman Chester pointed out, this may exaggerate the increase, because earlier in the century many questions may have been asked without notice. On the other hand, it underestimates its impact on the Commons, because it had become common to allow a supplementary question following the answer from the minister; and the practice of moving to adjourn the House to gain the opportunity for further debate meant that questions could be merely the beginning of a longer diversion (there is a good example on 12 April 1877) . Earlier in the century, the practice of presenting petitions and initiating debates on them had threatened to push debate on the main items of business for the day far into the night, until the government had demanded an end to it in 1839. Now, questions – which like petitions had been, were usually taken before the day’s main menu for public business – were threatening to do the same. The growth can’t be attributed to a single cause: the growth in the responsibilities of government departments, changes in the operation of the newspapers, and the closing off of a number of other ways in which Members could raise matters of immediate concern (including petitions) all had a part to play. But what was resented, by ministers at least, about the development of parliamentary questions during the 1870s was the way in which they were easily turned into a new way of attacking the government. More than anything else, the innovative and aggressive approach of the Irish party to the use of parliamentary questions reconciled the House to doing something about them. In 1885 six Irish members asked nearly 20 per cent of all of the Questions recorded in Hansard, and the personal battle of one of them, Tim Healy, with the clerks, particularly Archibald Milman, over what he could and couldn’t put in a question has been admirably described by Colin Lee.
Serious efforts to work out what to do about the growing problem of questions began in the late 1870s as impatience about the Irish obstruction campaign (which affected far more than just questions) grew. A simple step, taken in 1880, was to end the practice of Members unnecessarily reading out their questions in the House; but this was found to make very little practical difference. During the 1880s a series of procedural reforms began to take steps which had been delicately avoided in 1861: the possibility of moving the adjournment to pursue answers given at question time was closed down in 1882; in 1886, following the recommendations of a select committee, the right to ask a question without notice, and the practice of giving notice orally in the House, were both ended. There were exceptions for supplementary questions – as long as these were directly related to the original question – and urgent questions, which had to be approved in advance by the Speaker. The survival of supplementaries meant that the reforms failed to achieve their object: not only did the number of questions continued to grow, but the energetic asking of supplementaries continued to push the time for the beginning of public business further into the evening.
It was perhaps the new high in 1901 – 6,448 questions – that pushed Arthur Balfour’s Unionist government into action with a new, and more draconian, set of reforms, affecting all aspects of public business, but particularly questions (though Balfour, a previous chief secretary for Ireland, had for long been deeply irritated by the Irish party’s exploitation of questions). In a much-quoted speech on 30 January 1902, Balfour outlined the growth in questions over the course of the nineteenth century: if you included supplementaries in the total number of questions, he argued, there had been 7,180, and had taken 119 hours over 115 sitting days, ‘in other words, they occupied close upon 15 eight hour parliamentary days, or three weeks of government time’. Under his timetable for business, the House would have two sittings a day, with a break between 8 and 9pm for dinner; questions would come towards the end of the first (which was persistently referred to as a ‘morning’ sitting, even though it was supposed to begin at 2pm), and be limited to three quarters of an hour (though those unanswered then could be answered at the end of the evening sitting, after midnight – a suggestion that Balfour had thought might ‘prodigiously diminish the curiosity of Members’). Members would have the choice of putting their questions down for oral or for written answer: the written answers would be circulated to all Members along with the daily votes and proceedings.
The key innovation in Balfour’s proposals was that the time for questions – like much other business – should be limited, rather than allowed to drag on and interrupt other business. This principle was relatively easily accepted, though the details were much amended in the course of the 1902 debates. Wrenching PQs out of their customary time in the mid-afternoon, into a time when few would be interested, was too obviously an effort to suppress them as much as possible. Balfour accepted that his proposals for the timing of questions were unpopular, and eventually agreed to devote forty minutes to them between 2.15 and 2.55, ensuring that they were still on at a time when they might achieve the maximum amount of publicity, but preserving the government’s central desire to prevent them spilling over into the time available for the main, public business.
Although the sitting hours of the House have undergone considerable change since then, questions are still, relatively speaking, in the same place they were put in 1902. Which is not to say that questions now look much the same as they did at the beginning of the twentieth century: the gradual adoption of a fixed rota in the 1920s, and the increased prominence given to prime ministers’ questions have been major changes that have had an enormous impact on the shape and impact of ‘Question time’. But those are for another day.
D.N. Chester and Nona Bowring, Questions in Parliament (Oxford, 1962)
Patrick Howarth, Questions in the House (1956)
Colin Lee, ‘Archibald Milman and the Transformation of Questions to Ministers, 1871-1902’, The Table, vol. 85 (2017), pp. 7-30.