Shining the Spotlight on Parliament: Examining the Value of Parliamentary Questions

londonOver recent months the challenges facing charities have been increasingly in the public eye, particularly as a result of the joint CAF & NCVO Back Britain’s Charities campaign. The increased focus on the future of charities has extended to the House of Commons, where numerous MPs have been using Parliamentary tools such as Parliamentary Questions (PQs) to help create a detailed picture of life in the charity sector. We thought this would be a good opportunity to look at some of the tools charities can use to influence political debate here in the UK.

One of the key roles of MPs is to scrutinise the Government’s policies, and many Parliamentarians take a specific interest in policies that are having the largest direct impact upon their constituency. Given that the average Parliamentary constituency houses over 200 charities, it’s no surprise that MPs are aware of the challenges that charities face, and their interest is reflected by the topic of many recent PQs.

There are two types of Parliamentary Question: written, and oral. Oral questions take place in the House of Commons Chamber and, with the exception of the weekly grilling of the Prime Minister, each member of the Cabinet is expected to answer questions on behalf of the Government approximately once every six weeks. Written questions allow MPs to scrutinise the work of departments between these oral question times, and are presented in a more factual manner than those in the Commons.

Patterns in the usage of Parliamentary questions can give an indication of the issues that are currently on the political agenda, and can help organisations like CAF to gauge the effectiveness of our campaigns and public affairs work. For example, over recent months the Back Britain’s Charities campaign has been raising awareness of research which found that one in six charities fear being forced to close in the next year. Following significant media interest and activity to promote these figures, oral questions in Parliament have been asked by MPs including Graeme Morrice, Hugh Bayley, Andrew Gwynne and Gareth Thomas that have focused on the campaign’s findings. As a result, there has been a significant spike in the campaign’s Parliamentary activity, and the knowledge that MPs are using our figures to inform their work shows that the campaign is cutting through to Parliamentarians.

PQs are also used by MPs to scrutinise the Government, and in return give Ministers an opportunity to explain and clarify their policies. In particularly, responses to written Parliamentary questions often give the Government the opportunity to present their policies in a clearer way than the rough and tumble of the Commons Chamber typically allows. For example, following a question from Jim Dobbin MP on the steps that the Government is taking to strengthen the charity sector, Nick Hurd MP was able to explain that the £600 million Big Society Capital fund, £20 million Investment and Contract Readiness Fund, £10 million Innovation in Giving Fund and £20 million Social Action Fund had all been established to boost the sector. Withdrawn from the often-heated tone of debate on the floor of the House, answers to written PQs can provide clarity and are therefore used to provide information.

Of course that isn’t to say that oral question sessions cannot be informative, and indeed they are often used by MPs to scrutinise the Government and press for clarifications or changes to policy. Following the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s recent announcement on reforming the probation service, a number of question marks remained about the impact of payment by results (PbR) on charities, and MPs such as Peter Aldous took it upon themselves to ensure that charities wanting to take part in the PbR process were able to compete on a level playing field. After being pressed on the issue, Chris Grayling was able to tell the House that modifications from previous PbR initiatives had been made to make the process more friendly to charities, and to explain that a team working in the Cabinet Office has been tasked with ensuring that the voluntary sector is prepared for the bidding process. This demonstrates that MPs are able to use their position and expertise to pressurise governments on changes to policy, and can often wield significant influence through their choice of question.

In short, PQs can be used to scrutinise the Government and pressurise for a modification of policies, retrieve data and statistics, raise awareness of an issue, and provide greater clarity about existing policies. There are of course other Parliamentary tools that MPs can use and that charities can turn to their advantage: from debates, committees, amendments, motions and Bills, to EDMs, petitions and the lesser spotted ‘praying against’ – more on these another time. It is fair to say that PQs are one of the most potent weapons in an MP’s arsenal, and keeping an eye on Hansard and proceedings in Parliament can be of great interest. At an estimated cost to the public of £450 per oral and £164 per written question PQs aren’t cheap, but their value to the political process is undoubted and their usage is one of the best ways for MPs to fulfil their primary duty of representing their constituents and the interests that they care about.

Steve Clapperton

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