I am now prepared to rule on the point of order raised on January 27 by the hon. government House leader concerning written questions and the difficulties experienced by the government in responding to them within the 45 day deadline established pursuant to Standing Order 39(5)(a).
I would like to thank the hon. government House leader for having raised this matter as well as the hon. House leader for the official opposition and the hon. member for St. John's West for their interventions.
In presenting his case, the hon. government House leader stated that Questions Nos. 59 to 71 and 77, placed on the Notice Paper on November 20 and 21, 2002, requested a significant amount of information related to government grants, loans, contributions and contracts awarded in certain constituencies over an eight year period. He went on to argue that the very nature of the questions made it virtually impossible for the government to respond within the 45 day deadline set for its responses.
The hon. government House leader presented several facts in support of that position. He noted that information of this nature is kept on file for a maximum period of six years. He also mentioned that government departments are not required to keep such records on a constituency basis. Furthermore, he pointed out that all the information collected for such a government response requires translation pursuant to S.O. 32(4), which stipulates that any document distributed or laid before the House must be in both official languages.
To remedy the dilemma he described, the hon. government House leader went on to suggest amending Standing Order 39(6) that currently allows certain questions to be transferred to Motions for the Production of Papers, so that it could provide another avenue for the government to respond to longer questions.
In concluding his remarks, the hon. government House leader also suggested that the Clerk, who is responsible for reviewing and accepting written questions for publication on the Notice Paper, should reject any question that was “unreasonable” or that was so poorly drafted that it requires multiple clarifications.
First, let me clear up one point. The hon. government House leader complained that the disputed questions sought information from the government about non-governmental organizations. However, as I read these questions, information is sought about “quasi non-governmental organizations funded by the government”. These quangos, as they are known in the United Kingdom, are in fact public bodies, defined as bodies having a role in the processes of government and, though not reporting to a minister, bodies for which ministers are ultimately responsible. Thus, it seems to me that the questions do, in fact, seek this information from the appropriate source.
Now let us return to the matter at hand. I should first say that since January 27, when this point of order was raised, the government has tabled responses to all the questions dealt with in the complaint.
Strictly speaking, the responses were tabled after the deadline provided for in Standing Order 39(5)( a ) had passed.
Since the Chair took this point of order under advisement on January 27, the designation of these questions and their reference to committee were held in abeyance, pending my ruling. Now, since the responses are in, the Chair will not designate these questions nor will these questions be referred to committee. However, I want to be very clear on this. This is a relatively new procedure and I am prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt in this instance. In the future though, the application of deadlines will be strictly applied and a non-response to a question will not mitigated by the fact that a point of order has been raised about the question and that the House must await a ruling.
In summary then, there is no longer an immediate problem with regard to this particular set of questions. However, the Chair is nevertheless prepared to share its conclusions on the point of order raised in the hope that it may prove helpful in future situations.
Having reviewed the issues raised by the hon. government House leader, I must confess a certain reluctance to intervene in the matter. Let me explain.
I would refer hon. members to the ruling made by Mr. Speaker Fraser on June 14, 1989, referred to by the hon. government House leader in his arguments. Specifically, let me cite what I believe is a succinct statement of the continuing problem regarding written questions, and I quote:
The dilemma is this: we must find a balance between the urgent requirements of Members who need information in order to function and the equal imperative of a rational and fair use of the limited resources available to provide answers.
The ruling continues:
There is also a procedurally quite acceptable practice simply to respond by saying that the question cannot be answered because of the time and the human or financial resources involved. The Government may continue the practice of simply declining, with an explanation, to answer questions which it finds are too burdensome. It should be understood that there is no obligation on the Government to provide a perfect answer, only a fair one.
Mr. Speaker Fraser continues with a very important caveat:
A Member in framing his or her question would accept part of the responsibility for the quality of the answer.
In short, our procedure permits the government to respond to a question or questions by stating that the question cannot be answered because of the time and the human or financial resources involved.
Perhaps ironically, this is what the hon. government House leader did, even as he presented his point of order. In making his case, he stated that the government could not respond to Questions Nos. 59 to 71 and 77, because of certain ambiguities in the line of questioning, because of the time involved in compiling the information requested, and because of the human and financial resources involved.
On another front, the hon. government House leader posits that one remedy to the current situation he faces is that the Clerk's staff should exercise greater rigour in accepting written questions for the Notice Paper.
I cannot agree with this argument for, no matter what degree of rigour is applied to the process, it is not possible for House staff to form any accurate assessment of the resources necessary to prepare a reply. There will always be differences of opinion between the government and members of the opposition as to the way questions are formulated as well as to whether adequate information is provided in response.
Staff under the aegis of the Clerk review written questions submitted as to form and whether they conform with our guidelines, but they cannot be charged with assessing the merits of these questions, or whether the government will or will not be in a position to respond to them.
Marleau and Montpetit at page 441 makes the following point:
Acting on the Speaker's behalf, the Clerk has full authority to ensure the questions placed on the Notice Paper conform with the rules and practices of the House. Given that the purpose of a written question is to seek and receive a precise, detailed answer, it is incumbent on a Member submitting a question for the Notice Paper “to ensure that it is formulated carefully enough to elicit the precise information sought”.
Similarly, as hon. members know, there is no provision in our rules for the Speaker to review the content of responses, nor would that be appropriate. In this regard I would simply state that any member not satisfied with the response provided by the government may raise supplemental questions either orally or in written form.
I should mention that the current situation may well be rooted in the frustration that members experience with regard to the constraints imposed on them with regard to written questions. I can remember a time when members were not limited in the number of questions they could place on the Order Paper whereas today Standing Order 39(4) limits members to four questions at any one time.
It is perhaps not entirely surprising that members have shown their usual ingenuity in coping with this constraint and have taken to crafting multipart questions of the kind that are the subject of the minister's complaint.
Where there might have been pointed questions each addressed to a particular department or agency, there is now one question which blankets all departments and agencies and throws in quangos for good measure. The minister is left with a rather thankless task of compiling all this information within the 45-day limit if he is to respect the deadline for responses.
As I stated at the outset, I have concluded after reviewing this situation that the Chair cannot adjudicate on the merits of written questions asked of the government any more than it can judge the merits of the responses the government provides.
The Clerk and his officials are entrusted the task of ensuring that written questions are permissible as to form only; it falls to the government to determine whether it can offer a response, given the nature and scope of the question.
Since responses to the specific questions that gave rise to this point of order have now been tabled in the House, the Chair considers this particular case to be closed and trusts that this decision will help to clarify the situation in the future.
If hon. members remain concerned about the current rules relating to written questions, I would suggest that the matter be taken up by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs or by the Special Committee on Modernization and Improvement of the Procedures of the House of Commons which is also currently tasked with reviewing our procedures.