I am now prepared to rule on the point of order raised on November 29, 2012, by the member for Charlottetown regarding the relevance of the government's response to written question Q-465.
I would like to thank the hon. member for having raised this matter and the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons for his comments.
In raising his point of order, the member for Charlottetown contended that the response provided to his written question Q-465 had no link to the question asked. Specifically, he had requested certain information related to all websites accessed by the Minister of Justice and the Minister for Public Safety on government-issued computers and devices within a specific two-week period. The answer received explained, by way of reference to Bill C-30, that the information requested would not be provided. Asserting his right as a member of Parliament to ask questions to hold the government accountable, the hon. member argued that the government does not have the right to decide which questions to answer and which ones to ignore.
In response, the parliamentary secretary reminded the House of the ruling that the chair gave on November 27, 2012, which can be found at pages 12536-7 of Debates, on the appropriateness of answers to written questions.
As to the appropriateness of the answer provided, members are well aware that it is a well-established practice that Speakers do not judge the quality of government responses to questions, whether written or oral. In fact, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, Second Edition, at page 522, states:
There are no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions.
That being said, I did state in the November 27 ruling to which the parliamentary secretary referred, at page 12536 of Debates, that “As always, however, the Chair remains attentive to these matters and is ready to assist in any way it can in ensuring that written questions continue to serve members as an important channel of genuine information exchange”.
I think all members would agree that members of the House have the right to expect that reasonable answers be given to reasonable questions, particularly given the critical role of written questions in our parliamentary system.
In a ruling on June 14, 1989, at page 3026 of Debates, Speaker Fraser provided an interesting comment on government responses to questions, stating:
It should be understood that there is no obligation on the Government to provide a perfect answer, only a fair one. A Member in framing his or her question would accept part of the responsibility for the quality of the answer.
As I reminded the House on November 27, 2012, House of Commons Procedure and Practice, at page 522, states that “It is acceptable for the government, in responding to a written question, to indicate to the House that it cannot supply an answer”. At the same time, it is expected under our practice that the integrity of the written question process be maintained by avoiding questions or answers that stray from the underlying principle of information exchange.
As is stated in O’Brien and Bosc, again at page 522, “no argument or opinion is to be given and only the information needed to respond to the question is to be provided in an effort to maintain the process of written questions as an exchange of information rather than an opportunity for debate.”
For reasons already given, the Chair is not in a position to delve into the content of answers to written questions. However, as Speaker, I have a duty to remind the House that our written question process is intended to be free of argument and debate. To protect its integrity, I enjoin those submitting questions and those preparing answers to bear that principle in mind, remembering that it remains acceptable for the government to say in response to a question, simply, “We cannot answer”.
The Chair hopes that all those involved in the written question process will bear this ruling and my ruling of November 27, 2012 in mind so that every effort is made to ensure that information is exchanged in such as way as to serve the needs of members while protecting the integrity of the written question practices that have served us so well for many, many years.
I thank all members for their attention.