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Parliamentary Questions serve a very important function for Members, especially when they are attempting to obtain detailed information on a specific piece of Government policy or trying to develop a policy position.
Questions take the form of either oral or written submissions to a particular Government Minister. Questions are placed in order, so that a particular question time period will relate to a subject or Government Department.
Oral Questions take place at the beginning of the day’s business for 30 minutes between Monday and Thursday. Members submit their questions at least three days prior to the Question Time period, and when selected by the Speaker of the House, will simply call out the number of their question. The Minister will then provide his or her answer. Both the question and the answer will appear in Hansard .
Members also have the opportunity to question the Prime Minister every Wednesday for half an hour at Prime Minister’s Question Time. This session will normally begin with a routine question from a Member regarding the PM’s engagements. This will then be followed by a supplementary question on any subject. In theory the PM can face questions on any subject, but in practice will have received extensive briefing from Government departments addressing likely questions.
Generally, written questions are used by Members to obtain more detailed answers than would have been available to an oral question. The vast majority of all Parliamentary Questions are submitted in written format, with over 61,000 being submitted in 2005/06 session.
There are three types of written question:
Questions originally tabled for oral answer which were not reached in Question Time. These must receive a written answer on the day of the oral session.
'Ordinary' questions, which do not have to be answered by a specific date. Generally a Member can expect a reply within 7 working days, though this is not a set rule, and in practice answers often take considerably longer, particularly if this involves finding a particularly specific statistic for example. There is little that Members can do to speed up the receipt of an answer.
'Named Day' - Questions that must receive an answer on the date specified by the Member. It is quite common for answers to such questions to be simple holding replies which promise a more substantive response at a future date.