Parliamentary Questions

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An important function of the Oireachtas is to provide the accountability of government and ministers to the people through their deputies.  In the Dáil, an hour is normally set aside each day so that ministers may answer questions on matters that concern their brief.  Questions go to the different ministers in rotation, so that each minister may expect to answer questions every month or so. 

Questions may be divided into four types:

1.      Leaders’ questions

2.      Priority

3.      Oral and

4.      Written.

All are listed on the green order paper on the appropriate day.   Although asking a question may seem a weak means of interrogation of government, it can be used skillfully and effectively.  Especially when they start, ministers can regard question time as an ordeal when they must be seen to perform convincingly so as to retain their authority.  For the opposition, the effective probing of ministers may expose weaknesses in government policy and enable their spokespersons to make their mark.

Leaders’ questions

First, there is also a procedure for the leaders of the main opposition political parties to question the Taoiseach and only the Taoiseach and this happens every week.   This focuses on the ‘big politics’ of the day and is often covered on evening time television.

Priority questions

Second, priority questions are asked by opposition spokespersons to government ministers, allocated to the opposition parties according to their size.  Five are normally asked each day and only the questioner may ask supplementary questions to cross-examine the minister concerned (though sometimes other deputies interject).   Supplementary questions are those which develop the line of questioning of the original question.

Oral questions

Third, there are ordinary oral questions in which any deputy may put down a question for verbal answer by a government minister, who will be cross-examined by the deputy who asked the question and or other deputies who join in until the Ceann Comhairle rules that there has been sufficient discussion on the issue and the house moves on to the next question.   About 20 oral questions are answered each day and those not reached may be reallocated for written answer (see Written questions section directly below).  If the minister is not present, then another minister will answer on his or her behalf.  If the question relates to a specific area that is the responsibility of a minister of state, then the minister of state will field the answer.  Civil servants prepare the minister’s answer carefully in a dedicated file and normally supply him or her with additional information to use if probing becomes intense.    Any member may ask a supplementary question.

Written questions

Written questions must be answered within three sitting days.  They are not debated, nor are the ministerial replies formally read out aloud, but the text is always included on the formal, published record of the house like the others.  There are many more written questions than oral ones and can take up hundreds of pages on the daily record.  Within the civil service, answering parliamentary questions is a high-priority task.  Misleading the Dáil, either deliberately or inadvertently, is a serious, possibly resignation matter, so the replies must be personally signed off and approved by the minister.  There are over 50,000 Parliamentary Questions (PQs) a year.

Using questions

Questions are asked in order to get information from ministers about their policies, the administration of their department, or to get statistical data that may not be otherwise published.  Questions are unlikely, on their own, to change policy, but repeated questioning of a minister around a particular issue or set of issues can embarrass, send strong signals of public concern, sow doubt or unease about particular policies and find weaknesses in the basis on which policies are devised.

Role of questions

Questions can be an effective means of lobbying and pressurizing ministers and their departments, though there are advantages and disadvantages for each type, written and oral.  With oral questions, ministers can be cross-examined on the spot, but one must wait until that minister’s rota comes around.   Written questions are a faster procedure, though the responses can sometimes be evasive and unhelpful.  Questions may not be asked outside the time when the Dáil is sitting (though there are proposals to change this) and may not be asked in the Seanad.  Questions about the health service are normally referred to the HSE and frequently disappear at that point.  Ministers can also refer other questions to stage agencies for reply, so it is important that they be drafted in such a way as not to give them such an escape route.    Most deputies are happy to ask a question for their constituents, for it is a quick and visible way for them to provide a service for their constituents without necessarily committing them to a particular line of policy or action.  The only exception is new government backbenchers who make not want to be seen to be hassling their own minister publicly, but they will almost certainly offer to write a letter directly instead. 

Each deputy may ask unlimited numbers of written questions, but the same question may not be asked again for another six months (this rule used to be strictly observed, but has fallen into disuse).  Most parliamentary questions are asked because groups or individuals have requested deputies to act on their behalf (‘there’s a story behind each question’, as one political commentator observed).  Organisations can make a general request to a deputy to ask a question (though they should be very clear about the information they are seeking); more skilled groups supply the text themselves.