There were 7,005 written parliamentary questions (WPQs) tabled in June 2020, the highest monthly figure in the last 10 years. A WPQ is usually sent from an MP to a Government Minister to ask about policy decisions or progress.
March 2011 was the closest to the June 2020 spike. In that month there were 6,916 WPQs. The average over the ten years was 3,462 a month (this includes non-sitting months for recess and elections).
The average over the whole period per sitting day was 286, the average per sitting day for June 2020 was 412.
This Insight considers what was different about this June.
Hybrid proceedings ended on 2 June but arrangements were put in place in the following days for MPs to question Ministers remotely. They are unable to take part in substantive debates remotely however and Westminster Hall debates have been suspended since the 20 March.
As fewer MPs were in Westminster…
Our analysis showed that there was no substantial correlation between MPs representing constituencies further away from Westminster or those registered for proxy votes (as identified by the UCL Constitution Unit), and the number of questions they tabled.
Further analysis shows that other factors such as gender, party membership and position had a larger impact in this period.
Women MPs asked 43% of WPQs in May 2020 and 41% in June 2020. Ignoring the anomaly of November 2019 (64%) when only 36 questions were tabled, the May percentage was the highest recorded in the last 10 years.
The June percentage of 41% was unusually high compared to the month of June in each of the past ten years. The next closest being 39% in June 2017 and the lowest coming in 2013 (24%).
There is now a higher proportion of Women MPs than before, (34%) compared to 22% in 2010, but this does not account for all of the spike in WPQs asked by female MPs in recent months. As seen in the chart below, there is still a significant difference between the number of women elected in November 2019 and the number of questions tabled in recent months.
Predictably, over the last 10 years, Labour as the official opposition asked the majority of WPQs, at 61%. The overall spike in June doesn’t appear to be because of an increase in WPQs from Labour however: Labour MPs asked 55% of questions, compared to an average of 56% for 2020 so far. The Conservatives had a June average of 24%, compared to 25% in 2020 to date.
The SNP asked slightly more WPQs in June than in the rest of 2020 (10% in June, compared to 8% in 2020 so far). But the Liberal Democrats had the most notable rise. They tabled 7% of questions in June compared to 4% in 2020 so far and 4% on average over the past 10 years.
March 2012 was the last time the Liberal Democrats asked a higher proportion of WPQs, at 8%. At that time, they had far more MPs than now, although some were in Government roles. This excludes the anomaly of August 2019 where only nine questions were tabled in total. The current Liberal Democrat leadership election might increase the number of WPQs asked by Lib Dem MPs.
Despite there not being major changes in the proportion of WPQs asked by Labour MPs as a whole, the proportion asked by those holding a frontbench opposition post (in any of the opposition parties) has been higher during the last few months.
The average proportion of WPQs tabled by MPs with an opposition post has been 39% on average over the last 10 years. However, the proportion in April was just under 50% followed by 51% in May and June.
These two months represent two of the seven months in the past 10 years where over 50% of the questions tabled have been by those in opposition posts. The highest proportion came in December 2011 (54%). It must be considered that the number of opposition posts being created have increased, especially in parties other than Labour.
The departments with the most questions
Unsurprisingly, the Department of Health and Social Care received the highest proportion of WPQs in June 2020, at 18%. However, this is down on its proportion in April (26%) and May (20%).
The same trend goes for the Treasury, with MPs now appearing to ask more questions of a wider range of departments. The chart below shows the 13 departments that received the most questions this year and looks at the difference between June, their recent average and 2020 so far.
Both the Department of Education and Cabinet Office had their highest proportion of the year in June. The Department of Transport also had a rise in the number of questions in June returning to the proportions it previously received pre-March.
A further resource available to MPs online is the ‘Members Hub’. MPs can now submit Early Day Motions and vote remotely using the hub (when procedures allow). It is not possible to quantify the effect this had on the number of tabled questions but the hub’s increased functionality might have led to MPs using it more.
Similarly, the effect of Covid-19 restrictions could have had an impact. More MPs’ staff are signed up to the hub and MPs had to submit questions online in June, as opposed to having the option to come into the Table Office in person.
Notes: It is not possible to analyse the quality of WPQs and so increased tabling rate does not necessarily equate to increased scrutiny. It is important to note that there are many different ways in which MPs can scrutinise the Government and WPQs is only one of them.
Data has been extracted from Parliamentary Search, other systems collecting this data may use slightly different calculations. Questions tabled in recess will be officially tabled on the printing day (the working day before the House returns), this is consistent throughout the 10-year period. All charts showing proportion have excluded months with 50 or less WPQs tabled.
About the author: Chris Watson is a researcher specialising in parliamentary data. Data extraction for this piece was assisted by Phil Gorman, a Technical Services Librarian at the House of Commons Library.