Longer time for questions in Parliament

May 08, 2017 11.00AM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

THIS week, MPs will debate recommendations to improve parliamentary procedures, such as increasing the minimum amount of time between the introduction of a Bill and when it comes up for debate, and doubling the notice period for an amendment from two to four clear days. But the 10-member Standing Orders Committee – tasked to periodically review the Parliament’s Standing Orders, or the rules which guide parliamentary procedure – rejected the suggestion to lengthen Question Time.

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Question Time allows MPs to ask questions of government ministers, usually on issues or agencies for which the ministers are responsible for. Yet the one-and-a-half hours currently allocated – at the start of each sitting – may not be sufficient for all the questions tabled. Aggregating the parliamentary sittings from October 10, 2016 to April 4, 2017 (and excluding the Committee of Supply debates on March 6 and 7, when no questions for oral answer were tabled), TMG found that on average, of the 33 questions for oral answer at each sitting (the median is 27), only 13 were answered during Question Time (the median is 15). 66 oral questions were unanswered on November 7, 2016, the highest within the aforementioned range of dates.

In other words, on average, about 39 per cent of oral questions are answered during each Question Time. Questions for oral answer which are not answered during the one-and-a-half hours will be postponed or dealt with as questions for written answer.

MP Louis Ng Kok Kwang and nominated MP Kok Heng Leun had mooted the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time, with more time given for timely and important issues, and also for MPs to ask further questions (TODAY, Apr. 26). Because only about one-third of the oral questions are cleared in each parliamentary sitting, Mr Ng – speaking to TMG – said that Question Time should be doubled to three hours, since the Standing Orders Committee noted that the government had previously, on an ad hoc basis, extended the time limit to three hours. “The number of questions per sitting is already limited, so debate itself should not be limited,” he added. “Oral questions dealt with as questions for written answer lack debate, and the biggest benefit [of having a longer Question Time] is that more or follow-up questions can then be replied to by the office-holder.”

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan Kheng Boon, who served as nominated MP from 2012 to 2014, agreed with the proposal to increase the duration of Question Time. “Typically, in 90 minutes of Question Time, Parliament seldom gets beyond the first 20 questions, leaving 50 to 70 questions filed for oral answers unanswered,” Prof Tan told TMG. While his suggestion of two hours “would still not enable Parliament to get through all the questions”, he added that a longer Question Time “will allow for more questions to be answered, and for more time to be allocated to questions, for a more thorough discussion of the issues.”

And in response to the proposal by Mr Kok and Mr Ng, Leader of the House, Grace Fu – who is part of the Standing Orders Committee – first acknowledged the importance of Question Time, before pointing out that the government had previously extended the time limit to three hours, albeit on an ad hoc basis. The most recent instance was on October 10, 2016, when Question Time was extended by an hour to 4pm for discussions on the rise in cases of online gambling addiction, rewards for Paralympic medallists, as well as the likelihood of an economic recession in Singapore. The committee, furthermore, added that it was prepared “to continue to extend Question Time on an ad hoc basis due to the number of questions and volume of public business” (The Straits Times, Apr. 25)

It is not clear, however, how the government decides when and whether an extension is in order. Based on the importance or timeliness of the issues? Or the number of questions tabled?

Not much can be discerned from the numbers that TMG has aggregated. The last time Question Time was extended – on October 10, 2016 – there were 91 questions for oral answer, and 62 went unanswered. But on November 7, 2016, when 74 per cent of questions for oral answer were not answered (89 questions tabled), and on February 6, 2017, when 79 per cent of the questions for oral answer were not answered (out of 80 questions labeled), Question Time was not extended on both dates.

Along this tangent are the related questions about how the order of the questions is decided, and whether the Parliament – instead of the government – should decide the length of Question Time and how it might be extended.

With more questions than answers, both during and about Question Time, perhaps a broader debate – involving more MPs and their experiences – should be in order.



Featured image by Flickr user Xiquinho Silva. CC BY 2.0

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