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The value of asking questions: the BSI Parliamentary Questions Programme

As part of our Policy and Public Affairs Plan, we have launched an ambitious Parliamentary Questions Programme designed to raise the profile of both the issues we campaign on and the BSI itself within Parliament, Government and the wider policymaking sphere. In keeping with the interrogative theme, here’s a Q&A guide to what this means and how it will benefit immunology and the BSI.

What are Parliamentary questions?

Parliamentary questions are asked by backbench Members of Parliament to Government Ministers about their ministerial responsibilities and departmental business. They are used to elicit information from and scrutinise policymaking of the Government. There are two types of parliamentary questions: 
Oral questions: every five weeks that the House of Commons meets, each ministerial team running each Government department must appear in the Commons chamber to answer questions that are asked in person. The most well-known oral question session is Prime Minister’s Questions, which are an exception to the five-week rule and have been held weekly on a Wednesday at 12:00 since 2003.
Written questions: backbench MPs may submit them at any time either via an online form on the parliamentary intranet or via hard copy at the House of Commons Table Office, and the Minister responsible will respond usually within a week or two. They can be more specific than oral questions and can receive more detailed answers. Both oral questions and written questions and their answers are published in Hansard, the Official Report of the House.

Who chooses who asks the oral questions?

MPs are allowed to submit one oral question written in advance for which they are entered into a ballot called ‘the shuffle’, which will randomly draw around 20 names that are placed on the agenda (called the order paper). In order to ensure party political balance, the Speaker will choose some MPs on the day to ask questions in between those listed on the order paper, so it alternates between Members on the Government benches and the opposition benches.

Do Government Ministers know the questions in advance?

The questions submitted to the shuffle are known as substantive questions and these are published three sitting days ahead of when they will be asked in the Commons chamber, so the Minister will know these in advance and will have had the opportunity to prepare a response and seek any research or guidance needed from the appropriate civil servants. Each MP who asks a substantive question will, after the Minister’s answer, be offered the opportunity to ask a supplementary question on the same topic. The Minister will have had no advance warning of this supplementary question and so must be well briefed enough on the topic to be able to think on their feet and provide a response. (In practice however, MPs in the Government party will often let the Minister know the supplementary question in advance too as they are normally trying to get the most helpful and fullest response possible, unlike an opposition MP who is more likely to be trying to catch the Minister off guard).

What is the BSI Parliamentary Questions Programme?

We identify MPs who are interested in a topic in our agenda and email them all with suggested questions ahead of a particular department’s questions and explain why what we are suggesting is so pressing.

What departments have we targeted?

We have asked MPs to ask questions to the Department for Health and Social Care on vaccines; to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on UK and EU science funding; to the Home Office on the importance of our immigration system allowing the UK to attract talent from around the globe; and to the Department for Education on getting more students into STEM education and increasing diversity within STEM.

Does anyone else do this?

Yes, we are competing for MPs’ attention with a multitude of other organisations. This includes their own parties – Ministers’ and Opposition frontbenchers’ aides will try to persuade backbench MPs to ask planted questions to highlight Government strengths or to underline their weaknesses, respectively.

Have we had any success?

At the time of writing, the Parliamentary Questions Programme has been running for about two months. In that time, we have had three MPs submit oral questions, with one winning the ballot and also asking our suggested supplementary question in the Commons chamber. We’ve also had 27 written parliamentary questions asked for us to all four departments we have targeted by 10 MPs from five different parties (Conservative, DUP, Labour, Plaid Cymru and SNP).

What are the benefits of doing this?

Apart from allowing us to receive answers from Government Ministers about issues that concern and affect the BSI and its members, it allows us to build relationships with MPs. The objective being that eventually we will have a network of parliamentarians with whom we work closely to raise matters that are important to us and can influence Government policy on our behalf. It also raises our profile as a leading scientific society and puts the topics we care about on the agenda and in the public eye.

Examples of written questions:

Example question to the Home Office

Question from Ben Lake MP to the Home Office:
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, what assessment he has made of the potential merits of extending international students’ post study leave period to find permanent skilled work.

Response from Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, Minister of State for Immigration:
In 2017, the Home Office commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to provide an objective assessment of the impact of international students in the UK for the first time. In line with the MAC recommendations, we announced in the Immigration White Paper published in December 2018 that we will increase the post-study leave period for postgraduate students to six months, and doctorate students to a year. We will also go further, by increasing the post-study leave period for all undergraduates studying at institutions with degree awarding powers to six months. These changes will benefit tens of thousands of students and will help ensure that our world-leading education sector remains competitive globally. 

Example question to BEIS

Question from Jim Shannon MP to Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy:
To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whether the £7 billion of additional spending for research and development will be in addition to replacing EU funding lost after the UK leaves the EU.

Response from Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research & Innovation:
At Spending Review 2015, the Government protected science funding, committing to invest £26.3 billion between 2016-21, and has since committed to an additional £7 billion by 2021-22 – the largest increase ever. The terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, if ratified, would provide for continued UK participation in EU Programmes, including Horizon 2020, to December 2020 and for the lifetime of projects under the programme. If an agreement is reached, projects approved during this period will be able to continue with an uninterrupted flow of EU funding. If we leave the EU without a deal in place, the underwrite guarantee and extension are Government commitments to provide funding required for the UK to participate in Horizon 2020 until the end of 2020 and for the lifetime of projects. In this scenario, HM Treasury will provide additional funding on top of existing departmental budgets – further demonstrating the Government’s commitment to the UK’s world-class research base.

Matthew Gibbard​
Policy & Public Affairs Manager, British Society for Immunology Email: