House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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Written Questions

While oral questions are posed without notice on matters deemed to be of an urgent nature, written questions are placed after notice on the Order Paper with the intent of seeking from the Ministry detailed, lengthy or technical information relating to “public affairs”. [167]  The rule states that written questions may also be addressed to private Members concerning any bill, motion or other public matter connected with the business of the House with which such Members may be concerned. However, despite the rule, the practice is that recipients of inquiries by way of written questions have always been Ministers. The Standing Order is mostly silent on how answers to questions addressed to private Members are to be provided. Indeed, there are no known precedents of written questions being addressed to private Members. Any attempt to do so would be contrary to the long-established practice and to the real purpose of asking questions of the Ministry.

Historical Perspective

Provisions allowing for written questions to be posed to the Ministry and to private Members have been included in the rules of the House of Commons since 1867. [168]  The rule, virtually identical to today’s Standing Order, provided then, as it does now, that questions could be asked of private Members as well as Ministers, although it appears that, from the beginning, the practice saw questions directed to Ministers. [169]  That practice has continued to this day, and has been periodically reinforced with additions to the Standing Order referring to the manner that answers are to be provided to Order Paper questions; in each case, questions to Ministers appear to be assumed. [170] 

Between 1867 and 1896, when a written question was called for consideration, the Member in whose name the question stood would rise and read the question, to which the Minister responsible would furnish a response. When a question was called and a response provided, the exchange was printed in full in the Debates; supplementary questions were not allowed. [171]  Any questions called and not answered were automatically dropped from the Order Paper and had to be renewed if a Member still wanted a response. [172] 

Beginning in 1896, reforms were made to the practice to shorten the time taken by the House to consider written questions. A numbering process for written questions was instituted removing the necessity of a Member reading in full the text of the question when called for consideration. [173]  In 1906, written questions likely to require lengthy responses could be transferred without debate to another section of the Order Paper as notices of motions. [174]  This rule was adopted because it was thought that too much time was being taken up with reading the answers to the questions in the House. Also at this time, questions that had been called for consideration but not answered could be allowed, at the government’s request and with the consent of the Members involved, to stand and retain their place on the Order Paper instead of being automatically dropped. [175]  In 1910, the rules were amended to allow Ministers to have their answers appear in the Debates as if they were read; Members who wished to receive an oral response to a written question could do so by marking it with an asterisk. At the same time, a new rule made it possible for the government to table lengthy or detailed responses to questions. These tabled responses were called “Orders for Return”. [176]  In most cases, the returns were tabled immediately after the order was deemed made. These responses became sessional papers and were not printed in the Debates.

The procedure for answering written questions changed relatively little until 1963 when the process was further refined in order to allow the House to deal specifically with those questions that the government was ready to answer and prepared to make public. In order to dispose of the available responses, the new practice permitted the House, rather than forcing it to proceed through every written question on the Order Paper, to consider only those questions to be answered that day by the government. Once these were dealt with, the government would request that all remaining questions be allowed to stand. [177]  In 1986, the House agreed to a limit of four questions per Member on the Order Paper at any one time, [178]  three of which could be answered orally in the House, [179]  while also codifying the right of Members to request a reply to a written question within 45 calendar days of its filing. [180]  In 1991, the rules were again amended to allow Members whose questions had remained unanswered after 45 days to take the matter up during the Adjournment Proceedings. [181] 

Guidelines for Written Questions

In general, written questions are lengthy, often containing two or more subsections, and seek detailed or technical information from one or more government depart ments or agencies. Restrictions governing the form and content of written questions are found both within the rules and as a result of custom, usage and tradition. Several traditional guidelines and conditions date back to Confederation. With time and following several Speakers’ decisions, the list of restrictions grew very long. [182] Concurrently, some became outdated or irrelevant. Thus, a very large measure of responsibility for ensuring the regularity of written questions fell to the Clerk. Aside from a 1965 Speaker’s statement, indicating that some of these restrictions no longer applied, [183]  there is no definitive breakdown of which are still valid. [184]  However, as conceded by the Chair, many of these restrictions have become inoperable over time. [185] 

A written question is judged acceptable if it satisfies the general guidelines for oral questions and the restrictions provided in the rules. The purpose of a written question is to obtain information, not to supply it to the House. A question must be coherent and concise and the subject matter must pertain to “public affairs”; “no argument or opinion is to be offered, nor any facts stated, except so far as may be necessary to explain the same”. [186] 

Acting on the Speaker’s behalf, the Clerk has full authority to ensure the questions placed on the Notice Paper conform with the rules and practices of the House. [187]  Given that the purpose of a written question is to seek and receive a precise, detailed answer, it is incumbent on a Member submitting a question for the Notice Paper “to ensure that it is formulated carefully enough to elicit the precise information sought”. [188]  The Clerk may split a question into two or more questions if it is too broad. [189]  If there are any irregularities in a question, the Clerk communicates this to the Member who then has the opportunity to amend the question. [190] 

Forty-eight hours’ notice is required before a question may be placed on the Order Paper[191]  A Member may indicate that he or she wishes to receive an oral reply to the question during Routine Proceedings by marking the written question with an asterisk at the time it is submitted. [192]  Questions so designated are known as “starred questions”. Members are permitted a maximum of three starred questions out of the allowed maximum of four on the Order Paper at any one time. [193]  All questions are assigned a number when they are submitted.

Withdrawal of a Written Question

A Member may withdraw a written question from the Order Paper by advising the Clerk of the House in writing that he or she wishes the question to be withdrawn. A Member may also rise in the House to request that the Speaker withdraw the question. [194] 


Replies to written questions are presented each sitting day during Routine Proceedings under the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper”. [195]  A Member, usually the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, rises to announce the numbers of the questions being answered that day and to provide oral responses to starred questions. [196]  At the same time, the Parliamentary Secretary may also seek the consent of the House to deem a starred question answered orally without actually reading aloud the text of the answer or to provide a very lengthy reply to a question by tabling the response as a document, a process known as transforming a reply into an Order for Return. [197]  This is done by the Speaker asking the House whether there is agreement to proceed in that way. [198]  In the case of a starred question, if there is no agreement, then the government would proceed to read the answer. In the case of a request for tabling, if there is no agreement, then the government would either not proceed with the question on that day, [199]  or alternatively have a Minister table the answer. Finally, the Parliamentary Secretary requests that any remaining unanswered questions be allowed to stand and retain their place on the Order Paper. This request is routinely made and granted. [200]  The Speaker has indicated that, as this procedure has evolved to become an automatic proceeding, this request is not debatable. [201]  If consent were refused by a Member, his or her questions would be dropped from the Order Paper exactly as would happen if the government had not made the request. The Member would have to resubmit any questions with appropriate notice. If no questions are to be answered that day, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader requests that all questions be allowed to stand on the Order Paper.

The guidelines that apply to the form and content of written questions are also applicable to the answers provided by the government. As such, no argument or opinion is to be given, and only the information needed to respond to the question is to be provided in an effort to maintain the process of written questions as an exchange of information rather than an opportunity for debate. [202]  It is acceptable for the government, in responding to a written question, to indicate to the House that it cannot supply an answer. [203]  On occasion, the government has supplied supplementary replies to questions already answered. [204]  The Speaker, however, has ruled that it is not in order to indicate in a response to a written question the total time and cost incurred by the government in the preparation of that response. [205] 

There are no provisions in the rules for the Speaker to review government responses to questions. Nonetheless, on several occasions, Members have raised questions of privilege in the House regarding the accuracy of information contained in responses to written questions; in none of these cases was the matter found to be a prima facie breach of privilege. [206]  The Speaker has ruled that it is not the role of the Chair to determine whether or not the contents of documents tabled in the House are accurate nor to “assess the likelihood of an Hon. Member knowing whether the facts contained in a document are correct”. [207] 

Questions Not Responded to Within Forty-five Calendar Days

When filing questions, Members may request that the Ministry respond within 45 calendar days. [208]  However, there is no procedural device in the rules compelling the Ministry to reply within this time, and Members have raised this complaint in the House on numerous occasions when the government has not responded to written questions within 45 days. The government has countered that the volume and complexity of questions sometimes requires it to exceed this time frame. [209] In these discussions, the Chair has indicated that it has no power under the rules to order the government to produce an answer within the allotted 45 days. [210]  Nonetheless, the Speaker has admonished “those who are asked to prepare these answers to look at this rule and realize that when they do not get the answer back to their Minister in time, they are putting [Members] through a lot of difficulty and taking up the time of the House …” [211]  Members may raise the subject matter of a written question during the Adjournment Proceedings if the written question has not been answered within the required 45-day period. [212] 

Orders for Return

In some cases, long and complex questions which require information from a number of government departments, or which would require lengthy replies not compatible with printing in the Debates, are transformed to become Orders for Return (that is, documents that must be provided following an order adopted by the House). Although the rule specifies that it is a Minister who must be of the opinion that a reply to a question should be in the form of a return, and that it is a Minister who must state that he or she has no objection to laying such a return upon the Table, [213]  in practice the Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader assumes the responsibility of communicating that opinion to the House. The agreement of the House is requested and usually granted. [214]  The return is tabled and becomes a sessional paper. [215]  As such, it is available to all Members on request from the Clerk, but is not printed in the Debates. It is not necessary for the return to answer every part of the original question. [216] 

The rules also provide the Speaker with the authority to transform a written question into a notice of motion, if he or she believes that a question would require a lengthy reply and if he or she is asked by the government to have the question stand as a notice of motion. [217]  Such a notice of motion could then be considered only under “Private Members’ Business”. However, in a ruling by Speaker Fraser in 1989, the Chair refused a request to transform a written question into a notice of motion. [218]  In choosing not to proceed with the government’s request, the Speaker stated that the Chair was “unable to comply with the terms of the Standing Order in today’s context without prejudicing the right of private Members to control fully their business by choosing for themselves how best to seek information: by placing questions on the Order Paper, perhaps requesting an answer from the government within a 45-day period; or by having a Notice of Motion, if chosen after a draw, debated during Private Members’ Business”. The Speaker remarked that the rule, adopted by the House in 1906, had been unused for many years and, as a result, its invocation decades later would be counter to the series of reforms concerning written questions that had been implemented since then. The Speaker suggested that the government, in responding to a written question requiring a lengthy or detailed response, could make it an Order for Return, a procedurally acceptable and widely used practice. The Chair also submitted that the government may decline to answer a written question but, at the same time, may furnish a reason for its refusal. Similarly, the government may provide a reason why the response could not be provided within 45 days.

Transfer of Unanswered Written Questions to Adjournment Proceedings

As has been discussed earlier in this chapter, if a written question on the Order Paper (to which a response within 45 days has been requested) remains unanswered after 45 days, the Member who posed the question may rise in the House during Routine Proceedings after the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper” has been called andgive notice of his or her intention to transfer the question to the Adjournment Proceedings. [219]  The question is then removed from the Order Paper and is taken up during the Adjournment Proceedings. This rule was adopted by the House on April 11, 1991, in response to Members’ growing frustration over their inability to receive timely answers to written questions. [220]  This new procedure also gave Members who have the maximum of four questions on the Order Paper the option of transferring one or more of their questions for debate in order to submit other questions for the Order Paper[221] 

Effect of Prorogation on Written Questions

Prorogation of a session of Parliament clears the Order Paper and cancels any requests for information contained under the rubric “Questions on the Order Paper”. Members who wish to pursue their requests for information from the Ministry must resubmit their questions in order for them to be reconsidered in a new session. [222] 

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