Ministerial statements: a history

There’s little to nothing written about the origins of ministerial statements, so I’ve had to work it out from procedure committee reports and historic Hansard. As such, there may be errors in this and for that I apologise. I’m pretty sure it’s broadly accurate though!

Statements have existed for centuries; however these were generally personal statements with no input from other parliamentarians. If a minister wanted to be questioned or to get input from other members they needed to use other methods.

At the beginning of the 20th Century ministerial statements in the Commons were made by no single specific mechanism. There were two types: the first was like all other debates in that the minister introduced a motion, various members made speeches and perhaps asked the minister some questions which he could answer when winding up the debate.

Quite commonly in the early part of the 20th Century, this was done on a motion to adjourn the House – a general purpose motion which simply lets an issue be debated – see, for example, this debate on India in 1931 which is described as a statement by the minister. For simply allowing members to comment on a statement it works fine, of course, but it was less good at extracting information because it could last a very long time with members making full speeches and sometimes being cut off by the end of the parliamentary day before the minister could reply to any questions.

The other form was in response to questions. Ministers would reply a question or a group of questions by asking the Speaker’s permission to make a statement in reply. This eventually moved so that the Speaker was getting ministers to make their statement in reply to questions at the end of question time, as seen here in 1929 about conversion loans. This was not a debate; contributors asked questions not made speeches and the minister replied after every question. This was much more effective than the debate version because it was quicker and enabled members to effectively get information from ministers. It had its own drawbacks because members first had to ask questions before a minister could reply and the nature of question time meant it was kept short so many members couldn’t contribute to the fullest extent.

It was during the second world war, the need to keep the House up to date with events appears to have caused a hybrid statement to evolve which in a few years made the others extinct; by early 1940 ministers were asking the permission of the speaker to make statements without a prior question nor needing to move the adjournment of the House. In time, the length of time for backbench questions increased as various speakers let it go on for longer (the average is now 49 minutes).

Up the corridor in the Lords, ministerial statements were pretty similar to the first type of Commons statement – it took place as a debate upon a motion, as did all so-called unstarred questions. See, for example, this statement on the war situation in 1940. There is evidence of experimentation with the format – Lord Woolton, for example, repeated some statements made in the Commons in 1945 and it wasn’t long before it had a standard formula and acted like Commons statements in the way members questioned ministers. The number repeated was still quite low due to the House’s lack of vitality until after the introduction of life peers.

As ministerial statements became more common, MPs began to expect to be told before the media. Since 1983, there have been at least 44 reprimands by the Speaker or a deputy against the government for leaking the information to the media before telling the House. Private notice and urgent questions have become the Parliamentary stick in this stick-and-carrot approach in the last few years partly as a reaction to ministerial intransigence about telling the media first. Complaints grew especially during the Labour government from 1997-2010. The resurgence of urgent questions appears to have mitigated the problem though.

Written ministerial statements were introduced in 2002 as a reaction to the planted written question to release positive information and have been taken up with aplomb. Much more government information is now released to Parliament, even if it isn’t immediately challengeable like in an oral ministerial statement.

In the late 2000s the number of statements and urgent/private notice questions that were repeated in the Lords by agreement of the Usual Channels (the two frontbenches) increased substantially. In 2010 an informal working group proposed that by agreement of the Usual Channels, some repeated statements could be taken in Grand Committee, a secondary chamber, to stop it holding up business. The House asked this proposal to be looked at again, but it did approve another proposal where ministers could simply refer to the statement without repeating it fully if it was too long. These are sensible reforms that increase efficiency without impacting effectiveness.

Ministerial statements have evolved to meet the challenges of keeping parliament informed from their pre-war beginnings to the birth of the modern statement in the second world war through to their modern partnership with urgent questions. In this, the Lords has always been the junior partner as is to be expected given so few ministers sit in that place but it is now keeping pace.

If I had access to a comprehensive, easy to use Hansard in the other realms (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) I could do something similar for their ministerial statements which are all very similar to each other, but sadly it’s much more difficult. Australia’s is incredibly obtuse and awkward, whereas Canada’s and New Zealand’s only go back a decade or two.

Like I say, there may be gaps or mistakes. Please don’t hesitate to tell me – I want this to be as accurate as possible.

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4 Responses to Ministerial statements: a history

  1. Ministerial statements in Canada are pretty useless, to be honest. They’re more often than not made to promote some event, e.g. National literacy week or something like that, and MPs are not allowed to ask questions. The leader of the opposition and leaders of other parties are allowed to respond, and usually just spend their time criticizing the government. Contributes nothing useful re: government accountability.

    • pp549 says:

      I have to admit, I’ve never understood why the UK’s ministerial statements differ quite so much from the Commonwealth norm. I’m pretty sure that when the Legislative Assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada (and their Australasian counterparts) were formed ministerial statements didn’t exist, so quite why Canada, Australia and New Zealand ended up with these near-identical procedures I don’t know.

      • I’ve been doing a bit of research on this and while I can’t speak for the assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada, I have found a ministerial statement delivered in 1867 in the House of Commons. The format back then was a bit different in that other members, not just party leaders, were allowed to reply (not really ask questions, just add their own two cents’ worth).

      • pp549 says:

        I didn’t know that. Perhaps it became more restricted later on, and was left to party leaders due to time issues or party discipline.

        My reference for pre-confederation is Gary O’Brien’s thesis on pre-confederation parliamentary procedure. Of course, it’s possible that it happened so rarely it wasn’t worth commenting on!

        I intend, once I have some time on my hands, to go back further back in Hansard and see if there’s anything more about it in the 1800s but I have a hunch there won’t be much in the UK. It may well be the case that Canada invented the concept of ministerial statements of policy before the UK did!

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