Last week in the House of Commons, I answered questions for the first time. Which may seem odd for an MP who is a member of the Opposition.
Usually it is government ministers answering for their departments in a rota, with each coming round every five weeks or so. And as a shadow minister I have to be ready for the department I am shadowing, as well as tabling a question for any other departments to answer.
Questions takes place at the start of every day, normally for an hour. The bigger departments take a whole session, and the smaller departments will share a session.
But there is also a session for non-governmental bodies that Parliament has responsibility for. These include the Church Commissioners, who manage the business of the Church of England, the House of Commons Commission, which does the same for Parliament, and the Electoral Commission.
A few months ago, I was asked to sit on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, or SCEC. It monitors the work of the Electoral Commission which is the independent regulator for elections and political parties. And this month I was asked to represent SCEC at its question time.
Not all MPs like the Electoral Commission: some have been found to have transgressed election regulations and have been reprimanded or even fined. Most political parties have been investigated at some point. That’s what regulators do, in any industry.
But it means that there will always be a lively interest in the work of the Electoral Commission and Speaker’s Committee.
As with all question time sessions, MPs submit a question online or in person at the Table Office, which is just at the back of the Commons chamber. These are then drawn at random and I get about a week to prepare the answers. I worked with officials from the Electoral Commission, and also the Local Government Boundary Committee, for whom I also answer questions.
Once I have read the prepared answer, the MP asking the question can ask a further question – a supplementary we call it, which must be related to the tabled question. So, I had to try to anticipate every supplementary question that might be asked.
In fact, answering questions for once, rather than asking one, was quite exciting. It takes a lot of preparation to make sure I knew the detail. And with a bit of luck – and the support of the people of Chester of course – I may get the chance to do it more regularly in the future from the government dispatch box!