There are 3 types of parliamentary question an MP can put to ministers. First an ‘urgent question which, if granted by the Speaker (the matter being entirely at his discretion), will bring a minister to the Commons that day to make a statement in answer to it.
Second, an oral question: each department of state answers oral questions in the Commons on a monthly rota, but questions are drawn by ballot, and even if successful, yours might not be reached in the time available. If called, you get a supplementary question which, to be in order, must be pertinent to the substantive question that was granted. Oral questions are really for the purpose of making a political point rather than genuinely seeking information.
A written question however, is not subject to ballot and you can -within reason- even specify the date for answer (although that answer might just be ‘it has not been possible to answer the question within the time available’…then you wait). Written questions may not present information; they may not make an argument; they may not be pejorative; they may not seek an opinion; they have to be factual questions within the minister’s competence and the answer to which cannot be had from any other public source.
So, given my opposition to lockdown and the threat posed by the Indian variant to the lifting of all restrictions on 21 June, I put down the following question on 14 May:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, if he will publish statistics on the (a) number of infections, (b) deaths and (c) hospital admissions by each covid-19 variant of concern”
On 25th May I got the following quite astounding answer
“Data for hospitalisations and deaths is not currently available in the format requested.”
I would have thought that this data is essential for any informed decision about removing the final stage of lockdown.
On 24th May My Colleague Dr Julian Lewis MP tried with
“To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, if he will make it his policy to release to the media, on a daily basis, the numbers of people hospitalised with covid-19 who are (a) vaccinated and (b) unvaccinated against the virus.”
on 28th May he got no further with the following answer
“The data requested is not currently held centrally in the format requested.”
If not, then why on earth not?
Dr Lewis has now put down the following question:
To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, pursuant to the answer of 28 May to question 6161 on the vaccination status of people hospitalised with the Indian variant of covid-19, for what reason such essential data are not held centrally in the format requested; in what format, if any, those data are held centrally; and if he will make it his policy, without further delay, to (a) gather centrally and (b) subsequently release to the media, on a daily basis, the numbers of people hospitalised with the Indian variant of covid-19 who are (i) vaccinated with (A) one and (B) both doses, and (ii) unvaccinated against the virus.”
I can’t wait to read the answer!