Question period today is an often lively exchange between
private members and
ministers. It is so lively, in fact, that in both Britain and Canada it is highly publicized and
usually overshadows other, equally important workings of Parliament. But just as visitors
have not always been welcome in the Chamber, questions that might put ministers on the
spot were not always part of parliamentary procedure.
On February 9, 1721, Earl Cowper of the House of Lords asked the Earl of Sunderland the
first recorded oral question, about an investment scheme that had gone awry. At that time,
members could speak in the House only when moving or debating a motion and Mr. Cowper's
question was an unwelcome departure from form. Oral questions raised a stir in the British
Parliament for the next hundred years. In 1783 Speaker Cornwall cautioned that question
time should not lapse into "conversation," lest the House become disorderly. Instead, he felt
that members should recognize oral questions as "a deviation from the general rule...to be
adopted with great care, sobriety, and prudence, because otherwise it might put the House
out of temper." In 1805, one Lord Eldon declared Oral questions to be "inconsistent with
order and regularity."
But oral questions had their defenders, too. In 1808 at Westminster, Speaker Abbot called
them "a most convenient usage" for getting the House's business done. Most members
seem to have agreed with him. By 1832 the right of British Members of Parliament to question
ministers in the House was firmly entrenched, and in 1869 the first reference to questions
appeared on the Order Paper. By 1900 both oral and written questions were accepted as
part of the House's business. In fact, members that year asked more questions in one day
than had been asked in the entire session of 1830.
Question period is the modern way of "petitioning" a parliament. As question periods have
gained in importance in Commonwealth parliaments, petitions have declined.