A good illustration is the recent question from Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce, who has a long interest in British Sign Language. It is unlikely that Gordon Brown's briefing pack had anticipated all the implications of the innocent-looking question, which asked the Prime Minister if he could meet "a delegation of sign language users to discuss how the Government can meet their needs, which they are currently failing to do". The Prime Minister could hardly refuse. This led to a meeting with the PM that would have been unlikely in other circumstances.
Such meetings are like gold dust, and this one was not wasted. The meeting opened the door to further meetings with ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Government is now putting significant extra funding into the training of BSL tutors. Not a bad return on a simple question that took only a minute to ask. Of course, the secrets are preparation, a clear and achievable ask and the persistence to see it through. Asking the right questions opens the door, but it's what you do once you're inside that makes the difference.
Parliamentary questions, especially written ones, keep issues in the eye of the minister who has to sign off the answers. But beware: a plague of questions is irritating for officials, particularly because the average cost of answering a written question is about £150. The person who writes the minister's response is often an expert on that policy area. If you have made your point, move on.
However, whether you are interested in asbestosis rates or hospital waiting times, asking the right questions can be used to alert MPs to problems, highlight crucial research and keep issues in the ministerial and public eyes. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, campaigners are in an even better position to elicit information, frame issues and get meetings. PMQs cost nothing to ask, so it's open to even the smallest organisations - especially if you know a friendly MP with an interest in your cause.
- Brian Lamb is executive director of communications at the RNID