QUESTIONS AND DEBATE
6. Some of our witnesses suggested that the experience
of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and the previous Northern
Ireland Assembly might provide a guide for the rules of debate
and questions after devolution.
We believe that the Stormont precedent is not helpful; it was
established seventy years ago and related to different legislation.
The Northern Ireland Assembly then did not debate matters reserved
to the United Kingdom, but there will be no such restrictions
now. As the Scottish Affairs Committee said in its Report on The
Operation of Multi-Layer Democracy:
"It is expected that the House will no longer
debate devolved matters.
The precedent of Stormont before direct rule is cited. Nonetheless,
in a climate where the Scottish Parliament, like its analogues
in Spain, debates reserved matters, and where the European Parliament
regularly debates matters which are strictly outwith its remit,
such a rule might prove neither acceptable nor enforceable".
The Leader of the House felt that this was a matter
which would require experience, and that Members might be ingenious
in framing issues in ways which remained in order, and told us
"there will be ... a number of grey areas. I
am reluctant to get drawn into the precise boundaries of the settlement
and the judgments which might be made; indeed that will, happily
for me, be a matter for the Chair".
Mr Atkinson, who has had the experience of membership
of the Chairmen's panel, thought that it would be impracticable
for occupants of the Chair themselves to rule supplementary questions
out of order on the grounds that they related to the responsibilities
of the devolved legislatures.
It would be even harder for the Chair to prevent Members touching
on devolved matters in the course of debate, and we believe it
would be invidious to expect the Speaker and her colleagues to
prevent every such reference, although they may wish to deprecate
sustained discussion of devolved matters. Ministers may, of course,
decline to respond substantively to points made in debate which
relate to devolved matters, and Members may come to decide that
it is not worthwhile to debate them. However, we draw attention
to one implication of the existing rules. As Erskine May
notes, matters for which the Government has no responsibility
may not be raised on the adjournment;
this may rule out many debates on devolved matters. We discuss
the precise definition of Ministerial responsibility more fully
below, but we recommend that the same principles as govern
the admissibility of Questions after devolution should govern
the admissibility of daily adjournment debates. Since Members
must give notice of the subjects of these debates, enforcement
of this rule should present few difficulties for the Chair. At
this stage, we do not recommend any change to the rules of order
in debate, although we are likely to return to the matter in the
light of experience.
Subjects of Questions
7. We do not believe, however, that it would be practicable
to adopt the same evolutionary approach for questions. When the
Government of Ireland Act 1920 was in force questions relating
to matters transferred were disallowed. If this precedent were
adopted, the scope for questions relating to Scotland would be
very limited indeed,
although there would be greater opportunities for questions relating
to Wales and Northern Ireland.
In this case, too, we believe the Stormont precedent is too restrictive.
8. Nonetheless, as the Clerk of the House said:
"It is central to the rules relating to Parliamentary
Questions that Questions should relate to matters of ministerial
responsibility (Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice, 22nd
Edition, p 295). If no change were made in the range and detail
of Questions tabled to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Ministers,
the basic rules relating to Questions would be undermined. Moreover,
if oral Questions were accepted on matters where responsibility
lay entirely with the devolved legislatures, it would reduce the
opportunities for Members to hold Ministers to account on matters
for which they are responsible".
The Ad Hoc Committee of the New Northern Ireland
Assembly recommended that questions on transferred matters should
be primarily for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
We recommend that, after devolution, the range and details
of questions to be put to the Secretaries of State for Scotland
and Wales should be reduced to matters relating to their Ministerial
responsibilities. However, defining "ministerial responsibility"
may not be straightforward.
As the Clerk of the House's memorandum demonstrates, the attitude
of ministers to certain issues is not constant, and, where there
is political interest, Ministers have answered on matters outside
a strict interpretation of their remit, such as the rail industry.
It will, in many cases, be unclear where the limits of ministerial
responsibility will lie: for example, much of the funding for
research in higher education institutions will become the responsibility
of the Scottish Executive, but xenotransplantation is reserved:
where would a question about research into xenotransplantation
in an institute funded by the executive fall? The matters for
which the Secretary of State for Wales will be responsible will
cover a wider range than those of the Secretary of State for Scotland,
and given that Westminster will retain responsibility for primary
legislation, the extent to which he remains responsible for a
particular matter will clearly be open to varying interpretation.
9. The matter could be dealt with without any procedural
change. The Table Office would rely on its interpretation of the
relevant legislation and on the pattern of answering established
by Ministers to decide whether or not a question was admissible.
We do not believe this is acceptable. Not only would there be
great political pressure on the Table Office
but, as the Clerk of the House says:
"If the House were to await the pattern of answering
emerging from the decisions of the territorial Secretaries of
State about which Questions they will answer, the result might
be unduly affected by current political factors and might lead
to duplication of accountability at Westminster and the devolved
Alternatively, it could permit Ministers to impose
an overly narrow interpretation of their responsibilities on the
House. As Mr Martyn Jones warned if one just allows "things
to evolve, there is always a danger that Government, not Parliament,
will make the decisions at the end of the day".
10. We believe that any reformulation of the rules
about Questions must
- recognise the fact of devolution, and limit
the range of permissible questions accordingly;
- provide guidance to Ministers about the matters
the House will expect them to deal with;
- avoid drawing Ministerial responsibility so
tightly that questions about the relationship between the devolved
legislatures and administrations and the United Kingdom government
or parliament are ruled out of order.
To this end, we recommend the following resolution,
drafted by the Clerk of the House.
"Subject always to the discretion of the
Chair, and in addition to the established rules of order on the
form and content of questions, questions may not be tabled on
matters for which responsibility has been devolved by legislation
to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the
Welsh Assembly unless the question
(a) seeks information which the UK Government
is empowered to require of the devolved executive, or
(b) relates to matters which
(i) are included in legislative proposals
introduced or to be introduced in the UK Parliament,
(ii) are subject to a concordat or other instrument
of liaison between the UK Government and the devolved executive,
(iii) UK Government ministers have taken an
official interest in, or
(c) presses for action by UK ministers in
areas in which they retain administrative powers".
Time for oral questions
14. It may be that, after devolution, there will
be fewer questions for certain Ministers to answer. We agree with
the Government that the continuing responsibilities of the Secretary
of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
mean that there should be no hasty change in the frequency or
duration of Questions.
However, 40 minutes every four weeks are allotted to Scotland;
is this appropriate, given that the Scottish Parliament will have
greater power than the Assemblies?
Two witnesses suggested it would no longer be appropriate to hold
Scottish Questions at all, since questions about reserved matters
would relate to the responsibilities of other Ministers, and should
be dealt with by them directly.
But, as Mr Moore, of the Scottish Affairs Committee said, it would
be very strange for this House to decide that there should be
a Secretary of State who should not be subject to the scrutiny
of the House.
In our opinion it would be premature to decide that a separate
Question time for the Secretary of State for Scotland was no longer
15. If Scottish Questions are retained, it is inevitable
that sometimes matters will be raised in oral questions which
relate to devolved matters; Members will, as many of our witnesses
acknowledged, be ingenious in bringing questions within order,
even when they relate to devolved matters, and supplementary questions
are, by their nature, hard to police.
The House must, however, acknowledge the fact of devolution. In
addition to the change in the type of questions allowed, recommended
above, we recommend that Scottish Questions be reduced to thirty
minutes duration, but that they should continue to be taken once
every four weeks, as now. In making this recommendation, we are
mindful of the fact that it will be entirely in order for Scottish
Members (as for any other Members) to table Questions about the
operation of particular reserved matters in Scotland to the relevant
6 Evidence p 101. Back
Consequences of Devolution,
The Hansard Society p 18. Back
Report of Session 1997-98, HC 460-I, paragraph 82. Back
250, see also Q 230. Back
Edition, p 327. Back
to use legislative powers; reserved matters; questions pressing;
questions on matters under discussion. The nature of Welsh Devolution
means a greater range of questions would be allowable. Back
p 88. Back
p 115. Back
New Northern Ireland Assembly, Report of the Ad Hoc Committee
on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution, paragraph 14. Back
p 116. Back
54, 86. Back
p 117. Back
201, 253. Back
90, 103. 114. Back
27-28, 44. Back