Examination of Witness (Questions 171-179)
PROFESSOR THE LORD NORTON OF LOUTH
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
171. On behalf of the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons, may I welcome you to this sitting of the Committee? As you know, we are undertaking an in-depth inquiry primarily into parliamentary questions. You yourself over many years have had quite a lot to say in this field, in fact if I may quote my predecessor, Sir Peter Emery, on the occasion that you came to this Committee to give evidence on Prime Minister's Questions in 1994, "Professor Norton, it is very pleasant to see you again. If one carried out a statistical analysis, you have given more advice to this Committee over the years and probably attended more than any other single person and we are delighted to see you willing to come and be subject once again to cross-examination on the views that you hold." May I say to you, thank you very much indeed for coming? Wearing another hat I am well aware of the advice and the evidence you are currently giving to the Modernisation Select Committee of the House. We are really working complementarily to the Modernisation Committee. May I from the Chair put the first question? You are going to get some pretty hard questions from all members of the Committee because we feel very strongly on this subject. Can you tell the Committee what are the strengths and what are the weaknesses of the current system of questions? Which of the recommendations in your memorandum and in the report on Strengthening Parliament do you, as an expert on the procedures of the House, regard as most important?
(Lord Norton) First of all may I thank you for your opening comments and say I am very pleased indeed to be here today? On the strengths, there is almost the symbolic aspect of Question Time, the mere fact of putting questions which Ministers come and answer. There is no legal requirement on Ministers to be present, but in fact they do attend and Members can put questions to them. The very fact of Question Time in and of itself is extraordinarily important. Within Question Time itself, actually forcing Ministers to respond, in so far as Members are able to do that by tabling questions. It is forcing Ministers to think about a subject, therefore the tabling of questions is itself significant because Ministers come armed with information. It ensures they are aware of issues before they come to the House to answer questions about them and then it is valuable in that they have to be at the Despatch Box to answer questions from Members in different parts of the House and to provide a response to them. It is helpful to the Members themselves for a number of reasons which I touch upon in the memorandum. It is helpful to them in providing information. It is a means of forcing the Government to justify what they are doing and, to be blunt, it is a useful way for Members to raise their own profile by getting to their feet during Question Time and then sending their answers to the local press, which is the most used purpose for which questions are employed. So it fulfils a range of functions and, just coming full circle to my opening point, the fact is that it is a transparent process, it is in the public arena. Question Time is valuable. The adjunct of being able to ask written questions adds to it as well, given the limitations of time within Question Time itself; having that as a complementary means of gleaning information, which is the primary purpose of written questions, seeking information. Those are the strong points. In terms of limitations, there are the practical limitations in terms of time: demand exceeds supply. There are then the problems which have occurred over time and what I would call the inherent tensions in Question Time. You have the breadth versus depth problem, that there is pressure to ask as many questions as possible; you cannot really go into any one question in any great detail and the pressure has been very much favouring breadth rather than depth. Another conflict is information seeking versus partisanship: utilising it just for party purposes but not actually eliciting any information of value from the Minister, as against actually using it to add to knowledge of what the Government are doing, to draw something out in a constructive way from the Minister. There is also what I would call the problem of public interest versus private interest, of Members tabling questions which are designed to challenge Government on behalf of the party, on behalf of constituents or what they see as the national interest against putting questions which are prompted by particular interests outside. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if those sorts of questions squeeze out those that are in the public interest there is a potential problem. The other inherent conflict I see is the Back Bench versus Front Bench. Question Time used to be far more of a Back Bench preserve and a means of back-benchers utilising it to get information from Ministers. Over time the front-benchers have become much more involved in the process; it is less of a back-bench weapon than it was.
172. Is that desirable?
(Lord Norton) It is not undesirable necessarily for front-benchers to have the opportunity to come to the despatch box. It is a case of where to draw the line, what is the desirable balance. There is a lot to be said for trying to preserve Question Time as much as possible as a back-bench opportunity for questioning Government, both in its own right but relative to the other opportunities as they exist. Really only Question Time and Early Day Motions (EDMs) remain as tools of the back-benchers which are not unduly controlled; it is just written questions and EDMs which are effectively uncontrolled as far as the opportunity exists for Members to put them down acting solely on their own initiative. There is a case for getting the balance right. I do not want back-benchers to be squeezed out unduly of Question Time. I should like to see it protected as a back-bench medium for questioning Government. If one could, as well, keep back-benchers free from being tainted by the whips and others in terms of the sorts of questions they put down, that would be very desirable and to the benefit of Members. Basically there are several benefits to Question Time itself: it is a very good thing. However, there are problems, a number of inherent tensions and historically the trend has been in a direction I would not regard as desirable.
173. When you said that it is traditionally the preserve of back-benchers, could you give us an indication of how long ago the tradition of the Opposition Front Bench coming in on the back of a question has been in place? It has always been the case in the 15 years I have been here.
(Lord Norton) Indeed; yes. If you look at it historically, a book was published which I cite in one of my footnotes by Chester and Bowring called Questions in Parliament which took us up to 1960. Up to the 1960s it was a back-bench opportunity for asking questions and the Front Benches were not getting in that much. It is really over the past 30 to 40 years that it has happened and you can see the trend generally in Question Time. Prime Minister's Question Time is itself a product of those 40 years: it came in in 1961. The trend within PMQs came in within that time. It is really over the past 30 to 40 years.
174. Moving on to the issue of period of notice, in your memorandum you talk about possibly reducing it to five working days. We certainly heard from back-bench Members about the issue of topicality. Do you think that is the minimum feasible period to balance the need of Ministers to be properly briefed with the desire of Members to raise topical issues?
(Lord Norton) No. We recommended five as trying to balance it out, but having looked at it, I do not see that there is necessarily any problem with two days' notice, particularly if the other recommendations I suggested were to be implemented. I tend to see these things as a package, that they do tend to relate to one another. I was looking at some of the evidence presented to the Procedure Committee the last time you looked at parliamentary questions and I noticed there that Tony Newton, when he was Leader of the House, submitted a letter which raised the prospect of two working days' notice. I regard that as a more authoritative source than I, in that he as Leader of the House is saying it is feasible to have two working days' notice, so I would regard it as feasible.
175. So there really should be no problem at all about moving to five as a first step.
(Lord Norton) Absolutely not; I can see no problem with that at all.
176. I want to come onto the question of whether there is any case for extending the use of open questions from Prime Minister's Question Time into departmental questions. Bearing in mind that you suggested open questions have not given Parliament a good image over the last 20 years or so, I just wondered what your views on that would be, also bearing in mind that you suggested a number of subjects for each Question Time, perhaps four rather than a whole list of questions.
(Lord Norton) Indeed; yes.
177. What are your views? I remember being in the Canadian House of Commons on a visit where Question Time was allowed to pass over a number of days so that the same question was being asked on the Wednesday which had been asked on the Monday because the guy did not think the reply was satisfactory. They could carry on questions ad infinitum. Is there a balance to be struck there?
(Lord Norton) I think there is, but not necessarily going down the line you are suggesting. In terms of your opening question, I would move in the other direction. I am for closed questions rather than moving down the path of openness, not simply for the reason you touched upon, that the open question gives a bad impression, but why it gives a bad impression. It is partly because it does encourage the partisanship that people outside think is not productive and I tend to go along with that. I also tend to be against the open questions because it is too much to the advantage of Government. I know back-benchers take the view that the open question in PMQs is a back-bench opportunity to catch the PM out but you can count the occasions when that has happened over the past 10 to 15 years on the fingers of one hand and you could have one or two fingers missing.
178. I was interested to read that in your memorandum.
(Lord Norton) Yes, and I can tell you what they were as well. I can only think of three over the past decade. It is really not a back-bench weapon but the problem is that back-benchers think it is and they are the reason why you have the open question. Successive Prime Ministers have said, "Take the closed question. I will answer it. I shall not transfer it", but the back-benchers do not. They think it helps them. It does not: it is actually to the benefit of the Government because it allows for a helpful question to come in after a difficult one and moves the subject to shift it. If you have a closed question you have to stick to the original question, supplementaries have to be relevant to that and then you actually start to delve into a topic, go into it in some detail. I would have thought that doing that actually encourages Members themselves to ask substantive serious questions and stick to the topic. Once you start doing that, the answers from Government start to become quite interesting, quite helpful. I am just comparing with the Lords where we have closed questions and you have seven or eight minutes a question and it is very rare that you get a general partisan question that a Minister just has to agree with. It is usually actually seeking a substantive response and information and it tends to work. I am a great believer in trying to have closed questions as a principle. On the point about balance, you do need some opportunity for raising topical issues and I am conscious Members are aware of that. There are more than two ways of doing that. One is shortening the period of notice anyway.
179. But if you went to four subjects in any one hour why not just do away with the period of notice anyway? It is like today, which de facto were really foreign affairs questions, with Iraq, Middle East, Afghanistan and Gibraltar.
(Lord Norton) Indeed. I can see the argument for that, but at the same time, if you give notice of specific question so that they come in having thoroughly researched that topic, able to go into some depth, it also obviates the opportunity for them to say they do not have that information and that they will write to the honourable Member. Just some notice would extract additional information on the topic because they would come in briefed on the whole area. To get that additional information, there is some benefit in giving some notice. I take the point about topicality. In PMQs if you went to closed questions there might be a case for the last question either to be a topical question or an engagements type question so one could raise the issue of the moment.