Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)
ALLEN, MP, MR
MP, MR ANDREW
BENNETT, MP, MR
MP AND MS
TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002
1. All Members of the Committee will be involved
in putting questions and most questions will be put to all those
giving evidence to us this afternoon, but some may well be directed
at specific witnesses and may well be based on the paper that
you have submitted. From the Chair, I am going to ask the first
question which will be addressed to all of you. Could each of
you say a few words about how you as individual Members of Parliament
use the question system that we have at present? What do you find
valuable about this present system and what works less well in
our present system? Do you think the system needs major change
or do you think it perhaps just needs some fine tuning?
(Ms King) Can I thank colleagues for
the invitation here? The way I use questions is to glean information
and to try and start a line of inquiry. Most MPs recognise that
on the whole questions are not a way to get substantive answers
and that is the biggest problem with the system. I do not think
they are the best mechanism we have to hold people to account.
Whilst I do not think the system has to be entirely overhauled,
I do think, if you are talking about changes, they need to be
2. What robust changes would you support and
(Ms King) For example, we have to do away with a lot
of what is prohibitive, a lot of the restrictions. For example,
three weeks ago, I was at the site of the volcano where there
was a huge, humanitarian disaster. I really wanted to table a
question on it. As we know, tabling for this is once a month.
I was in the Congo on the other side of the world and although
I could speak to the Table Office I was not able to table the
question. I think there should be a facility for Members of Parliament
using passwords. If Abbey National can work out a way for me to
be able to access service, then I think the British Parliament
should be able to work out a way to do likewise.
3. This was for written answer?
(Ms King) No, for oral. For written answer, the pressure
is not quite the same. You can put it in any day of the week,
more or less. For oral, it is only once a month, quite often.
4. You do not believe you should have to give
at least a fortnight's notice and ten parliamentary working days'
notice for an oral question? Is that what you are saying?
(Ms King) Absolutely. There must be a great reduction
in the time limit.
(Mr Boswell) Thank you for the opportunity of coming.
I think I ask three different sorts of questions. The first set
are ones in my capacity as a front bench spokesperson for my party
and obviously I would expect and indeed would be expected to put
up a fair score of questions designed to find out information
and, dare I say, occasionally to embarrass ministers about what
is going on in their department. That is perhaps the most obvious
and it would be easy to detect from the order paper where I am
coming from, although even there in relation to, for example,
pensions, I will occasionally put down what I might loosely call
a public interest question. I was reading something about the
work of the Pensions Registry in tracing lost pensions and people
who have lost touch with their pensions. I thought it was entirely
appropriate to put down a question to the minister to ask him
to make a statement on what they do, which he did. I think it
was a public education exercise between us. The second area is
obviously in relation to your own constituency. That may be either
issues of general policy which have arisen from letters from constituents
or more simple questions like when on earth are you going to finish
the Silverstone bypass. Those are both springing out of your constituency
work. The third area that I feel is a little different is I do
occasionally put down a completely public interest question, not
in any particular high minded way, but something has struck me
as being of interest which I have never seen anything about in
Hansard or might not have known anything about before.
It may not even be on an area that I think is a particularly natural
one for me and I think I should find out a little more about it.
If I can give an example, I was reading The Police Federation
Journal one day with perhaps more intensity than I sometimes
do, to be honest. There was an article on the work of chemist
inspection officers who are appointed to constabularies. Their
job is to inspect the disposal and monitoring of controlled drugs
but not illegal drugs. I put down a question. This generated a
couple of queries from within the system saying what on earth
are you asking about this for. Answer: I want to know the answer,
really. I found out more about them. It also spawned an interesting
visit and conversation with my local chemist inspection officer
and that is the sort of thing you might take forward a bit. I
personally would endorse the point that Oona King has made about
the need to make Members' access to the question system as easy
as is proper within the bounds only of propriety.
5. Would you support the electronic tabling
(Mr Boswell) Yes, I would, subject to some necessary
safeguards. Let us make it as easy for Members to do what they
wish to do in the way they find it most convenient at the time.
(Andrew Bennett) Thank you for inviting me. I think
I am a bit of a fraud here because I have to admit that I am using
questions less and less. If I want information I tend to do it
through the select committee rather than through questions. The
reason I use it less and less is that question time is becoming
increasingly discredited. If it is going to be effective, it needs
radical reform. We have gone for quantity rather than quality.
There is a major problem that some junior ministers spend all
their time rushing around Westminster Hall, here there and everywhere.
They do not have time to think about the answers, particularly
to written questions, so they just sign off whatever the civil
servant puts in front of them. There are far too many questions
and it would make a big difference if there were fewer but there
were far better answers to them. You asked earlier about giving
14 days' notice. You will remember, when you first came into the
House, that there were quite a few departments where you did not
have to give 14 days' notice. I think Standing Orders still say
you do not have to give 14 days' notice. You simply go on at the
end of the queue. There was an occasion when quite a few departments
did not have it filled up so there was a chance of putting in
a question fairly late on and still getting it answered. On the
question of plants, it is a disgrace the way PPSs now race round
and try and get fixed questions in. I very rarely accept a plant
from a PPS, however well I know them. Often, it spurs me to put
in a question which I think will annoy the minister rather than
please the minister, but we should be discouraging that planting
system. It is far better if you are holding government to account
that individual Members should set the agenda for question time,
rather than PPSs attempting to set the agenda or people from the
Opposition. We should have much shorter answers to oral questions.
One of the ways to do that would be instead of having 15 minutes
or half an hour or 45 minutes, depending on the department, you
should say very firmly that it is up to question 15. If it takes
three hours to get to question 15, the House should stay. That
would very quickly get ministers answering promptly. Priority
should really be priority. Perhaps we should limit how many questions
are put down for priority, but if you put down a priority question
it should be answered and not some holding answer coming out.
Most of the questions are mine that I think up but I admit that
sometimes the Ramblers' Association or Liberty persuade me to
put down questions. Of course we should have electronic tabling
but we need some very firm safeguards If you are entitled to walk
in and hand in a question on behalf of somebody else because you
are an honourable Member of Parliament, surely you should be honourable
enough to use an e-mail system with some code involved in it.
6. I can confirm that when I came to the House
nearly 31 years ago there were far fewer questions tabled and
the figure of 14 days is the maximum period but it has become
the norm because so many people now table questions, whether for
reasons that Mr Bennett has pointed out or of their own volition.
It might be a combination of both. There are now so many questions
that if you do not table them on that first possible occasion
your chances of getting reached are absolutely nil. Many people
would share your view about the number of questions that are being
tabled. I do not know whether you would agree with me that it
is almost like a virility symbol?
(Andrew Bennett) That is a temptation that some people
feel if they do not put down enough questions. I can remember
though that the Member for Oldham and Royton, when he first got
into the House, did get some very nice headlines in The Oldham
Chronicle about the large number of questions that he was
asking. I think that went on for about two to three years and
then they started putting down just how expensive it was. It is
a little bit of a double edged sword.
(Norman Baker) Thank you for asking me along here.
I am very pleased that your Committee is having this inquiry which
is very important. I start from the principle that the information
the government releases is by and large that which they may be
required to release but also that which will cast them in a good
light. That is obviously the case with any government in power.
Therefore, the importance of questions is to elicit information
which may be important to the public domain but which the government
would not necessarily want to see released. That is where the
essence of accountability comes in. I see it as a key weapon in
holding the government of the day to account. It is not the only
weapon. Select committee questions are one of the other weapons.
I will not repeat all that has been said but I concur with virtually
every comment that has been made by my colleagues. What changes
could be made? I would want to see planted questions removed.
They are an obscenity. Let us have government announcements and
a separate piece in the order paper where government make announcements
each day which they want to put in the public domain. Let us be
open and frank about it, rather than pretending that an MP from
somewhere has asked a question and that he or she is interested
in this. It would be far more up front and command more media
interest and draw parliamentarians' attention to those statements.
Secondly, it is ludicrous that we have to table orals 14 days
in advance. It is possible that you could table a question to
transport about local government finance only to find there is
a rail accident in your constituency two days before oral questions,
which would look bizarre to one's constituents. We need more flexibility.
7. Over what period would you table oral questions?
(Norman Baker) I do not think any longer than 48 hours.
Some of my colleagues may think less is required. After all, it
is within ministers' briefs and they ought to be able to think
on their feet. If you give too little notice and your question
is too detailed, the consequence is you cannot expect a full and
frank answer from the minister. There is a balance to be struck
between getting a full answer and giving sufficient notice. 48
hours is sufficient and, although not an ideal comparison, that
is the sort of time you have on councils for questions from the
public in council meetings. That seems to work quite well. I speak
as a former leader of a council. In terms of written questions,
there should be more flexibility. The rules which are applied
as to the terminology you can use in written questions are unnecessarily
limiting. We ought to be able to say, for example, to the Prime
Minister, "Given that you have now reached details on meetings
with Enron, will you now release details on meetings with BP?"
but you are not allowed by the Table Office to insert those qualifications
in the written questions. I think it ought to be permissible to
do so. If one looks at the House of Lords questions, they are
rather more flexible in their nature as to what you can table.
8. Do you have anything you would like to add
about the starred question in the Lords, where it can go on for
(Norman Baker) There is merit in that and that might
be something which the Speaker or Deputy Speaker, whoever is in
the chair, would be able to control. We ought to have more flexibility
in our oral questions than we have had. I agree that the answers
are far too long on occasion and we ought to see ministers and
MPs questioning ministers pulled up rather more. It is absurd
that we are not allowed to table questions over the recess. We
can have emergency statements at no notice when the House is sitting,
if something calamitous happens but if happens on 1 August we
have to wait until 15 October for Parliament to reassemble. We
ought to find some way of dealing with that during recesses. Secondly,
the priority written method does not work. We are encouraged by
the table office and others to respect the limits of three days
for something urgent and 14 days for not urgent. I started off
respecting that but I found by analysis of the answers I got that
the percentage of holding answers was no different to 14 day questions
than to three day questions. Indeed, I put questions down on the
last day of July only to have a holding answer when I got back
in October. If the argument is that we should respect priority
writtens as that, the deal is that those may be limited in number
but they should be answered with no excuses for extending those.
I think that in terms of oral questions I support the Speaker
in his perhaps controversial ruling last week when he said we
do not want discussions about Labour Party policy or Tory Party
policy and so on. The Government is the Government. They have
enough levers to pull. Those question sessions in the Commons
should be there to question the Government on Government policy
and not for any other purpose. I would welcome any steps either
by the Speaker or any other method to ensure that that occurred.
That is about improving the system. The other key element of this
is ensuring that the questions are answered and the information
one seeks is given. We can have the best system in the world for
having questions in recesses, limiting the time and so on, but
if ministers do not answer the questions the improvements do not
work. I fear that questions are increasingly not being answered
9. In connection with oral questions, if a minister
does not answer the question, do you believe that the Speaker
should allow the questioner a second bite of the cherry as front
bench spokesmen now appear to get under the new dispensation?
Would you like to see a back bencher like yourself having a second
bite of the cherry to highlight the fact that they have asked
a straightforward, simple question demanding a factual answer
and it has not been given?
(Norman Baker) There must be some sanction against
a minister who blatantly refuses to answer a question, whether
the Speaker intervening more regularly or some other method.
(Mr Allen) Thank you for asking me along. This is
a very important inquiry that you are conducting, essentially
because it is not about procedure. This is about political power,
the conflict between Parliament and the Executive and very often
never the twain shall meet. Questioning, whether it is written
or oral, shows currently the very subordinate role Parliament
plays in our political system and I hope very much that colleagues
will seek to try and balance that out a little bit by giving Parliament
a little more muscle. The key thing for me here is accountability.
At the moment, our questioning is ritualistic. It is not pertinent
very often; it is not accurate; it is not forensic and it is highly
limited. One of the ways in which I judge this is by jokingly
asking people in the parliamentary press lobby whether they would
tolerate the restrictions that are placed on Members of Parliament
for their own questioning. Can you, for example, imagine Jeremy
Paxman being told by yourself, Mr Winterton, "Yes, Jeremy,
I will answer your questions but you will only get two questions
and incidentally you will need to tell me the first one 14 days
before I go on air"? Absolute nonsense. If we look at it
in that frame of reference, this is not a Victorian exercise we
are going through here. This is an exercise that at this very
moment is online and could be heard by virtually anyone with a
PC in the United Kingdom. It is on television and likewise could
be heard instantly. Yet we still tolerate within Parliament this
ancient procedure which I would contend brings Parliament into
disrespect and sometimes into contempt because we appear to be
content to let this dominance of the Executive continue. What
I would like to see overall is a change in the culture, above
all, in the chamber to get out of this artillery exchange which
takes place and have a dialogue. It is an old chestnut from my
point of view but one of the things which one day the Procedure
Committee will have to look at is the chamber itself and the physicality
of it, the fact that it is still in the old one of 1356 when the
Chamber was gifted to the commoners as a chapel. We still have
that seating arrangement. People tell me that it is not absolutely
cast in stone and given another couple of hundred years of the
experiment and we may change it. I am very much in favour of a
horseshoe shape to relax people more, to get the body language
right in the chamber, so you can have a dialogue exactly as I
hope we are going to have here rather than the artillery exchange.
On specifics, 14 days' notice is a nonsense. In my opinion, I
would be more radical even than Mr Baker and I would abolish the
period of notice. I would also abolish what is the closed question
so Members could ballot as now. You would have a list of Members
that were going to be called out for, let us say, health questions.
The first questioner is Mr Hamilton. Mr Hamilton appears at questions.
He can choose either to say privately in advance, "I have
quite a detailed question about a local hospital and I am going
to let the minister know what I am going to ask so that I can
get a fully prepared answer"; or, "I am going to take
something off that morning's papers, which is a political topic
about perhaps even a political difference between the parties
or public expenditure. I will throw that into the debate and ask
the ministers, all of whom are eminently capable and qualified
people, masters of their briefs anyway, to respond on their feet
to `Should we be given an opinion about post code treatment in
the NHS?'". That would be the first question. Then, I would
have a supplementary to follow up because always there is this
sense of the government having the last word in Parliament and
I would like us to have a second word, if not necessarily the
last word. Abolishing the notice period, in my opinion, would
bring us back into mainstream politics. It would allow us to be
topical; it would allow us to do what John Humphreys or anyone
else can do on the Today programme and raise pertinent,
important issues. The volcano has now almost snowed over and Ms
King gets a chance to ask a question about that. I am sure we
all have had similar problems about 11 September. I am still getting
answers to my questions about what the government response will
be to 11 September. I was getting answers to questions to the
Prime Minister about matters which were in the public domain,
which I wanted the Prime Minister to confirm, several months after
certain items had appeared in the public domain either by briefings
from the Number Ten press office or by evidence to the Public
Administration Committee. Still it was, "We have not quite
sorted this one out. We will have to answer you later." I
would like therefore to take up problems like that immediately
at oral questions. The knock-on effect on written questions would
be quite significant. People would give more pertinent and more
10. Do you think there are too many questions
put down for written answer?
(Mr Allen) That is my next point. The written question
is the lira of the parliamentary foreign exchange. I would limit
itand Mr Baker may argue with me because he is a very prolific
but pertinent questionerto four written questions each
day per Member and revalue that currency but the quid pro quo
would be that if a minister refused to answer those very precious
questions that Members value and gave a ludicrous replyI
will not embarrass ministers by enumerating the replies that I
have had even in recent yearsthe Speaker would have the
power to haul that minister back to the House to give a proper
answer, I would suggest, at 3.30 on a Wednesday afternoon. I suggest
that the first time a Secretary of State was asked by the Speaker
to do that would probably be the last time that any Secretary
of State would give an evasive and stupid answer. If he cannot
answer a written question, it is perfectly in order to say, "I
11. What about an oral question?
(Mr Allen) An oral question is far more difficult,
although if we reform the oral question time period so that there
can be more of a conversation you can elicit more of a proper
answer. At the moment, it is very easy to evade what is in effect
the one supplementary and answer a question which you have made
up yourself: "Tell me how wonderful the record of your party
is on this topic." Revaluing written questions is very important.
Equally important in terms of making what we do in this place
topical and pertinent is yet another devalued currency, the Early
Day Motion. The answer is to limit Early Day Motions. If we were
limited to, say, one Early Day Motion a week to sign and the Early
Day Motion with the most cross-party signatures were debated for
two hours on the next Friday, I believe Members would choose very
carefully where they put their coinage of the very valuable signature
for an Early Day Motion. In your own case, Mr Winterton, on war
pensions and war widows, I would suspect that was an issue that
would go cross-party. Certain environmental issues would certainly
go cross-party. There would be certain global issues which would
be cross-party. Colleagues would choose their time. They would
choose their Early Day Motion for maximum effect so that they
could get a full couple of hours' debate with the minister present.
Indeed, colleagues who signed the EDM would be under some sort
of burden to show up every now and then if they regarded this
issue as an important one for their signature. We would revalue
the choices that parliamentarians can make within our own House
and reclaim that. Finally, I have been extremely modest and moderate
in my proposals. I am now going to produce a fantasy one which
is the Kilroy programme or Oprah which we see touring
around, talking to people, getting different views, pulling in
different expertise. I would like to see, when the main chamber
is not in use, perhaps even once a week, that we have a conversation
time and one personlet us say, Mr Boswellis plucked
out of the air and gets next week's conversation time. He can
choose a topic to kick people off on, let us say, agriculture
and the foot and mouth problem. No votes. People just go into
the chamber and talk about their difficulties. Maybe the week
after that it is Graham Allen on abandoned cars. Maybe even a
minister might show up and contribute but we ought to have a very
relaxed, informal, nonetheless in the chamber, perhaps even with
the cameras running, debate and discussion, possibly even professionally
mediated. Possibly Andrew Marr or someone else might get the job
every so often or a guest with some expertise, so that we could
smoke out some issues without any embarrassment, with out a party
Whip and without a vote, so that Parliament could do what I believe
is really important. That is, once again to become the forum of
the nation so that the questions we ask or the questions that
our constituents would ask, if they could, that day in Parliament,
12. I am asking about electronic tabling. I
am a great fan of electronic means of doing everything. Norman
Baker, you said no, you would not want to see that. Why?
(Norman Baker) It is a matter of safeguards. I am
in favour of making questioning as easy as possible but I am concerned
that it would be open to abuse. If it could be regulated in such
a way that those abuses could not occur, I would not object. It
is a technical objection.
13. One of the areas which concerns me and part
of that relates to the difficulty around language, because we
all stand there, do we not, like we have gone into the headmaster's
office. Have you got the wording of your question right? That
would be an issue in electronic tabling of questions about responses
and how people dealt with is the question in order. Does anybody
have a view on that?
(Norman Baker) I nearly always table all my written
questions in person as opposed to asking my researcher to go in
with them first thing in the morning. I do so because I am able
to have a discussion with one of the clerks. If the question is
not quite in order, I am able to explain what I want. Equally,
if the tendency of the clerk is to rule it out of order, it is
more difficult to do so if they have to engage me in conversation.
Even if electronic tabling was available, I would probably continue
to go in myself.
(Mr Boswell) I think it is perfectly manageable. If
there is anything improper going on, I would have thought a reprimand
from the Speaker would have put an end to it there and then. I
see no more reason why it should be insecure than what happens
now. As regards the dialogue that we have with clerks, we are
all very grateful for that, although it is occasionally frustrating.
I came across something I had never heard of before this week
called the history rule which precluded my asking about anything
more than 30 years ago. We found a way round it in the most elegant
possible way. Of course there are constraints if you are at a
distance, either at the end of a telephone or in an exchange of
e-mails, but I would have thought they are broadly superable and
there are occasions where I have left a question with the Table
Office. They know what I am trying to do and they say, "We
note the history rule. We will tweak it for you and put it in."
Given the intention, it should not be insuperably difficult to
(Mr Allen) The security things can be overcome. I
think the Table Office and the clerks in the Table Office do a
superb job. Over the piece, I have found the clerks always extremely
helpful. Their difficulty is the environment in which they work,
which can be influenced by the Speaker. If the Speaker were less
of a neutral, less of a referee, and more partisan on behalf of
the whole of Parliament against some departments, that would give
the clerks even more confidence to stand up to certain of the
departmental, parliamentary officials who deal with them.
14. You are talking about the block?
(Mr Allen) Yes, various blocks. If they can act a
little more aggressively on our behalf because they know that
the Speaker will be supportive of them, that would be more power
to their elbow and a lot more power to colleagues who go into
the table office. Every time I have difficulty with a question,
provided I have been persistent, I have always got the clerks
to find a way of asking what I want to.
(Ms King) I cannot see any reason for not introducing
electronic tabling. I say this as the newest and the least experienced
of all those before you, but new Members have to have better information
about the rules. Maybe I am a particularly dim Member of Parliament
but I was here two years before I even realised there were any
rules about the way you can do it. Maybe I had been tabling simple
questions and it had not come up. When we are elected, we are
given volumes, videos, this, that and the other. I still think
that it would be quite simple if you have your question bounced
back, with e-mail they can bounce it back to you, much quicker
than currently, because at the moment sometimes the little note
chases you round Parliament for a week. I think it would make
things easier and I do not think there is any excuse not to introduce
(Andrew Bennett) On enforcement, I do not think there
should be a ticking off. I think there should be a simple punishment.
If you have passed on your password to the Shoelace Lobbying Group
or something like that so they can slip the question in without
your knowledge, you should be banned from putting questions in
for six weeks or some period like that. It should be just cut
and dried with no rap on the knuckles.
15. One concern may be that Members may rush
to get electronic tabled questions in on the deadline. One of
the advantages of going in is you can have a dialogue with people
in the Table Office. You can immediately rectify a problem with
a question. If you are desperate to meet a deadline for an oral
question and the table office receive 100 on e-mail at one minute
to the deadline, there is no way they are going to be able to
process all those questions and get back to you in time to hit
the deadline. There will be a lot of disappointed people.
(Andrew Bennett) That is their fault.
16. We would need to change the system in some
way. As Members, we would have to adopt a system where we look
at staggering the way we put questions in throughout the day instead
of all rushing in at the end of the day.
(Andrew Bennett) That is common sense and I think
that applies now, particularly when you get the Queen's speech
and you get all the questions going in for the next 14 days. If
you do not get in early and make sure you talk to the clerks about
your question, it is very likely that you get a note telling you
that it is out of order or there is some problem with it and then
you have missed the raffle for it.
17. Oona King said earlier that you could have
a telephone conversation about an e-mail that is on the screen
in front of you. It is just about using all the means of communication
rather than thinking you just have one way of doing it. Would
that be what you envisage?
(Andrew Bennett) Yes. As far as the shuffle is concerned,
the common sense thing is you talk to the table office a day or
two before if you think you have a difficult question. You get
the wording agreed and then you would send it in electronically,
just at the point at which it was needed for that particular raffle.
18. We have heard quite a bit from Mr Allen
in particular about deadlines for tabling questions and the existing
limits in terms of oral questions. One thing that strikes us all
is when you go into the Chamber for any session of oral questions
to a minister, there can be an event that has happened a number
of days before that, that you cannot raise through any mechanism.
You cannot find a connection to any question to bring it up. Could
one or two of you perhaps talk about what kinds of removal of
restriction you would like to see in terms of tabling questions?
Do we need to go for a completely open system? Do we need to go
to a system where we have a set number of questions each day that
perhaps are open questions and a number of others that perhaps
are written in advance? Should we pre-ballot in some way? Observations?
(Mr Boswell) I think I may be the only
one of your five witnesses who has been a minister in a department.
I therefore have experience of the other end of the telescope.
Without rehearsing the earlier exchanges, one of the issues that
has arisen is the distinctions and tensions between oral and written
questions. They are very different characters. I would personally
defend having some questions on notice because one of the advantages
of that is that ministers have to prepare themselves in a quite
precise area. It may well be an area which is not something on
which they are constantly in political controversy. It may be
very important to the Member; he has a particular, individual
constituency case or interest or he may have decided it is something
that needs a little more profile than it has. That process of
dialogue, the iceberg that you do not see in the chamber, the
Minister's dialogue with his or her officials, and having to think
it through, may be beneficial. I would at least want to envisage
some kind of experiment where we had some topical questions for
all the very cogent reasons that have been explained by my colleagues
and we were prepared to provide a facility for some more conventional
questions which Ministers would have to prepare for properly.
Picking up the earlier exchanges, if Members asking those questions
were dissatisfied, they would have a right to return once after
the supplementary to pursue them in greater detail. At least that
would be a start and we could see if that was the right balance.
I did indicate in my earliest remarks that I think there are some
distinctions, not only oral and written, but between the kinds
of questions which Members ask and the reasons why they ask them.
It probably needs to be reflected in some slightly different rules
for what we are wanting to do. In conclusion, I would not in any
sense want to signal an attempt to dilute the urgent wish of my
colleagues, which I share, to get some topicality and zip into
it as well. It is just a question of whether it has to be all
that or whether it can be a mixed offering.
(Mr Allen) You hear a former minister
speaking. We have all seen the immense amount of briefing that
goes into individual ministers. Firstly, there is enormous waste.
The Civil Service machine in key areas grinds to a halt in order
to brief ministers on particular things which are often not covered.
When I was in with the Secretary of State for the DETR or the
Chancellor, the file was that thick on questions which would never
be reached, on possible supplementaries which were never intended
to be asked. The whole Civil Service machine has gone into this
because it may be embarrassing for the minister to be found out
on the floor of the House. It is not improving Parliament's idea
of what question time is about; it is to provide a cushion and
a protection for ministers. I do not think we should collaborate
19. Do you think therefore that it would do Ministers and
Parliament no harm if a minister on a particular occasion said,
"I am afraid I do not know the answer that question. I will
find it out and let the Member know"?
(Mr Allen) The House would soon regard the Member
who asked a highly specific, detailed, technical question of a
Minister as a buffoon, because that is not what question time
is about. If you asked a very specific question, the Minister
would be quite at liberty to say, "I would be very pleased
to write to the honourable Gentleman about that", and you
would have wasted your very precious oral question rather than
using it for a more general, political conversation.
(Andrew Bennett) I do not agree that it is a waste
when civil servants prepare information for the minister. Part
of question time is a way in which the ministers can keep some
control over their departments. That briefing material is very
important and sometimes you wonder if the question that is not
asked has more impact on the ministers than the ones that you
ask. I think we should have some open questions. When I was on
the front bench for the Opposition, it was very annoying to have
to come up with something that was very contrived, to try and
get the issue of the day in. It is important that we perhaps allow
one open question to the Opposition, one open question to the
minority parties. I would argue that we should do it as an experiment.
I would remind you that we used to have a lot of open questions
because you used to be able to put a question down in the department:
will the minister visit a particular place or would they meet
the CBI, the TUC or something like that. Then you could virtually
ask anything with that. Some of those open questions did not work
(Norman Baker) I have doubts about a complete free
for all. Prime Minister's Question Time is to some extent a free
for all already because it is a succession of open questions although
there are constituency questions. I am not sure that works well.
It becomes rather ritualistic and we end up with the Conservative
Party saying, "Can the Prime Minister tell me how many people
are on the waiting list in Chingford?" Of course, the Prime
Minister cannot say how many are on the waiting list in Chingford,
but he can then come back and make some party point about the
Conservatives' health policy. I am not sure that gets us very
far. The danger with completely open questions is it gives a legitimate
excuse for a minister to say, "I do not know that. I was
not prepared. I will write to you or do something subsequently",
rather than being held to account on the floor of the chamber.
If there is a question tabled in advance, there can be no excuse
for the minister not knowing that. I am not sure I agree with
Andrew that preparation of answers gives ministers control over
departments. I sometimes wonder if it gives departments control