Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  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 robust.

  2. What robust changes would you support and advocate?
  (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 of questions?
  (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 some time?
  (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 by ministers.

  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 direct answers.

  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 it—and Mr Baker may argue with me because he is a very prolific but pertinent questioner—to 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 reply—I will not embarrass ministers by enumerating the replies that I have had even in recent years—the 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 cannot answer."

  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 person—let us say, Mr Boswell—is 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, are asked.

Ms Munn

  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 manage this.
  (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 it.
  (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.

David Wright

  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.

Ms Munn

  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.

David Wright

  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 in that.


  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 particularly well.
  (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 over minister.

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