Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)
ALLEN, MP, MR
MP, MR ANDREW
BENNETT, MP, MR
MP AND MS
TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2002
20. Are you against a question to the Prime
Minister such as "Will the Prime Minister visit the Lewes
(Norman Baker) I cannot be against that because I
continually table it under the present rules. That is the system
we have at the moment.
21. That does give you great opportunity, does
it not? You can ask any matter then relating to your constituency
which your constituents surely would like you to do?
(Norman Baker) With any constituency issue, unless
you tell the Prime Minister in advance what your question might
beoccasionally, I have rung Number Ten and said, "I
am going to raise this particular question. You will not know
the answer but this is the background. Will you please get me
an answer?" On occasion, that has worked quite well. If you
are going to raise a specific question on the constituency, you
have to do that. The only questions which work openly, in my view,
are political questions. Anything specific has to be given notice
of in advance. Otherwise, you are wasting your time.
(Ms King) Everyone is agreed that we need more topicality.
To do that we have to have more open questions. For that we need
a 48 hour limit. The top line that ministers have when they come
to the despatch box should be an aide memoire; it should
not be a crutch with which they can bat the question away. Moving
more to an open system would be better for politics.
22. The issue you raise is open questions. At
the same time, if you want a detailed response, give the necessary
notice, so you are not arguing against one or the other; you are
arguing for a combination of the two?
(Norman Baker) I came here advocating a 48 hour time
limit. I have been persuaded by some comments that you could have
some open questions, particularly one or two for the two main
Opposition parties. That would be one way of dealing with it on
a temporary basis to see how it worked out.
23. Would you support a preliminary ballot for
the opportunity to ask an oral questionie, Mr Baker, Mr
Bennett, Oona King, Tim Boswell or Graham Allento be followed
in due course by the tabling of a detailed question itself?
(Andrew Bennett) No, because it would be even worse.
First of all, every Member would be encouraged to put in for the
ballot so you would probably get more people competing. Secondly,
you would have all sorts of people trying to persuade you to ask
the particular question that they want. Therefore, the Whips would
have even more control of it. I think it is much more important
to try and get people with specialist knowledge to concentrate
on the questioning. It has got to the stage where almost everyone
enters the ballot. When you and I first came in, you would find
there was a group of people interested in social security and
you could count perhaps the 15 people who would put most of the
questions in. They knew about it, so when they get waffle from
the Minister they were able to come in pretty effectively with
their supplementary. The danger now is that you have people who
have been persuaded by the PPSs to put a question in. They know
nothing about it and when they get a waffling answer they do not
know how to cut through the waffle.
24. Would our other witnesses agree?
(Mr Boswell) Unusually, I would like to record my
total agreement with Andrew Bennett.
(Mr Allen) None of these things can stand on their
own as reforms unless you start to change the culture. Part of
that culture is the Members themselves. If Members are going to
be treated as children and we have to feed them questionsI
did it in a previous guisebut if we are saying that Members
can be mature and can ask a question either of general political
importance because of something that has happened that day or
they have the brains to figure out that, if they have a highly
specific question, they will inform the minister ahead of time,
like Norman and probably like many colleagues here, I have not
only informed my own Prime Minister; I have informed Mrs Thatcher
and John Major if I have been fortunate enough to be drawn out
for PMQs that I have a very serious issue; this is it. You can
let the Prime Minister go away and research this seriously but
I promise you I will ask the following question. In my own case,
the one I remember most is about the video taping of evidence
of children in child abuse cases. I told Number Ten virtually
word for word what I was going to ask. I asked Mrs Thatcher to
introduce the experiment of video taping children. I could have
point-scored there about the Belgrano or something else.
25. A lot of people share your view that there
should be less point-scoring and more information seeking.
(Mr Allen) It depends upon the maturity of the Members
and how they choose to use any ministerial questions.
26. Can I pick up on something Andrew Bennett
said about expertise and people who ask the questions? Would you
in any way support coordination of select committees with questioning?
In other words, do you think there could be a role for select
committees to be allocated particular powers to ask questions
in specific areas?
(Andrew Bennett) Not quite. It is very important,
when you are looking at changes, that you try some experiments.
You then have to evaluate the experiments. I am not totally happy
with what has gone on in Westminster Hall, because I think it
has chased Ministers round so they are just racing round, answering
debates, not thinking of the issues behind the debates. You could
look at a separate form of question time in Westminster Hall,
in which before the session was announced it was a particular
aspect of healthit was not health questionsand then
people would be able to go in and ask questions on that particular
area. You would have a topic on which people could ask questions.
One of the worst things about question time at the moment is you
very rarely get a lot of continuity. I always say, when I talk
to groups outside, "Any minister who cannot dodge the first
question is not worth being a Minister." By the time you
have three or four questions all homing in on the same thing,
a Minister has to have some mettle and some knowledge of their
brief. If you have half an hour in Westminster Hall as an experiment
to see how it goes and then possibly transfer it to the chamber
with a narrow topic, with questions on that, I suspect you would
only get the people interested in that topic going in and then
you could have some continuity of questioning.
(Norman Baker) There is scope for changing the format
of adjournment debates which are secured for Westminster Hall
and for the chamber. At the moment, we have 15 minutes and you
make a statement in 15 minutes and there is a ministerial reply.
The Minister may or may not give way to you. If you are lucky,
you get two questions back at the Minister. If it is a non-controversial
issue, you may get a satisfactory response but if the minister
decides for various reasons not to answer the points you are making
you have very little come back, other than the satisfaction of
having made the statement. It would be rather more satisfactory
and effective if one was able to put questions to the minister
and have responses and put further questions as part of the debate
and somehow free up the adjournment debate process a bit more.
(Andrew Bennett) It is done in the Standing Committee
on European Legislation, I think.
(Mr Boswell) This is all really about procuring redress
for unsatisfactory answers. If we can return to Graham Allen's
point, it is of course changing the culture of Ministers. Having
been one, I make no claim to sainthood, but it may well have been
in relation to one's own view of the back bencher involved, whatever
their politics. One knew perfectly well, where you were trying
to help somebody who had a serious point as against scoring a
political point against somebody else, perhaps regarded less highly.
The ideas that have been put are interesting ones. I seem to recall,
though I suspect with the rulings on points of order during Question
Time it is now more difficult, there was a device some years ago
with which people could formally say, "In view of the unsatisfactory
nature of that reply, I will raise the point on the adjournment".
It has now almost fallen into disuse as a tactic. I would at least
float for the Committee as possibly a working experiment that,
if a Member was seeking redress from an unsatisfactory ministerial
reply, they could contact the chairman of the appropriate select
committee and say, "I have had an exchange with "X",
which was most unsatisfactory and these are the reasons"
and maybe the select committee could resolve there and then to
have a short inquiry in which it could invite the Member to give
evidence and the minister to respond on the specific question
involved. It need not take more than half an hour, but I do not
think many Ministers would try it on after that.
(Mr Allen) In my youth, I even said to Mrs Thatcher
in the middle of Prime Minister's question time that the answer
she had given was so unsatisfactory that I would try to seek to
raise it on the adjournment. That requires the Speaker effectively
to put the minister or even the Prime Minister in detention. The
speaker has the ability to pick one adjournment debate each week,
mythology has it, and perhaps he could put an errant minister
or even the Prime Minister on the stand for half an hour at maybe
half past two, at the end of a long filibuster from Mr Forth.
I suspect that would be a very salutary lesson for the minister
27. Are you suggesting that that power be given
to Madam or Mr Speaker?
(Mr Allen) I think it is already there. The speaker
could judiciously use that power and let everybody know that the
reason Minister X is doing this adjournment debate is because
of the wholly inadequate nature of the answer that was given at
question time on a previous occasion.
28. If you have chapter and verse on the Prime
Minister replying to an adjournment debate, all the Members of
this Committee would be interested to hear from you.
(Mr Allen) I would have done it a lot more if that
were the case.
29. I raised the issue of select committees
in questions because my perception, as an entirely new Member,
is that procedures here are very compartmentalised. They are very
distinct from one another. It is very difficult, particularly
when you are not on an individual select committee where there
is an area you are particularly interested in, to somehow buy
into the committee and the process and try to encourage development
of an issue. That is very difficult to do in questions as well
at the moment. There did not seem to be any great enthusiasm for
trying to bring questions and select committees together.
(Ms King) There is a great enthusiasm for finding
a new way of questioning. At the moment, questioning is not really
questioning; it is statementing. The Member puts one statement
and the Minister puts another statement and never the twain shall
meet. I would welcome looking at any idea and Graham's idea of
a conversation time. I hope it is not entirely fantasy land and
that this Committee may have it within its powers to insist that
the House does look seriously at how we use other methods of questioning.
Allowing Members to buy into select committee work is very important
because that disconnects so many Members from subjects that they
do have an expertise in but are not able to engage it.
(Mr Boswell) Sometimes we need to step back from the
process and acknowledge how odd we must look to the general public,
because, for example, we have a series of conflicting statements
which can be caricatured from the front bench as, "You did
not do it"; "Oh yes, I did" type of thing and do
not appear to be adult discussions. In the nature of the case,
obviously we are Opposition or government politicians and we do
take political views. It would be wrong if we did not. Equally,
one of the things our constituents want to look at is areas where
we can establish common ground, where that is appropriate, and
any way where we can have a proper dialogue about the issues involved.
If we cannot agree, at least we can begin to draw out those discussions.
All this is about trying to find better ways in which we can no
longer drive the whole system by the rules of order having to
latch questions about something else on to words in an oral question
of which written notice has been given two weeks before and trying
to enable people to talk rather more like the real world. It is
not an easy matter but given goodwill and given the chance to
look at various experiments to see which are the best or which
at least have some merit we ought to be able to do it because
it is in the interests of the Executive to do this as well. I
might say that, might I not? I am no longer a Minister; I do not
have to say it, but I think ministers will get a better grip on
their department if they are aware that they will not completely
be able to flick away lines of questioning without further scrutiny.
30. Just moving on slightly, can any of you
supply me with a reason why oral questions should not be tabled
in advance of the deadline, whatever it is, for a response to
(Ms King) Absolutely not, I am delighted you have
Ian Lucas: It is absolutely bizarre to me that
I cannot do that in advance.
31. Oona King, you are bursting.
(Ms King) I am bursting because this issue has driven
me absolutely insane and I cannot understand the logic behind
it. Given the logic of your good selves on this Committee, I shall
expect that arcane rule to be dispensed with forthwith, once your
report is published perhaps.
(Andrew Bennett) It used to be possible because there
used to be this fiction of a letter box at the Table Office into
which you put them and it was only delivered when it was in order.
I do not quite understand why you as a Procedure Committee stopped
32. I am not sure that the Procedure Committee
stopped it. It has been stopped. This inquiry, I hope Mr Bennett,
will sort that out, amongst many other things, for the benefit
of Members of the House.
(Mr Allen) There is a way round this. It is a very
complicated, highly scientific way, they used to call it pigeon
holes, and all you do is put it into the relevant pigeon hole
whenever you walk into the Table Office and when the Clerks get
to that particular pigeon hole they draw those questions out.
It is very simple and it takes a carpenter.
33. Meg Munn has just asked the question, Mr
Allen, how could this be done by e-mail?
(Mr Allen) E-mails can be printed off and go straight
into the pigeon holes.
Ian Lucas: While we are in an atmosphere of
consensus, does anyone not support the tabling of written questions
during the summer recess?
34. For September. I am on the Modernisation
Committee and the Leader of the House in his consultative paper
has suggested that questions could and should be tabled in September.
(Mr Allen) Again I would offer the caveat of four
a day because otherwise busy researchers who are not on holiday
will be pumping out hundreds of questions during their spare vacation
weeks, which is an abuse of the system.
35. I think Mr Allen has made that point several
times now and perhaps referencing Mr Baker. In an earlier reply
you made the case about the virility symbol of the written question
and you made the point of rationing the number of written questions
people can put.
(Andrew Bennett) Yes.
(Norman Baker) Can I respond to that as my name has
been mentioned in that regard. I feel there are a number of weapons
which the Government has at its disposal, whatever Government
it happens to be. The number of levers it can pull is substantial
in number and this Government is particularly good at pulling
them and pulling them as far as they can go. The number of weapons
which Parliament has to deal with that at the present time is
limited in number and written questions is one of only a few weapons
which there are. I am not against in principle a system which
limits written questions, but I would be very loth to see one
of the few weapons we have got at the moment limited without seeing
limitation of the powers of the Executive before the written questions
are limited. That is the only caveat. It is very easy to say let
us limit written questions but if we do not see some limitation
of the Government's powers on the other side we end up castrating
the power of Parliament further.
36. I do not want to do that and I do not want
to castrate the Committee in taking evidence this afternoon. We
have gone on for an hour, it has been very productive, very constructive,
and very helpful. Clearly people do not want to stay all night.
Perhaps if colleagues can put questions succinctly and our witnesses
can answer them succinctly, we can go on for another 20 minutes
or so. Graham?
(Mr Allen) Very briefly to pick up Mr Luke's question
and really to respond to Mr Baker, rather than have a thousand
tiny pebbles I would rather have four rapiers, but it does really
depend absolutely upon the Speaker making sure that these are
rapiers and not these rubber swords that you get off the fairs
when you play those fairground games. Again it comes back to the
Speaker speaking for us and enforcing the will of Parliament.
I think these weapons would be even greater than the ones that
Mr Baker uses currently.
Chairman: The Speaker has very heavy responsibilities.
I wanted the job myself; I did not get it. I greatly respect the
job that the Speaker does. We have to be careful not to foist
too many additional difficult political duties on the Speaker
because otherwise it is possible that his political impartiality
may well be put in some difficulty. I do not want this Committee
to do that. I think you are quite right, the Speaker is here to
represent the interests of the whole House. David Hamilton?
37. That was a point I was going to come back
on. On several occasions you have mentioned the role of the Speaker
and how the Speaker can protect in many cases the House. Howeverand
it is quite a pertinent topic at the present timeif the
two main parties line up for different reasons against the Speaker,
that can create a longer-term problem and that is something which
when you speak about these things, I begin to wonder to myself
as an impartial and relatively new MP coming here what real power
does the Speaker have? Surely one of the issues that he or she
must have zealous regard to is how many times they make an intervention
because if you do it too often you blunt the blade of the rapier
you were talking about.
(Mr Allen) My response to that would be that the Speaker
must be totally impartial between parties in this House but can
be and must be (and historically has been) very partial in favour
of this House against the Executive. I do not wish our current
Speaker or future Speakers to lose their heads. It is a serious
point that many people who have sat in that chair have literally
lost their lives defending the rights of this House against the
Executive. I do not wish Speaker Martin to do that. Nonetheless,
as I think might have been indicated, almost accidentally, last
Wednesday, the Speaker can get into a position where he says,
"I am sorry but the House does not like either of you doing
this, that is not what this House is about."
38. There is a danger.
(Mr Allen) He is our Speaker; he speaks for us.
39. I can bring this part of our discussion
and questioning to an end because, if I am correct, and our Clerk
will advise me, this Committee has indicated that at some stage
it wishes to undertake an inquiry into the role, duties, functions,
and responsibilities of the Speaker of the House.
(Andrew Bennett) For balance, I think Graham has referred
to the ones who have lost their lives. You could make a longer
list of those who have chickened out. I think probably the Speaker
needs an advisory group to do some of the sanctioning, if you
are going do it, rather than the Speaker himself.