Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-52)



Ms Munn

  40. One of the things I find very frustrating about written questions and one of the reasons I would want to limit them is because of the amount of questions which are asked about information that is readily available elsewhere. I understood that they did not have to respond if that was the case. What would you do to stop Members doing that because it is just stupid?
  (Norman Baker) I certainly think that happens on occasion and there needs to be (I do not know how it can be done) a better database so that Members can either be encouraged to use it themselves or as a backstop the Table Office would recognise it. I do not know how practical that is but that is probably the backstop point where it should happen. Can I say on the issue of the number of questions, first of all, I do not think they are a virility symbol, that is an absurd way of looking at it. The fact of the matter and my assessment of the matter is that the number of questions which are being blocked, not by the Table Office I mean, but by Ministers when they give spurious answers, is on the increase—for reasons of commercial confidentiality, for reasons of alleged cost, because of internal cost, because they have invented new ways of doing things. For example, we used to be able to ask Ministers regularly about individual travel arrangements; now they publish a report once a year and will not answer anything until that report comes out. Part of the reason so many questions are asked is because Ministers do not answer them and part of the answer to this problem is ensuring that Ministers do answer questions. Supplementaries are required in order to force information out which should have been provided first time round.
  (Andrew Bennett) We have got to remember that the whole process ought to change whenever we get the Freedom of Information legislation implemented, so we ought to be able to get a lot more information. One of the things you ought to look at, and I do not know whether you are going to do so, is the people who prepare the answers, and they should come before you. I had a very odd experience when I was doing the frontbench job on education for the Labour Party in that quite often you put down a question and got a very unsatisfactory answer and the rule was supposed to be that if you were an Opposition spokesman, the people answering the questions tried to help at least in providing statistical information. Very often it was because you had made a mess of asking the question. I argued then that it would be very helpful if you could ring up the person who was likely to answer the question, usually in the Statistical Department, and discussed it. If you framed it in a particular way he could give you a useful answer which you could use politically and if you framed it it in a different way it was going to be very very difficult for him to answer without going to a lot of expense. For a very brief period of about two months I was allowed to talk to the individual who was answering the questions and then somebody else moved into that particular place and it was stopped. I think there should be much more opportunity for you to talk to the people who are going to answer the question and in many cases if you can talk to them you can hone the question in a much more effective way than if you go in and talk to the Clerks about it, who sometimes do do that process but only very occasionally. I think there should be much more dialogue between the people who are going to advise the Minister or answer the question and the questioners, in some areas.
  (Mr Boswell) Coming back on that, my experience in shadowing four government departments since 1997 is that there is a wide variation of practice within Parliamentary Clerks and those who prepare the answers to questions, and they are more or less helpful. I agree with Mr Bennett that it is beneficial to the process if they set out to be helpful. The only other caveat I wanted to enter is that I am leery about any statutory restrictions on the number of written questions. I think this probably has to be resolved as a matter the culture. There will be variations between individuals' assiduity and the way in which they frame questions and so forth. Sometimes they are a waste of time, if we are honest, but on the whole I think it is better for people to be able to get their questions out than to run the risk of being able to claim they have been victimised by the Executive let alone by the Speaker because they have been prohibited from questioning the Executive. So, on balance, the status quo in that respect.

Mr Joyce

  41. If I could say one thing and then ask a question about planted questions. On the virility symbol, it may be that you have not seen what goes on in Scotland, but I will tell you now the Scottish press run league tables and if Andrew Bennett did not ask many questions he would find himself on the front page of the tabloids saying "is this man the laziest MP in England?" and he would soon start asking questions. It is a virility symbol in Scotland and I suspect it may become that in England. If you do not like planted questions, and this applies to everyone because pretty much everybody said it, what can you do about it or is it just a virility symbol making a statement?
  (Andrew Bennett) There is no reason why you could not tell the press to get lost and to make it quite clear why you are telling them to get lost. I would have thought as soon as one or two Scottish Members actually had the courage to tell them they were making a stupid league table and started publishing the cost — There are one or two people who do cost the taxpayer a huge amount of money with the number of questions. I would have thought if you had side-by-side the number of questions and the cost, then public opinion might favour the people who ask a reasonable number of questions at a moderate cost.
  (Mr Allen) I have to admit I was the Norman Baker of my day —

Ms Munn

  42. I was going to point that out, Graham, but I refrained!
  (Mr Allen) In my second or third year in the House I was the most prolific questioner. That was partly because it was a way of tying up the Government by asking loads and loads of questions and also as a way of improving my general knowledge by finding out lots of things. I did not have the relationship and rapport with Ministers. I was a new Member and an Opposition Member and that is the best way to get answers from people and then follow it up with a letter. That is why I have come to the conclusion that, not least because of the things that Eric has mentioned, the press are on the look out for more and more ways of measuring Members of Parliament and this is one way to do it. If you have the four it allows you to not get involved in that league table and that bidding process. I have got to come back again to talk about the researchers. Some Members, who are totally disinterested in particular areas, produce the most questions in that area because the researchers feel obliged to pump out to show their boss that they are working by this sheaf of questions they can wave around as they go into the Tea Room.


  43. Are you saying therefore, Mr Allen, that the more the office cost allowance has been increased, the more questions are being tabled because people can afford to employ a researcher or research assistant?
  (Mr Allen) It is easier to abuse the system if you have got help but you can abuse it as an individual and one of the ways to make sure it is used sensibly is to limit the number of questions and make the currency more valuable so that your local press will be waiting for the answers to your four key questions. Looking at my colleague Mr Baker who, as I said, is a prolific questioner but a very pointed questioner, it is perfectly possible with 50 Liberal MPs to ask at least as many questions as Mr Baker has been asking on the key areas and also that broadens the campaign out if you get colleagues to help focus on a particular issue. It will avoid this scandalous abuse that is currently taking place of what should be a very valuable weapon.
  (Andrew Bennett) I do not think the problem is the individual Members' researchers. I do not think there is such a group but let us assume there is an All-Party Shoelace Lobbying Group. They set themselves up as an all-party group, they get an adviser to assist them, paid for by somebody, and that individual then has to impress whoever is paying them that they are doing a good job. They are the ones that work their way round and persuade Members of Parliament to put questions in. If you are pointing the finger at people who put too many questions in, it is quite a few of the people who help set up some of these all-party groups who are particularly to blame.

  Chairman: Mr Rendel, who because of very important business earlier was not able to turn up at the beginning, has been very, very disciplined in not intervening, but I know he wants to put one or two questions.

Mr Rendel

  44. I apologise that I was not here earlier and I hope I do not ask anything that has been asked earlier. Can I say in answer to Graham Allen, who was talking about briefing Ministers, there was a lovely occasion on which the briefing of Ministers was entirely wasted in my case when the whole briefing was leaked to me in advance and I was able to ask a supplementary question on which the Minister had not been briefed—very useful. It does not happen very often. The question I really wanted to ask about was oral questions. Very often I suspect people put in an initial oral question which is simply aimed at getting on to the subject you want to get on to so you can then ask a supplementary which is what you really wanted to ask. We would waste less time and perhaps be just as effective if instead of putting into the ballot an oral question we put into the ballot the subject. So for example on DETR you could say "train delays" or for health you could say "waiting lists" and leave it at that. Everybody would know roughly what your subject was. It could be 48 hours in advance, as has been suggested, but Ministers would then be forced to be properly briefed and you could complain if they were not. Other people would have a chance to know what subjects were coming up and therefore what supplementaries they might want to ask. You would have a chance possibly even to ask two questions, the first question in effect a supplementary on your subject and a further supplementary to ask as well. That would be much more useful instead of having to put down what is effectively a wasted first question.
  (Norman Baker) Good idea.
  (Mr Allen) Having been a Government Whip, one of the things that Ministers discuss at their weekly meetings is who is going to answer what question. My way around this difficulty of proposing an open question would have been that the questioner specifies the Minister because the Minister has a given brief which is in the public domain. Having listened to this debate and come here with an open mind, I think Mr Rendel's proposal to have a topic rather than a Minister is actually the more sensible.
  (Norman Baker) I agree.
  (Andrew Bennett) I have a slight reservation. What happens if I put in a word like "regulation"; does that count as a topic or is that more specific? Is it the Clerk's job to decide whether something is specific or is it entirely up to the Member to decide how specific they make their question?


  45. That is a matter we will have to look into and seek to find out the answer but I cannot give it to you from the chair. Oona?
  (Ms King) Broadly speaking, what you have proposed is a compromise between the areas we are looking for
  (Mr Boswell) I, too, am attracted. For fullness, I should make the point that as far as I know very few people table formal questions to the Prime Minister about his engagements on the day. It appears as a large "E" on the questions I table and that is accepted by the Table Office. We know it is an open question. I think there may be some difficulties but basically it is manageable. The only other comment I would make is it ought to be able to be open to Members to ask a question which relates to an over-arching concern they have about administrative problems or regulations, as my colleagues have said, which does not fit narrowly within the ministerial department. I think one should also make the point that Ministers in divvying up questions between themselves do try wherever possible to involve all the ministerial team or shadow ministerial team and sometimes that is not easy but you have to have a bit of vireing in order to make a reasonable presentation.

David Hamilton

  46. Could I make an observation before I ask a question. I have enjoyed this debate today. It is one of the most interesting debates I have taken part in because of the number of ideas that have come across. As one of the new members, you would not invent a place like this if you started from scratch and I have spent the last several months going from one place to another, not understanding what it is about, burning the midnight oil trying to work out it by the following day just to find out I was wrong in my assumption and therefore my conclusions are wrong. This is something that has been very worthwhile today and the number of answers that have come up has been very helpful. Again think back to the time when you first came here, how many Members do you think coming here understand the distinction between an ordinary written question and any other type of question put forward? One question I would like to ask is how you reprimand somebody. On several occasions you have said that if a Minister does not answer the question properly you go back to that Minister and action should be taken so he must answer the substantive question on that day. If he or she does not, what action are you going to take in relation to that? I suspect you will come back to the Speaker again but the Speaker by this time will be three feet under with the number of pressures put on him.
  (Mr Allen) I suspect if the Speaker makes one or two examples and makes it very clear that the House is behind the Speaker in what he is doing, on only one or two occasions would it be necessary. In terms of the distinction between oral and written questions, I believe that the induction and training has improved somewhat since I was a new Member but I think it is still not good enough. I went to the induction training for new Members this time round because I was a new backbencher. The last time I was a backbencher was 1989 so I had to relearn and I found it very difficult in certain areas to pick these things up, and I think perhaps the House authorities should look at a more comprehensive package and also in-service training for Members so that we are always up to speed with things that do change.

  47. Can I say that if it is a named day and written question and you get three boxes on the left-hand side and you are trying to follow through, do you genuinely think new Members coming in understand that?
  (Andrew Bennett) I do not think new Members understand a lot of those things and it is a question of learning, but I do not think you should set the system up just to make it easy for people when they come in. I think any place should have rules. The point I would make about the poor quality of the answers is that to a certain extent that is in your hands. It should not be appealing to the Speaker to come in as much but possibly the panel of people advising the Speaker. If you get a rotten answer in the Chamber and you really felt strongly about it, you walk would down and stand in front of the Mace until the Speaker asked you to withdraw. You will get enough publicity for that to make sure that someone is running round getting the proper answers to you.
  (Norman Baker) You cannot do it very often.
  (Mr Allen) Only once a day!


  48. I suspect that suggestion may be much canvassed now! Before the other witnesses answer, can I put a supplementary to what David Hamilton has said. Can I ask our witnesses whether they support the proposal from the Principal Clerk in the Table Office that named day questions—and we have referred to them—should be rationed (which has been the proposal of one or two of our witnesses) in return for additional opportunities for Members to pursue matters if Ministers fail to give a proper response on the named day, ie, there are other ways which will be drawn up which will perhaps persuade the Minister to give a proper answer by the named day?
  (Mr Boswell) Can I say first on your specific question, I strongly endorse that. I think the system is not working at the moment because Ministers do not always honour their obligation and they produce holding answers in something like 50 per cent of the cases in my experience. All right, perhaps we in turn use it to put pressure on Ministers when we should not do, but fewer, better targeted and better addressed questions should be the motto. Can I add a word on Mr Hamilton's earlier exchanges in relation to ministerial answers, putting it the other way round and looking at the Minister's end of it. I always used to get annoyed and still remain annoyed that Ministers and their Parliamentary Clerks and those who advise them are insufficiently sensitive to the different nature of oral questions. All right, we want a proper answer from Ministers but no oral answer should be more than about three sentences without hopelessly spinning out question time. Certainly, as a Minister myself, I always used to go down the Order Paper and work out roughly how many would be called for oral and try and give an oral answer and then anything over 20 I switched to written answer mode and answered appropriately. The habit of Ministers giving mini-statements in response to high questions on the Order Paper seems to me quite inappropriate.
  (Ms King) I do think that named day questions should be rationed but I also think written questions should be rationed and this entire debate comes back to what was mentioned earlier which is quality versus quantity and that is the decision that Members have to make. When you are a new MP (this partly relates to your question) you come to Westminster and it is like your eyes adjusting to the dark to try and work out how the procedure functions, and quite often you just think it is the blind leading the blind. I think that a critical factor that has been raised is training. Mr Winterton, you are absolutely right to direct me towards the nice leaflet that no doubt would have explained everything to me. The fact is that MPs of all people have "paper-itis". We are overrun with the stuff and we need proper induction training sections. I know the 1997 lot did not have that. We were given the paper basically and tonnes of it and videos, but I think we need more training and we need continual training. The very last thing I would like to say is to apologise to everyone here, the emergency was for me and I have to be admitted to hospital immediately. I apologise, I would never leave a select committee under other circumstances.

  Chairman: Can I say to you that your position is fully understood by me. I think you have behaved in an impeccable way and the Committee has no criticism of you at you all; we fully understand.
Mr Luke

  49. This will be a very short question. We have talked about contemporary questions and that is the term used in a lot of areas. Graham mentioned this Kilroy Silk situation. Would it not be better instead of having that kind of discussion, to have maybe a session in the morning of half an hour of contemporary questions raised contemporarily from the day before and answered by Government Ministers in response to the issues that have been affecting constituency issues.
  (Mr Allen) I think that is an excellent idea. It would also bring the TV viewer, the elector, back into communication with the House of Commons because people would look at that rather than the Today programme or Newsnight. In one way you get a feeling for that through business questions where you get one person speaking for the Government who perhaps could bring in Ministers. If you could do that on a regular policy-orientated basis, again it may not be as formal and ritualistic as we are used to but I think it would start to reconnect with people. One of the things I do want to put on the record is my very deep concern that not just that Parliament is held in contempt but that we contribute to the way people view politics. It is our responsibility, when we have appallingly low turn-outs and ever lower turn-outs, to try and do something so people can say, "That is my Parliament and they are being relevant to the issues that concern me and my family."


  50. Following up Mr Luke's questions, do you think business questions is one of the most productive hours during the week when the Leader of the House and the President of the Council comes and deals with a whole range of questions right across the board and a Member of Parliament (as long as it does not go on much longer than an hour) is guaranteed to get in to raise a matter which he or she considers to be of key importance?
  (Mr Allen) They are a conversation and they are open questions; you do not have to give notice about them. Equally, we are taking this further, if I may say so, because I think the inference is that there would be a conversation, not just "this is my question. this is your answer, can I come back on that", and a dialogue like that, which would be respected, provided it is managed properly by Deputy Speakers such as yourself who can maintain that atmosphere and the fact that this question of culture, and would be a tremendous step forward.
  (Mr Boswell) I would echo a lot of that. We do tend to forget just how odd it is to talk in sound bites and to always be falling out with one another. In no sense do we want to take off the table serious issues of political dissent and dialogue, of course not, but I think anything which can be shown, as it were, to show us conversationally engaging on issues in the way that real people do outside this place, and to have shades of view and to be able to join in the argument and discussion with related (but not necessarily opposing) perspectives is a good one, provided that is not all of it and we are talking about an addition to what goes on rather than a replacement for it. I personally have come on the whole to like Westminster Hall as a venue. Of course there are still some formal elements of that and I am not sure I would want to remove them but it does enable the Members from different parties to engage on a common topic of interest and usually doing it in a way in which most people participating in it would regard as somewhat more constructive than some of the other exchanges we have. Given that we have got a problem with the public image of politicians and its acceptability to the electorate, we had better start thinking about ways in which we can vary the mixture and occasionally show them as they themselves discuss these sorts of issues.
  (Norman Baker) Business questions I have always regarded as a sort of flip-side of Prime Minister's Question Time when people can raise questions on any subject. The present Leader of the House handles them with consummate skill although he does not necessarily give very many answers. And he cannot; it is a huge range of topics, but it does act as a useful sounding board for Members of Parliament. If there are three or four people saying, "Why has Lord Birt not been made more accountable?" then hopefully someone will notice. Of course, nothing actually happens to Lord Birt so perhaps the effect of the sounding board is that it does not necessarily translate into changes in the way the Government reacts. That is the point I want to finish on. I think it is very useful you having this inquiry but the objective from my point of view must be to strengthen the hand of Parliament against the Executive. That has got to be the outcome because in this arrangement we have in the House of Commons and Parliament, we are in a weaker position in Parliament against the Executive than is the case with many modern democracies elsewhere in the world. The Government has more levers and can pull them further and we in Parliament as ordinary Members of Parliament have fewer levers and we cannot pull them very far at all. Therefore any changes that are made should not only seek to modernise the system and make it more realistic for people who happen to be watching or wanting to participate in some sort of way (and Graham's idea about that is worth considering certainly) it should also crucially make the Executive more accountable and force them to disclose more information which presently they are able to withhold. That for me will be the test of whether or not your recommendations and the recommendations of the Public Administration Committee deliver the changes we need for this century.

  51. I am not sure that I can give you any reassurance, Mr Baker, but this Procedure Committee is a Committee of the House. We are here representing the interests of the House. The House needs to hold the Government of the day, from whichever party it may come, properly to account and to scrutinise its policies and administration and this Committee is here to facilitate that. I hope that is some reassurance. The final word will lie with Andrew Bennett.
  (Andrew Bennett) If you are going to have a new system of questioning it has to be to Cabinet Ministers and it should not be to junior Ministers. I also think you should remember that in a way Question Time should be the tip of the iceberg and it is the things that go on behind. One of the nice things about business questions is the briefing process that the Leader of the House has to go through in that he has to get information in from all sorts of departments so he can answer those questions. It is important we see the process as not us and them, us against the Executive, but the Executive responding to the agenda which is set by Parliament, and on a lot of occasions the Executive ought to take action because they are suddenly told there is a problem by Members of Parliament and it is drawn to their attention when the Civil Service may not have drawn it to their attention.

  52. The final word was not with you Andrew; Graham, once again.
  (Andrew Bennett) The final word will be with you!
  (Mr Allen) To respond to Mr Luke's question, there is certainly one Minister who is doing a surgery for Members of Parliament, the Minister who deals with immigration cases, and it is open to all colleagues. We are almost there in a sense. You could have a Minister each day doing this conversation on the floor. It need not be the Leader of the House. As a final word, Chairman, whatever we each Member of Parliament is prepared to do with the BBC, we should at least be prepared to do in our own Parliament.

  Chairman: Can I thank our witnesses including Oona King who necessarily has had to go. I fully understand her position and I think she has been very helpful to us staying as long as she has and coming back when she had to go and make a very urgent telephone call. To my colleagues on the Committee can I thank them for their stamina. I believe, and I hope our witnesses will agree as well, that it has been a very constructive, very full discussion of issues that are of vital importance to Parliament if we are to do our job. On behalf of the Committee, can I thank all of those who have come—Tim Boswell, Oona King in her absence, Andrew Bennett, Norman Baker and Graham Allen. Thank you very much indeed. I am very grateful to you. If the second session we are having with colleagues is as productive as this it really will have been very worthwhile.

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