Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 53 - 59)




  53. Can I welcome our colleagues who are witnesses today as part of our inquiry into the whole matter of Parliamentary Questions? I welcome the Father of the House, Tam Dalyell, Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, another very senior Labour Member of Parliament and also chairman of a select committee, Lawrie Quinn, Mark Prisk and John Taylor. I hope that you will assist us to the very best of your ability with our inquiry into this very important, topical matter of Parliamentary Questions. I intend to put the first question from the Chair and I address it to all witnesses. I will start with the Father of the House. Could you say a few words each about how you use the current question system here in the House of Commons? What do you find valuable and what works less well? Do you think the question system needs major change or just some fine tuning?

  (Mr Dalyell) There is one major change that should be made to closed Prime Minister's Questions and it is a reversion. That is that the open question to the Prime Minister leads to the demeaning of Parliament and a yah-boo situation which creates a completely wrong impression of the House of Commons. I would go back to the precise question so that it can be followed up. If the leader of the Opposition wants to take time, as he is entitled to do, he should put down a private Member's question, as Hugh Gaitskill did, at the end of Prime Minister's Questions.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) I would not disagree with that, although I do remember the time when Prime Ministers used that ploy in order to move on any delicate question because they were able to say, "That is a matter for the minister concerned" and they then referred it on. I accept what Tam says but the trouble is that now Prime Minister's Questions have become so debased in the sense that they no longer refer to specific subjects or even to the day to day matter of political debate that I think it will be very difficult to find a system that gives you enough meat in Prime Minister's Questions without making them so precise that they can be referred to another department.
  (Mr Dalyell) There is something very fundamental here. It gives the Prime Minister a wonderful opportunity to meddle in every government department because, of course, a Prime Minister can say, "Some awkward MP might ask me this, that or the other. I must have a full briefing from the department." That means that the department and the Cabinet Minister involved are belittled in relation to Downing Street. As one who believes in Cabinet government and not Prime Ministerial government, I think this system is very damaging.

  54. Do you think that the bear pit, the political point scoring, enhances the image of the House, Gwyneth?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) As you know, there are always going to be some very vigorous exchanges and it would not be the House of Commons if there were not. There is only one thing worse than the bear pit and that is the death of the mortuary. Frankly, I think Prime Minister's Questions now seem to have lost their way a little. The Prime Minister, for example, poses questions to the leader of the Opposition which I find mildly odd and Members of Parliament just use it not to get answers either from the Prime Minister or the Cabinet's policies. They seem to regard it as a means of propaganda for a particular political viewpoint. We are all governed by our own political parties but it should be something more targeted, more intelligent, and it certainly should be more illustrative than it is at the present time. I wanted to answer the question which you put to me. I believe that questions in the House of Commons are one of the most important facilities and certainly one of the most important rights that we have. The use of written questions can be not only fundamental but it can transform a particular subject because constant and judicious questioning of a minister can produce enough information that the individual Member can build a case that gives much more of an insight into what is happening. That takes work, homework and constant application. Oral questions are different. Oral questions are normally the opportunity for a bravura performance from whoever happens to have the luck to come out in the ballot but they are nevertheless extremely important and I think the House of Commons does best when it tailors its questions to the subject matter. That may seem such an obvious statement as to be embarrassingly plain, but the reality is that we have gone away from that slightly. Now, in the sessions of oral questions, there are far more party political points rather than ministerial points. Ministers are there to answer questions about their responsibility. Members of Parliament are there to question Ministers about what is going on. The question system properly used is one of the most important pieces of policy making that members have but it requires a two way involvement and that means that Members must not take from either their front bench or from the whips a prepared question of astonishing inanity. They must use what few grey cells they have been given to formulate a question that relates to something that is of concern to their constituency or something that is of concern to them in the work of the department. They must follow that up. I have at various points been able, as a front bencher and as a back bencher, to obtain really important information. If there is one aspect of the change that I think is very bad, it seems to me in recent years, departments have been much more anxious to avoid answering questions. As a Minister, I made it very plain to the Civil Service I would never answer a question with the one word "no". I would avoid trying to give an answer which implied that it was only by putting the information in the library that I could answer the Member of Parliament. I think those are both bad developments.

  55. Do you think that the Member with the question on the order paper that comes out of the ballot and is reached should have the opportunity of a second supplementary, whether at the end of an exchange or immediately after their first supplementary?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) I think that would establish a very interesting precedent. We would probably only ever get to question three. No. You have to ask a short, sharp supplementary and what we perhaps ought to do is organise—

  56. If the minister does not answer the question but says something else avoiding the question, is there a reason then to say that the Speaker might use his or her discretion to allow a second supplementary?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) It is very tempting and all of us who think we know all the answers would love to be able to do that, but the reality is if you ask a targeted question that produces a non answer and the 650 other Members sitting there do not have the wit to pick up the subject matter, then possibly we are all in the wrong place.
  (Lawrie Quinn) In terms of my use of questions, I would tend to use them almost as a last line of resort in terms of a line of correspondence or lobbying or trying to talk to members of the Executive in the tea room about a particular issue. Having had the experience unfortunately, like a lot of Members, of foot and mouth within my constituency, I have built up quite a backlog of correspondence with DEFRA, formerly MAFF. That would be the type of line of questioning I would go for. Equally, where there is a specialist interest within my constituency, I look at Sir Robert Smith and immediately know that he would be sympathetic to the line of questioning that I try to pursue in terms of the fishing industry because quite often it is the case that the fishing industry does not get time on the floor of the House to debate these very important matters. I take a fairly parochial line in terms of where I would lead my questions. You asked us if we could comment on the worst aspects of the system. I think the whole sense of chance and the fact that you are in a ballot and you can wait sometimes for weeks before your name pops out of the hat in terms of giving you an opportunity to ask a question. The other thing that really frustrates me is when I have been to the Table Office, tabled a question, it has been accepted for a particular department and then I find it gets redirected somehow, mysteriously, to a different department when I am the person who is trying to frame the question to a particular branch of the Executive and somehow someone else is deciding that it is the wrong question asked to the wrong minister. Presumably, that should be the property of myself in terms of the Member asking the question. I would hope out of today's exercise and the deliberations of the Committee that we could look to using other techniques and methods to improve the opportunities for scrutiny of the Executive because I feel sometimes, having entered in 1997, that the system is very slow. It is sometimes not accountable and in terms of audit trails, if questions are "lost", for example, before I came here I was looking at a press release from the Department of Health, issued today, on this very subject, "Departmental Investigation into Delays in Handling Outstanding Parliamentary Questions". I think it would be quite useful to the Committee to take a look at this and investigate further the loss of a considerable number of questions because of a clerical mistake or someone being ill. The fact that the system has taken so long to throw up the issue of questions being lost does not do Parliament any credit. I would have thought we should have had an auditable system so that questions could be kept track of so that it is not really left to the particular member to try to continually return and harry the department or the Table Office to produce the answer, whatever it might be. I feel quite frustrated about this and I think there is some merit in looking at the electronic possibilities of tabling and handling questions and generally processing questions within Parliament.

  57. If you could let us have that information, we would be very grateful.
  (Mr Prisk) Could I preface my remarks by supporting what has been said earlier about Prime Minister's Questions? It has become something that is more to do with generating heat than light now. It is in danger of becoming part of the entertainment industry and not about providing information. As the newest Member in this particular gathering, I see that as being something that undermines the very nature of what we are here to do. In terms of what I use questions for, oral questions are about making a point as much as finding out information—partly, the nature of the system, but that is something that needs to be borne in mind. In terms of written questions, I use them personally to pursue areas of interest to myself. For example, I take a close interest in how government understands, and very often does not understand, what happens to small businesses, the burden of regulation and so on, as well as the practical implications of new measures and how they work for the self-employed. Therefore, I tend to pursue that, probably to the tedium and disappointment of Ministers, but I think it is a very important point. The point Mrs Dunwoody made, that one can get under the skin of issues and pursue and build up a case, is very important. I would certainly reiterate that. In terms of what would I change, I think the quality and the speed with which answers are provided by Ministers is at best acceptable; at worst a joke. Some of the named day questions have become beyond the pale. I will give a brief example. I submitted a named day question for 19 October. Fifteen weeks later I received an answer from the Cabinet Office.

  58. Can I ask whether there was very good reason for naming the day? Did you do it because you wanted the reply on that day or was it just because you said, "I will have a named day question on this occasion"? Was it done for a specific, urgent purpose or was it an abuse, as I might put it, of the named day procedure?
  (Mr Prisk) No. I only use named day when I really need the information on that day. You are right. It should not be abused. If one could have a system whereby one caps the number of named day questions in return for making sure that Ministers do answer, I do not see why some form of sanction cannot be brought to bear for repeat offenders.
  (Mr Taylor) Picking up the thread left there by my colleague, I no longer use the named day technique. It is seldom necessary; I seldom have that degree of urgency, though I share what colleagues have said that some questions are lamentably slow coming through. Starting from the assumption that the minister might be cooperative, my experience is that if the named day is a very tight one you will get a vaguer answer or even a holding answer so I do not use the technique. I let the reply come through. I often let the clerks in the Table Office pencil in the date for me. I must address your questions, Mr Winterton. I am possibly, with a small `c' the most conservative member of this panel which has the privilege of being before you this afternoon, because I am not really in favour of any major change. I would like to see the system work better, but I am not sure that there is much in the structure, the rules or the given body of information in Erskine May that I would change. What I am most unhappy about is the sheer tedium of oral questions these days. I am sure it has deteriorated in the 19 years that I have been in this House. It seems increasingly that we do not get beyond question ten. I am quite sure that as a younger man I can remember us in an hour getting to question 20 and even beyond. Not only are the questions long but the Ministers' replies are long and this is a besetting sin. It shows a lack of discipline and a lack of commitment on the part of the Member who is framing the question, who really should have thought about the question, how to get it tight and concise. A minister, if he knows his subject, will answer promptly and succinctly, exhibiting a willingness to be exposed to more questions later on. We do not get far down the order paper. I have a happier view of written questions. I have become more of a fan of written questions, not least in addressing constituency problems, and I will often have a discussion with a constituent who has raised a problem with me as to whether that constituent would like me to write to the minister on the constituent's behalf or whether the constituent would favour my putting down a written question for the constituent. We then have a gentle conversation on the telephone as to the constituent asking me which I think is more effective. Given my experience of having to wait for ministerial letters from time to time, the written question is the better method compared with the letter to the minister, unless you have a lot of background correspondence that you wish to invite the department to read, in which case it has to be a letter. There is a great deal of variation in the amount of time taken by Ministers to reply. I had a very prompt one not very long ago from Clare Short, to give her her due. If this Committee wanted to compile evidence as to some really late replies, I and many other people could let you have it. Once upon a time, I was a junior minister to the Lord Chancellor and that was a very interesting experience for me because, in my very much more junior way, I was exposed for 15 minutes, all on my own, in the House of Commons at the despatch box answering questions. Admittedly, it was only in the field of one department; it was not like the Prime Minister having to answer questions for 15 minutes, but it was an identical length of time and I too was on my own. There was nothing easier to answer from the government despatch box than a really long question. You have all the time in the world to think about it and my opposite number, who I will not name, often used to fire at me a question with eight bits in it. I could think about it whilst he was working his way towards a conclusion, choose the three I wanted and deal with them with as much elegance and panache as I could. His opportunity had gone. He could not return to the other five, even if I had remembered what they were. Short questions can be hair raising at the despatch box. The Father of the House is very good at this. The sort of question that was really difficult at the Lord Chancellor's Department was, "Why have you cut legal aid?" That is tough. You have to keep yourself together and focused to deal with a question like that. If it goes on, "And another thing and whilst he is about it what about so and so?" that is easy. It is no test of a minister at all. In conclusion, I find the Table Office extremely professional, very helpful and very courteous. I cannot speak highly enough of the Table Office. Furthermore, they possess a sense of humour. It makes going to the Table Office a very agreeable experience and furthermore let me show you how I am the reactionary on this panel. I believe that Members of Parliament should go to the Table Office by themselves with their own questions and lodge those questions having discussed them with the clerk. I do not wish to see research assistants tabling questions. It should be the Member and the Table Office and that should be a privy relationship.

  59. Electronic tabling of Questions and Motions?
  (Mr Taylor) No. I would make an exception for a faxed question covered by one or two telephone calls. Suppose I had to go back to my constituency and a very important question arose concerning the future of Land Rover in Solihull which you know would be important to me. If I wanted to write out a Parliamentary Question in my office in Solihull, ring the Table Office and say, "This is John Taylor; any identity you want I can give you. I want to table a Question which I would like putting down before close of business of the day. I am going to put it in the fax machine now. It bears my signature", I would send it and I would possibly ring again and say, "Have you received it? Is it in order? Does it need a bit of tweaking?" I would allow an exception for that but I am not ready to e-mail the Table Office. I think it will come but I think we are going to have to get around electronic signatures first and I am not sure whether we have all quite got there yet.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) I am second to none in my admiration for the Table Office and the only time that I ever respond is when they correct my English.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 15 April 2002