Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 120)




  100. Are you referring to that?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) I think that has something to do with it, yes, Chairman.

Mr Burnett

  101. Do you agree with the Father of the House on the closed questions?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) I think if you want the Prime Minister to answer very specific questions that is the only way to do it but then you have to have, also, an unwritten agreement that the Prime Minister will not choose to transfer everything that mentions any kind of policy because that has happened in the past. We moved towards the present system under Harold Wilson because previous Prime Ministers whenever there was anything in the question that could be said to be the responsibility of a particular department simply transferred the question. I think we really should have specific questions. I think the Prime Minister should answer because nowadays Number 10 has a completely different attitude, both towards Cabinet Government and very specifically towards policy making, which is what we are talking about and what we ought to be questioning him on. I think if you could do that you would have to have the agreement of the Executive to play by that set of rules because, frankly, there is no point if we are playing cricket and they are playing rugby.


  102. Do you think the current form of Prime Minister's Questions is inadequate, abused, inadequate?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) We need something between the open question that we have got at the present time and the question that has sufficient real content to it to make sure the Prime Minister is guided into a particular area of policy without giving him an excuse to shuffle it off on to someone else.
  (Mr Dalyell) There is another dimension to this. Blair, when did he last make a proper speech to the House of Commons? For heaven's sake, Harold Wilson every three weeks would make a 40 minute speech and take interruptions. This was actually quite an effective form of scrutiny, and Ted Heath the same. Now it began with Mrs Thatcher and Prime Ministers now do not make proper speeches to the House of Commons. Of course, if you make a 45 minute speech then you are open to the kind of scrutiny that is not possible at the moment.

  103. So how would you deal with the Parliamentary Question, open as against closed or closed as against open? Mrs Dunwoody has indicated that a halfway house might be achieved, do you agree?
  (Mr Dalyell) No, I would go back wholly to the closed question. The open question is an abomination, full stop.

  104. Are you saying, therefore, that the Prime Minister should not deal with any matter that a constituent MP would wish to raise on the health service or on education?
  (Mr Dalyell) Yes. That would be a matter for the Secretary of State for Education.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) There you have lost me.

Mr Burnett

  105. Could I hear the views of the other Members? I am very keen to hear them and I would ask them to take on the point I was getting to as well which my Chairman has just said, the halfway house, what I would call, picking up Gwyneth Dunwoody's expression, a specific question, the halfway house?
  (Mr Prisk) I would actually go for a halfway house in the sense that I think we should go in for a ballot but we should be able to put in the problem with drugs or what is happening in the Health Service or whatever and the topic is the Health Service. There would be two questions then that any individual Member would be able to submit. I would take that approach. However, I would wish to reinforce Prime Minister's Questions with seeing the Prime Minister come before a Committee, we would have to decide which one was the right one and so on, of the House generally. I would love to go back to the days of Cabinet Government, and I entirely understand what Mr Dalyell is saying. I share the feeling that we are essentially developing a presidency with all the ills that will create. The reality is that a Parliament must match the shape and form of whatever the Government is. If it is the Government's choosing to have more Ministers in the Cabinet Office than there are in the Ministry of Defence, which is the case at the moment, then I think we have to respond to that because in order to be in order we need to make sure in questioning and in holding Ministers to account that we are able to do that. Therefore, I think we have got to respond to the shape the Government chooses.
  (Mr Taylor) I would like to think that conceptually there is a halfway house. I cannot prescribe it or give you a formula now but I do not go all the way with the Father of the House in as much as he suggested that if the question was about education then it would be transferred sideways. I think it depends on the nature of the question about education. Quite clearly "why is the Government closing five primary schools in Warwickshire" is not a matter for the Prime Minister, but conceivably, and I am having to roll my own as I go along here, "does his Government intend to introduce a new structure for the supervision of universities in this country?", it might well be that a Prime Minister would wish to comment on that. Harold Wilson, after all, claimed that his greatest achievement was the introduction of the Open University, and that is quite a handsome thing to be able to say by the way. Clearly at that stage Harold Wilson regarded the Open University as something within his purview as a Prime Minister, but closing primary schools in Warwickshire emphatically would not be. If you ask where the dividing line is I draw down on something that Gwyneth said earlier this afternoon. In a sense you may not need a clear line on the ground on the basis that you can recognise it when you see it. You can recognise whether it is strategic or tactical. I think if we could work a convention with the agreement of the Prime Minister, and that has been mentioned more than once, that he would take a range of—we are getting towards a term of art here—specific questions as distinct from open or closed ones. We may have invented a phrase, or maybe this Committee invented it already. I think there is a halfway house conceptually. I cannot design it for you but I would be happier with that than today's wall to wall regime of open questions.
  (Lawrie Quinn) The difficulty I have got with that type of approach is the fact it closes it off for other people in the Chamber perhaps to come in and enter into the debate if it is quite specific. I have seen the mistake made many times where there has been a closed question and someone has stood up because they have got into the particular pattern of questioning. I actually feel that when you are in a debating forum there should be a possibility of everybody being able to participate in that debate.

  106. This is the Prime Minister's Questions?
  (Lawrie Quinn) The Prime Minister's Questions, which is generally what we are talking about.


  107. If it was strategic specific as against individual specific, would that be a—
  (Lawrie Quinn) That would be easier. I wanted to make the point that the areas of questioning that I have actually found most useful personally, and I know Mr Winterton has chaired some of the European Scrutiny Committees that I have sat on and perhaps Mrs Dunwoody has as well, are question time when you come back and you can follow a line of questioning. I find that very, very useful. It is far more forensic. It is maybe a cross between what a Select Committee would be doing and the type of work that can be done on the floor of the House. I am in a difficulty as to how you would be able to construct that in a relatively short time frame. Perhaps what I am suggesting is maybe we should see more Secretaries of State, the Prime Minister, key members of the Executive, coming through and sitting in front of the type of forum that we see in terms of some of these European Scrutiny Committees, which I think could be improved, but it is certainly more useful to me as a Member of Parliament to come back forensically and really nail the Minister because they have not got time to get the response from the—

  108. That is why I said earlier would it be at the discretion of Madam Speaker or Mr Speaker if the Speaker could call the questioner a second time? I am not saying it would go on indefinitely but, as Mr Dalyell has said, that has happened in the past, the Speaker has asked a backbench questioner to put a second or a third question. That might then force the Minister, the Prime Minister, to deal with the very question which is the basis of that specific question on the Order Paper.
  (Lawrie Quinn) The only difficulty I have got with that is the Chairman cannot put themselves into the mind of the questioner. The questioner might be satisfied that the line of questioning has come to an end or might need to think about it a bit more to develop the next question. All I am about is trying to give that opportunity for the questioning to take place.

  109. To sum this up, before you finish, it could be that the Speaker would not necessarily call that questioner for a second supplementary until the exchange had come to an end but the person who put the original question and had a supplementary might have the last word with the Minister before the House moved on to another question.
  (Lawrie Quinn) That approach appeals to me.
  (Mr Taylor) I can see the virtue in this line of recommendation but I would caution you that there is a serious problem which is that it effectively invests in the Chair, the Speaker, a subjective decision as to the adequacy of an answer and I am not sure that the Chair would be willing to have that burden placed upon him or her.
  (Lawrie Quinn) Agreed.
  (Mr Taylor) In short, I like the idea but I can see a problem. One man's adequate answer is another man's inadequate answer.

  Sir Robert Smith: What Mr Quinn has raised brings back self-discipline and a bit of what Gwyneth was saying about what is in the Other Place. These European Committees do exist and from our joint experiences of being on them they put the Minister far more on the spot than any other forum, yet most Members of this House choose not to use them. Therefore, do the Members of this House want something different from what is available? We can see how useful they are but we have not got that across to the wider—

  Chairman: To help our witnesses here to deal with the question, the problem is that is exclusive to European issues rather than matters of a broader national type.

Sir Robert Smith

  110. But there are forums, take fishing for example, in which something affecting a lot of constituents that is very topical is taken in the European Committee and people on the floor of the House complain that it is there and do not realise that they could have been there and taken part in it.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) With respect, forgive me, this is partly because Members of Parliament do not know what powers they have got. If there has been one change in my lifetime here it is rather sad in as much as we are getting more and more like the European Parliament. We have two lines of tack at the moment: we demand more and more powers and we use the ones that we have got less and less. If we could get through to Members of Parliament that there is a really truly original document called Standing Orders which might cast a little light upon what they are able to do, this might transform a great many. I am very disappointed that the power that the European Scrutiny Committees possess to force a Minister to answer on a limited subject for 60 minutes, a power which is open to any Member of Parliament, is not used more often. Indeed, recently I took part on a Committee on the European Arrest Warrant because I had seen it on the Order Paper, because I felt very strongly about it, and I arrived and took part in the Committee. I have to say I was not greeted with entire unalloyed joy either by the Minister or the person in the Chair but that is the burden of my life with which I have to contend. It is a power that we ought to use more often.


  111. I am hoping to finish within about five minutes because I know another colleague has got to go and I think it is discourteous to our witnesses if there are more witnesses than there are Members of the Committee.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) We might take the decisions too, Chairman.

  Chairman: We will have John and then I want to finish off with one from Desmond.

  Mr Swayne: No, thank you.

  Chairman: He is very happy with the responses we have had from our witnesses. John?

  Mr Burnett: Perhaps it is a bit late in the day to raise these points but one or two of the things which really infuriate me is when Ministers hide behind expressions like "commercial confidentiality" and the sub judice rule. Now going on to commercial confidentiality, do you as witnesses agree, for example, with me that once contracts have been exchanged there is no reason why—say with a shipbuilding contract—the full details of a contract of that nature cannot be put in the public domain?


  112. Could be a straight forward answer yes or no?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) Yes.

  113. Yes?
  (Mr Dalyell) No, because of legal proceedings. I think you get into a legal quagmire on this.

Mr Burnett

  114. That is not a good enough answer, with respect.
  (Lawrie Quinn) What I would say is there are ways and means and having worked in the construction industry previously, and been involved in tender processes, there are ways and means of presenting the information in such a way that you would not breach that confidential aspect and leave yourself open. With that said, I think you can provide that information.

  115. It should be provided?
  (Lawrie Quinn) It should be provided but in a safe way so you are not leaving yourself open to a future action against you.
  (Mr Taylor) Chairman, I think Mr Burnett is right in his suspicion that the machine hides behind commercial confidentiality from time to time, not consistently and on a gross scale but from time to time it is convenient. The sub judice rule I think is better known and better understood and I think that is not abused. I do not think—I may be wrong—that the machine of Government hides behind sub judice, I do think it does from time to time behind commercial confidentiality.
  (Mr Prisk) I share Mr Quinn's reaction. I think it should be open in an appropriate form.


  116. Tam, do you want to come back on this?
  (Mr Dalyell) I have a current problem with sub judice and it is in relation to Lockerbie. Now there is an enormous amount of press comment, any question on Lockerbie has been vigorously ruled out of order to such an extent that even there was an argument about whether the Table Office should take off a question that was at number 13 to the Prime Minister, when he would reply to Mr Martin Cadman because he was a Lockerbie relative. They actually wanted to take it off and gave me the benefit of the doubt. This is a very difficult question on sub judice because the press flout sub judice and Parliament does not.

Mr Burnett

  117. One other point, quangos, getting at quangos. Should every quango have a responsible Minister?
  (Lawrie Quinn) Yes.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) They have. It is up to Select Committees who are responsible for particular departments. Really it is entirely a matter for the Chairmen of Select Committees. They should insist that quangos are brought before the relevant Select Committee. There is nothing to stop them doing that now, sensible Select Committees already do it and you ought to get some interesting answers.

  118. What about Parliamentary Questions relating to aspects of the District Auditor?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) If a Minister has responsibility for a department and a one step agency or what you call a quango, however you define that, a Minister should answer on whatever happens in that department. If there are difficulties, as there were recently with our Committee when we discovered something in relation to the Highways Agency where we had to question Ministers for a considerable length of time before we got straight forward answers, then that is up to the Committee to respond to that challenge and make sure they use the existing machinery.


  119. Tam?
  (Mr Dalyell) My wife, I had better confess, is a quango Chairman. This is actually now in relation to the Scottish Parliament. Quangos often, I will not say always, rather like people taking an interest in their work because if an interest is taken they are more likely to get money out of the departments.

  Chairman: Can I just say, again, because of the evidence that has been given, particularly by Mrs Dunwoody, the Liaison Committee of this House and the Procedure Committee of this House has taken a very active interest in this area and the Modernisation Committee, particularly laying down core objectives and responsibilities and the quangos to which John Burnett has referred feature very much in the responsibilities of individual Select Committees. So I hope that is noted by Members of this Committee, let alone our witnesses. Unless Desmond Swayne would like to come in?

  Mr Swayne: No.


  120. Can I thank all our witnesses not only for their stamina and for their patience but I believe that you have all added tremendously to the information and evidence that we are taking. Can I thank the Father of the House, Tam Dalyell, Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr Lawrie Quinn, Mr Mark Prisk and Mr John Taylor for their fortitude and the excellent information they have given to us this afternoon. We are very grateful.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) Thanks to the Chair.

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