Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



David Hamilton

  140. I have to say in response to that last answer that that is an extremely important point. It came up in the previous evidence we have had that there is a big issue here and it is one which the major political parties have now taken on board. An answer you gave to my previous question indicates quite clearly, as I am beginning to think, that the supplementary question is more important than the original question. Trying to second-guess what the supplementary question is I think is a waste of time because sophisticated MPs—and there might be some about—might be able to ask a question and second-guess the minister anyway. You then get this sort of chequers game where you are trying to double-guess each other. That being the case, what would be the implications to the Civil Service of the principle of open questions being extended to Prime Minister's question time were to be put across departments?
  (Mr Mackenzie) I think that the nature of departmental questions is different from Prime Minister's Questions. The nature and depth of answer that you get in departmental question time is significantly different from Prime Ministerial Question Time. Without wishing to impinge on areas which are for Members, the purpose to which Members put Prime Minister's Questions is different from the one which they use for departmental questions. Departmental question time is easier for the department because of the focus of issues to produce useful answers for and more researched and more detailed answers to take account of the Member's interests. If you were to move to a Prime Minister's Question Time model for individual departments you might find that the minister was given almost a standing briefing and the quality and depth of research which focuses on individual questions would be lost, because in order to cover the complete range of open questions the resources would have to go into covering the range of questions rather than the depth which you would probably get in more detail now.

  David Hamilton: You have already accepted by your previous answers that in many cases it is the supplementary which is the real question. The experience I have had is that it is always the supplementary that is the real question and therefore the question that is being raised in the first part is not that relevant to what the supplementary is going to be anyway. Would you not think in this day and age that if the minister does not know the answer it might be quite nice now and again if he could say, "I do not know the answer to that but I will answer it in writing".

  Chairman: Mr Mackenzie—difficult one, but I am sure you can bat it.

David Hamilton

  141. He is Scottish. He does not understand cricket.
  (Mr Mackenzie) At the risk of scoring a cheap point, we lasted longer in the last World Cup than the English did. The supplementary questions are the important part very often of what Members think. However, because of the more focused nature of a departmental issue it is not so much that it is easy but there is also the fact that you have got the hook of the original question and there are parliamentary rules. If you ask about staffing in health as far as I know the rules will prevent the Member from then going on to ask why they have used a particular finance structure for building the hospital, because you are actually looking at the staffing. It is general but it is more focused. If you ask the Prime Minister whether he is going to be visiting his constituency at a particular time then you can ask about anything. We represent civil servants and it is our interest to look after their position. I would not want to be a civil servant responsible for the policy area in which a minister had to stand up in oral questions and admit that he or she was not briefed on that particular question. The duty of civil servants to ministers is that we have to prepare for them to deal with parliamentary questions. For a minister to stand up and say, "I do not know the answer" is commendable honesty but there is a department behind that minister which is briefing him and in doing my professional job I have to make sure that if there is likely to be a question on a particular topic the minister is briefed on it.


  142. How would you view a Member of Parliament—it could be myself, even under a Labour Government—saying to the minister, "This is a supplementary that I am going to ask", because he or she as a Member is actually looking for information to advance a case or a cause and perhaps not always seeking to score political points? Do you think it would be helpful for Members of Parliament to contact the minister's office through his or her PPS to indicate that the basic question is on the Order Paper but this is the supplementary? Do you think that would be helpful to the civil servant and to the effectiveness of parliamentary questions?
  (Mr Mackenzie) Yes, immensely, because what you then get is the resources put towards the question you want. In fact, if you want a particularly detailed answer you can get a particularly detailed answer because the resources allocated come from one policy area. It might be a range but they will be far more focused resources and they can concentrate on answering the question they know you are going to ask.

  143. I saw Jonathan and Charles nodding. Is this their view? I am interested as to how the Civil Service would view that rather constructive use of parliamentary questions.
  (Mr Cochrane) It strikes me as an eminently sensible way of doing it. Going back to the original point, was it not once said that there was someone in the 18th century who did know the sum of human knowledge at that time, but I think we have to accept that now nobody can, not even the most astute minister or Opposition spokesperson. The concept of somehow the minister by some miraculous process knowing everything there is to know is a rather outmoded thing. We are the fourth or fifth biggest economy in the world. Anything that aids that process is welcome if it is about making information available and certainly would greatly help our people because it is an opaque skill trying to guess supplementaries and I do not think it really helps anyone, so yes, if we can get some more transparency into it, it would be very helpful.

Sir Robert Smith

  144. The Chairman has half asked my question. This just happened recently in a question I asked where the department phoned up and said, "Is it about a specific constituency issue or is it a general policy thing, because if it is constituency it might be helpful to know more." I just wondered who initiates that suggestion of phoning up the Member?
  (Mr Mackenzie) It would usually be the policy person looking after the issue. Again it is down to professional assessment. If the Member is the sort of person who raises constituency issues and where there might be an element in which the engagement would produce an answer, then it is a sensible thing to do and it could easily be initiated by the officials. It is usually initiated by the person by the person answering the question because it helps them most.

Mr Swayne

  145. Lord Norton has suggested a fixed cap on the number of oral questions that can be reached in any session in order to improve the quality of the scrutiny of a particular issue. Would such an arrangement allow for much better briefing of ministers?
  (Mr Mackenzie) Yes, for a similar reason, that you are limiting the number of issues and therefore you are going to be able to give greater depth to individual issues rather than trying to cover a panoply.

  146. Can we now move on to written questions? We have already heard the suggestion that there is a certain amount of machismo in the significant increase in written questions that have been put down. Are there any other reasons that you are aware of or believe might be a factor behind the increase other than that?
  (Mr Mackenzie) The one which was mentioned previously about researchers and people working for Members of Parliament. The larger the staff of any individual MP the more likely they are to be able to put resources to raising PQs. Again I would use the same point. If the work were done to find out what was in the public domain then those questions might be written ones.

  147. There is a significant disincentive to that sort of arrangement by having to present yourself at the Table Office with the questions in hand. When you have been behind someone in the queue who has a great sheet of questions with which they are clearly not entirely familiar, something is going on; it is obvious. If, however, those questions are going to be tabled electronically, I suggest that one of those disincentives disappears. Do you have a view on the electronic tabling of questions and this question of might it actually lead to an even greater surge in the numbers being tabled?
  (Mr Cochrane) There are a lot of lazy organisations out there. They are, I suspect, the bane of a number of constituency MPs' lives and, bluntly, the bane of the system because it is clogging up. Turning to the electronic point, I am slightly nervous about that being seen as a panacea to it in that you only need to look at some civil servants' e-mail lists and they are absolutely amazing. Civil servants go out to meetings, return to their office and there are two or three hundred e-mails there. I am reminded, if I may reminisce slightly, of a few years ago when fax machines first came in. When you got a fax you practically stood up and announced it publicly; it was a bit of an ego trip. If you get a fax now you think what a quaint organisation it was who sent it to you. The same thing has started happening with e-mails. There was a time when your machine flashed up and said that you had got an e-mail and you went public. Now the tendency is not to switch the wretched thing on because you are going to be inundated. We have to be a wee bit careful about thinking that electronic is modern and fast.


  148. But are you aware, Mr Cochrane, how many Members of Parliament support this move to electronic tabling? Would that also cause you concern?
  (Mr Cochrane) I am just exercising a slight note of caution to say it might not be the panacea that some Members might think it is.
  (Mr Mackenzie) I think that electronic tabling might have advantages for departments. If they all come in in the same format and templates and everything else are generated from the centre, it is far easier for departments rather than trying to go into different computer systems and everything else, and certainly the Scottish Parliament uses that system and it is a parliamentary template; we cannot play around with it to our heart's content. As administrators we just have to fire back into the boxes which are given. For consistency that is fairly sensible. A note here is that e-mail may produce a larger volume of parliamentary questions which would obviously have an impact and pressures on staff, but I think it would also have an impact and pressures on staff of the House. This example has already been made in one of your previous sessions, when I think they were talking about orals. If you have 100 e-mailed questions the Table Office is not going to have the facility or the time to be able to discuss with Members the pros and cons of whether that question was proper and how it might be rephrased. To be honest, if 95 per cent of them were improper and they were only a minute before the deadline then they are not going to be tabled, so that sort of mechanism would certainly reduce the pressure on people answering them. There are issues there for the House resources and the staff in the House on the peaks of demand round about deadlines for tabling. We do not know, to be honest. Electronic tabling happens in Scotland and Wales. Scotland got the parliamentary process and a Parliament of its own effectively to one government department at the same time, so I cannot tell you what the impact is. I would expect a growth in parliamentary questions once electronic tabling was introduced. I am working on the assumption that it will be. I cannot tell you how big it is. The bigger it is, the more pressure there is on staff.

  149. Does the increase in questions lead directly to a deterioration in the quality of answers?
  (Mr Mackenzie) It probably will do because of the range of resources which need to be sourced. That will be particularly where the volume of questions goes up in peaks on particular areas of interest. If it is spread evenly throughout government there is an element in which a general pooling of resources might help, but if it is in peaks on particular issues, particularly where you have got something which might not be immediately topical, coming back to the oral questions, it may not be possible. If you are looking at written ones it might not be immediately topical but it might be a major issue which is going to last. You suddenly get a deluge of interest and everybody can e-mail you electronically and submit questions. Then you might find a significant impact and that will reduce the quality of the answers because they are going to use very similar lines to answer all the questions.
  (Mr Baume) Some departments obviously get rather more PQs than others and resource themselves to that. Just behind all of that, whether we go down the road of much more electronic tabling of questions or not, is back to the issue you were alluding to, Chairman, which is why people are asking PQs. Is that the right mechanism to get the information that is sought? There are tremendous resources in the House through the library and the networks that pay for themselves to tap into. It may be that part of the dialogue that has to take place within this context is talking to individual departments almost department by department about where their information is best sourced from. Is it through web sites? Is it through information that can be found almost as a matter of course in the House of Commons library or in the Lords? The department is helping the House and therefore helping Members to try and find the best route for getting the information that is required and, of course, as well as all that the issue about—and I do not mean this in any negative sense because MPs are in politics—the extent to which particular questions are about politics and political issues that the Member wishes to press a minister on, and the extent to which it is simply an attempt to find some information that may be of interest to a particular constituency or to do with matters within the constituency. There is a difference (and I use this very loosely) between politics and seeking information per se, so maybe there is room for more dialogue between the House and departments about what is the best way of finding out particular types of information. I should say that one element, although it will take time to come through, is of course the whole question of the freedom of information legislation, although we are two and a half to three years off all of that coming through, and the impact in due course that that will have, because I think there is an extent to which PQs can be used as a way of getting faster access to information that otherwise would not generally be released publicly under the current openness regime.


  150. But would you not also accept that of course if you ask a parliamentary question it then forms part of Hansard the following day? I know some Members going back many years who have tabled a dozen or more written questions and have then presented them to their local media as if there is an exchange on the floor of the House between the Member for A and the minister, and it looks as if the Member for A has been an extremely active individual. Is there any other way, do you think, as civil servants of Members of Parliament getting media coverage, which is important to Members of Parliament, whatever you might think about it, where they do not use parliamentary questions? Should it be that matters taken up with ministers might ultimately be attached as a supplementary to Hansard if they take it up in another way officially through the department rather than through a parliamentary question? Do you feel there is any way of doing this?
  (Mr Cochrane) I think we are probably straying some way from parliamentary questions. One increasingly finds, when one reads local newspapers, and I am thinking particularly of those which are pushed free through one's front door, that their coverage of parliamentary affairs is fairly skimpy anyway, and I suspect that the subtleties of the parliamentary question system are one thing that escapes them and I suspect that many of them do not know the difference between an oral question, a written question and a letter you had from the minister. There is an increasing trend, certainly where I live, for local papers to allow Members of Parliament columns effectively to write what they wish. They seem to be quite popular and probably a more user-friendly thing than churning out verbatim questions.

Sir Robert Smith

  151. I should like to follow up the dangers of electronic questioning. The other place, the House of Lords, also allows electronic tabling. Are they perceived to have more self-discipline than this end of the building?
  (Mr Mackenzie) I have not asked the members in those terms. I have not heard of any problems caused by the House of Lords electronic tabling or House of Lords questions. There was no concern about volume or immediacy or timescales, so I think from the point of view of our members, as far as we have heard that would be seen as a successful usage of the process.

  David Hamilton: Electronic tabling is the road we are moving down and therefore it has got to be very important but you need to get a template and a proper framework. I think it is very important to look at that as a way forward because if we do not I take the point that you make, that there is an area where you go to where they can advise you, "Sorry; that question has been answered before; you can go there and find that out", and there is a learning curve in that process. I do believe at some point or other we are going to have to go along with that. The other question, Chairman, is on your point, and that is that every MP has their own way of making things known. Our local paper will pick a real topic of interest. They do not know whether that is an oral question or a written question. It is when you put that written question in and you raise X amount of questions, and you go back, and some parties try to take advantage of the fact that some people can get in. That is an issue that comes up. I have to say, Chairman, that with 650 Members of Parliament it is rather more difficult for some of us to be able to get up to speak than it is for others, and therefore there is an imbalance and an issue there.


  152. All members of political parties experience that from time to time. I was here when Mrs Thatcher had a majority of 143 and for a humble back bencher like myself to get called, either for question time or for debates, was very infrequent. Well, from my point of view it was infrequent.
  (Mr Mackenzie) On the general point of picking up the idea of the process and getting the process right, I wonder whether the Committee is in contact with the Procedure Committee in the Scottish Parliament because they work closely with—

  153. We have had a memorandum from the Scottish Parliament.
  (Mr Mackenzie) The Scottish Executive has regular meetings with the Scottish Parliament Procedure Committee in order to look at how these issues are being used. It is these sorts of procedural questions and process questions which Mr Hamilton raised as part of the learning curve. Obviously, the Scottish Parliament is on a learning curve. They do have electronic tabling and they are learning the process and the Scottish Executive is engaged with the Scottish Parliament in bilaterals in order to help make sure that both get as much as possible out of the relationship and that the relationship is efficient. That comes back to the question you asked earlier about the department and the contacts between the department and the House. I think it is that sort of mechanism which might help. There might be lessons to learn there, although I cannot speak for the Parliament.

  154. We will touch on that again with a question or two that Mr Joyce wants to put. Can I ask a very simple question? Do you believe that the name day question is being abused? At the moment there is the opportunity for a Member to table a question for answer on a named day. This clearly is relevant when information is required urgently by a Member, for whatever reason. Do you believe that that system of parliamentary questions at the moment is being abused and may well be causing problems with blockages for the Civil Service?
  (Mr Mackenzie) I think it was the Leader of the House's comment that there are an awful lot of questions for which the urgency is not immediately apparent. I would not want to comment on how Members were using the questions, but I think that that is a view shared by our members, that an awful lot of name day questions do not seem, at least to the person preparing the answer, to have any urgency beyond the normal.

  155. And that is a view shared by your colleagues?
  (Mr Cochrane) Yes.

Eric Joyce

  156. I will move on to parliamentary recesses. We cannot table questions of course during the recess so there might be logistical or other implications if we could for the whole or part of the recess.
  (Mr Mackenzie) I think the impact on both sides of our membership, in departments and in the House, would be dependent on the volume. For both departments and the staff of the House leave patterns are very often dictated by recess in that key officials will get their holiday in the summer. I know the recess is reasonably long but there have been recommendations to shorten it. I am not saying that certainly in departments people would find themselves with no holiday period but there are patterns of leave taking and of attendance which fit in with the recess. It is more sensitive in the House. This is an area in which I am not experienced, but during the House recess the staff is very much reduced because they take their leave during that period. If you were going to have tabling of questions during recess that is probably the most sensitive mechanism there because there are small numbers of staff. You would have to staff the House in order to deal with all of them. If there were significant numbers, it would be proportionate to the numbers but all the questions would have to go through the one point in the House and your staffing balance is such that, although I have no doubt that they would cope admirably and very professionally, that is something which the Committee would have to give consideration to. It has a resource impact on the staff of the House. In the departments it is a matter for ministers.

  157. I find that in the very short period of time I have been here during holidays, particularly the summer holiday, the amount of letters I get from constituents drops off. I suspect it is because they go off on holiday as well and have other things to think about. It might be that if there was a limited facility for asking questions during recess as opposed to in the normal way that could be accommodated.
  (Mr Mackenzie) I have not got figures but I would be interested to see Members' patterns of seeking information given that you do not have the mechanism of a PQ but you can still write a letter to a minister. I would be interested to see whether Members have different patterns when they can answer the PQ because if they are getting out good answers in their correspondence then perhaps more of the PQs in session time would be—
  (Mr Cochrane) It does go back to this question of everybody being aware of the full range of sources of information. I am sure that PCS members, particularly those in the junior grades, would like me to make it clear that any myth that might exist about the entire Civil Service going off to Tuscany or wherever during the summer holidays is not the case. Many of the people who are doing the sharp end work of answering the questions are very often in very low grades in the Civil Service and are people for whom prospect of long summer holidays in Tuscany is somewhat remote. I think Lorimer is right: the recess question is very much linked to resources in the House. The Civil Service can handle it but for the House it is very difficult.


  158. If we are specific, Mr Cochrane, based on the current calendar of parliamentary activity, if this Committee and the House subsequently took a decision that Members could table questions from the beginning of September but there would be a fallow period during August, do you think that would be acceptable to the Civil Service? Would it cause personnel difficulties? I put that as a specific idea but, as you know, it is possible that the parliamentary calendar from next year may well change.
  (Mr Cochrane) I think for the vast majority of the Civil Service, bearing in mind that we have a Civil Service of 485,000 (500,000 at the moment), August is business as normal, and also bearing in mind that the answers to questions very often move a long way from Whitehall. If you are asking, say, a constituency question about the activities in the Jobcentre Plus in Harlow in Essex, that would be staffed just the same in August as it is in any other month of the year. I do not think that is a problem.

  159. The reason I put a specific period is that there is a fallow period in local government when there are no committee meetings. Certainly I think August is that month in England; I cannot speak for Scotland or Wales. I was wondering whether you feel that Members of Parliament should be able to table questions during part of the recess. It is wrong that we cannot table a question for the best part of 12 weeks and therefore if there was merely a fallow period in August do you think that would cause no particular difficulty for your members and for the Civil Service and departments of state as a whole?
  (Mr Baume) There is a point at which all of this is in the round and, just taking one step back, we have alluded to the use of electronic tabling in Scotland and Wales and I know it is developing in the context of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and part of the reason for that was that, as new institutions, a great deal of energy was put into providing electronic access for Assembly Members, for Members of the Scottish Parliament. I have to confess that I have slightly lost track of progress within the Westminster Parliament but it is still quite a way behind the last time I asked. An intensive programme of giving coherent electronic access to MPs and their staff would be a very positive thing and then it goes back to what is the best and easiest way of people finding information. Within "Whitehall", as Charles says, it is in a sense 485,000 civil servants, most of whom never go anywhere near a permanent secretary, never mind a minister. That said, most of this work is still focused within a relatively small group of people in government departments. The idea that there was a quiet period in my time in the Civil Service has gone. There is not now a really quiet political period. That said, if you were looking for the one month of the year in London—and it is of course different in Scotland with the holiday pattern, and in Wales—August is the quiet time. I cannot remember whether it was last year or the year before, but Parliament did not go into recess until late in July and then of course anyway ministers and most MPs are starting to return because of party conferences starting in mid September and of course, from a union point of view, there is the TUC Conference and certainly when Labour is in government Members are at the TUC Conference. I think August is the quiet month. I think there would be a perception (but obviously it is a matter for the House) that if we were getting deluged with questions during the middle of August it might start putting a lot of pressure on which, as has already been said, the Civil Service would gear itself to coping with and, just as civil servants in what was then the Scottish Office and then the Scottish Executive got to grips with dealing with questions almost every week of the year. I think however that there would be a hope that Parliament would not be asking questions in August. Of course often you are down to a duty minister, those sorts of issues, but the Civil Service and central government would cope with that. On the other hand, if the House could hold back from asking for 52 weeks of the year and perhaps limit it to at least a break in the summer that would be welcomed in the Civil Service. That is a very tactful way of putting it. I do not perceive that it would cause major problems if parliamentary questions started in early September rather than in early October but it does go back to the point that Lorimer was making a few minutes ago about the House itself being equipped and staffed in the right way to deal with the additional pressures that it would cause within this building.

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 25 April 2002