Examination of Witness (Questions 220-232)
PROFESSOR THE LORD NORTON OF LOUTH
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
220. I raised the question before about virile questioners' researchers. If you are tabling electronic questions, it may be difficult to identify who is sourcing these questions. Surely if there is a move to electronic questioning there will need to be a system.
(Lord Norton) Yes, there is the danger that the researcher is doing the questions and adding an electronic signature or code or whatever and off they go. So does one limit it? It might be done on an initial experimental basis, saying you can table up to X number of questions electronically over such a period and see how it goes.
221. There is a need to look at quotas and every Member receiving a specific quota and at the end of the day I take it you would be arguing that we would have to wait and see what actual amount of electronic mail we got within the system. You talked about education being part of the process of the written and oral questions but then once we moved to electronic questioning we would have to see the actual volume but given the ease of use, there would be a need to impose quotas. The issue will be how many per person and if any Member does not take up a quota would there be a need for a reserve where people who may feel the need to add to their actual quota get a chance to do so because some people are not so moved to ask their questions?
(Lord Norton) Are you going to allow electronic tabling just for ease of Members, or is it to deal with the sort of situation Ms Munn was mentioning, where you may be away from the House exceptionally and you want to table electronically, as opposed to when you are actually within the Palace and just cannot be bothered to go to the Table Office?
222. Of course there are several Members who have disabilities who feel that they should have that advantage. Getting to the Table Office is not the easiest of things to do. Would you comment on that briefly?
(Lord Norton) I take your point. One could devise a formula where necessary so that Members in that situation were permitted to table questions electronically.
223. On another matter which Mr Luke has raised in respect of quotas, do you think you should draw a line between written questions and named day questions and that there should be a possible quota for one and not for the other? In the case that perhaps we decided to make a quota system and we would give a daily quota of written questions to Members, do you think that it would be necessary to provide an additional strategic reserve for urgent matters that a Member might have, say, 250 of those in a parliamentary session?
(Lord Norton) I should be fairly relaxed about it. I am not sure there is a tremendous advantage having a quota for one and not for the other because the serial questioner will just move over to the other. Unless there is something I have missed, I am not sure there would be a tremendous advantage.
224. I am merely trying to develop what has been a suggestion and a proposal that quotas might need to be introduced. I am saying: if there were quotas should you draw a distinction between named day questions, which I think are being abused, because there is no reason very often for a question to be put down for a named day, and ordinary written questions? In that case how would you allocate quotas if quotas were introduced? I think the Committee is probably of the view that it was a slightly retrograde step to limit the opportunities for back-bench Members of Parliament particularly.
(Lord Norton) Indeed; yes.
225. May I from the Chair put a specific question to you? You have made reference to the very distinguished system that they have in the House of Lords. You argue that the House of Commons could probably learn from the Lords' experience of unstarred questions. In your experience, how effectively does this system operate in the Upper House and how easily do you think, as somebody who has been in the Upper House and not the Lower House but having studied the Lower House, it could be transferred to the very different circumstances of the House of Commons?
(Lord Norton) Of the proposals I made, drawing on the experiences of the Lords, probably the one which could make the easiest transferbecause there are more difficulties if you are trying to limit the number of questions in Question Time because it would involve something of a culture change, although if you made the change I would hope culture change would flow from thatwhich I would say was less difficult to adopt, would be the process of the unstarred question. In a way it is a development of what already exists with the daily adjournment debate. It would be the same mindset but just developing it. At the moment in the daily adjournment debate if you have the adjournment and there is another Member with a very keen interest in the same subject, you might allow them a couple of minutes to come in before the Minister responds. With an unstarred question in effect what you are doing is expanding the time so that more Members can come in with their contributions. Rather than half an hour, we have an hour if it is in the dinner hour or if it is the last business it is actually 90 minutes. The way we operate, since we do not have a Speaker, is that we sign up in advance. You always know how many people are going to speak and the time is divided between the number taking part and you know how long you have. It is very valuable because it does allow the Minister then to respond to several Members of the House rather than just respond to one. Where it is a topic which extends beyond a constituency matter, a general issue where several Members have an interest, it would allow them to be involved and then the Minister to respond to points raised by several Members rather than just the one. Members feel more involved and there is more of a dialogue then with the Minister. That would be the most easy to adapt because it is what Members themselves are used to in terms of the daily adjournment.
226. Do you think it would be a desirable transfer from the Lords to the Commons?
(Lord Norton) I do. If one gets the time, perhaps towards the end of the daybecause I do see the case for shortening some things that the House presently doesyes, I do. It is very similar to the daily adjournment debate and would have all the benefits that has, which is that it is a back-bench resource and largely takes place outside a partisan context. You get something of a more constructive discourse between the Member or Members and the Ministers who are responding. I would say it is similar to the adjournment debate, it has the advantages, but writ large. That is why I think that is the most easy to utilise in the Commons' context. It would be more difficult to do the other things.
227. Forgive my ignorance. When you apply in the Lords for an unstarred question, who grants and selects that? Is it by acclamation?
(Lord Norton) No, with the unstarred question you first of all have to put a motion down under No Day Named.
228. In your Table Office?
(Lord Norton) In effect, yes, basically; the equivalent. You put something down under No Day Named and there are several. The House of Lords is very different from the Commons in this respect. You then get in touch with the Leader's office and the Private Secretary to the Leader, the seconded Clerk, to discuss whether there is a slot for it and they are slotted in as time is available.
229. Can you be refused?
(Lord Norton) Not that I am aware of. If there is a slot you get slotted in. I am not aware of any intervention by, say, the Leader to block anything being covered in an unstarred question and there has never ever been any controversy, so I presume . . .
230. You know where I am getting now.
(Lord Norton) Indeed; yes.
231. It would never end in this place. There would be so many applications.
(Lord Norton) You could do it the same as you do in the adjournment debate, in other words by ballot or you might allow the Speaker discretion in the same way to choose one occasionally. You would not be able to adapt it the way we do it, because the pressures on our place are less great for one thing and certainly the mechanism is very different for who is speaking. You could adapt it to be similar to the daily adjournment debate. You could have exactly the same mechanism for choosing who has the topic.
232. Thank you very much. Do any of my colleagues want to put any further questions to Lord Norton? If not, may I ask, Lord Norton, whether there is anything you would like to add to what you have said, anything you think might help us in what I consider to be a very fundamentally important inquiry which we are undertaking? It is our intention to try to produce a report by the middle of June, as we think this goes together with much of what the Modernisation Committee is doing and we want to make rapid progress where we can. Is there anything else you would like to add to the evidence you have given us?
(Lord Norton) Not to add but to confirm that I should be very happy to work on a paper along the lines you have indicated. I should be very pleased indeed to do that.
Chairman: May I thank you on behalf of all Members of the Committee, those who remain, those who have had to go and those who gave apologies for bona fide reasons? I think this has been a very stimulating, very worthwhile session and we are very grateful to you for the evidence and the information which you have given to us. Thank you very much.