Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 240-259)




  240. On a Thursday, I think, we have done, mainly because of absenteeism.
  (Mr Cook) Because of withdrawals. Maybe 25 might be more prudent than 20, but we are certainly never going to come anywhere near question 40. I think Mr Luke is asking a slightly different question, to which I am quite sympathetic, and that is that we should take question time and look at it in ways in which we can increase the exchanges on a particular theme or a particular topic. For instance, if we go to question time in the House of Lords, they will have four questions for half-an-hour and each is more or less timed at seven-and-a-half to eight minutes. So you will get a mini-debate, as it were, on that topic before you move on. I think there is a very rational case to be made that at present in the Commons we try to cram in too much and, as a result, possibly are not as effective as we might be in having a serious exchange on some issues. If you were to do it on that basis there would need to be greater discipline on the part of Members to be present, or if they cannot be present to withdraw in sufficient time for another to take their place. We could do that by having 15 questions originally tabled and if up to five questions are withdrawn from the original ten the rest will move up.

Sir Robert Smith

  241. Presumably, really, if it is a much shorter notice period, the chances are people are a bit more up-to-speed on their diary when they table the question, and are less likely to need to withdraw.
  (Mr Cook) That seems a perfectly rational inference and, indeed, could be one of the bonuses of the shorter notice period.

  242. When we were taking evidence from the civil servants, there was the thought of reducing the workload by reducing the number of questions. So there is seriously no risk in the department that they will say "Okay, this is no 40, we will not need to do a big briefing on it" and they actually will do all the work right the way down?
  (Mr Cook) I think I probably have to be honest and say I do not very often find myself reading to the end of the briefing on question 40, but in terms of volume it was identical to the questions that went beforehand, and if you are the official I guess you cannot take the risk that you are suddenly going to be found to have question 40 reached. It must be a soul-destroying task. Realistically, though, if we are going to ask officials to produce briefings in a shorter period of time—and I am sympathetic to that—we also have to relieve them of work which, frankly, is wasted effort and must be a very demoralising task.

Ms Munn

  243. Can we move on to the issue of open questions, which is a matter we have discussed with other witnesses. At the moment we only have open questions to the Prime Minister and we wondered whether there is reason for, perhaps, looking at extending it to departmental question time. One of the reasons might be that that might allow for topicality if there was a number of open questions and a number of closed ones, which would narrow down the possibility of closed questions (?), but obviously balanced against that we get the issue that we know a lot of Prime Minister's Question Time is really about political point-scoring. The amount of preparation time, again, that goes into what could possibly come up could also be detrimental. What are your thoughts on those two angles of open questions?
  (Mr Cook) I probably should declare a personal prejudice here. I am not attracted to open questions and, indeed, I think that we tend to use open questions not to elucidate facts or to shed light but to try and trip each other up. If I take an example from today, the first question for the Prime Minister was on how many school playgrounds we had sold recently, to which the Prime Minister gave an extremely competent and professional reply. I, frankly, do not think it is the real world of politics to expect the Prime Minister of Great Britain to be up to speed on how many playgrounds have been sold in the last few months. If a Member wants to pursue that question the Member is perfectly entitled to do so, but it seems to me to be more rational from the Member's point of view, and everybody else's point of view, if that is given by means of a specific question, so that the notice is there. I would not want that culture of what I sometimes call party political mud-wrestling to be extended to the other departmental question time as well. I think if a Member has an issue that they want to pursue then the honest and proper way to do it is to table a question about it. If in the course of the exchanges they can then display to the Government an inadequate answer it is all the more impressive when the Member can give that they received advance notice. There should be room somewhere in the major question times for there to be a question, possibly to be tabled overnight, to be taken in the last five or ten minutes of question time—or, indeed, the first five or ten minutes of question time—but I think it entirely reasonable that if Members have an issue they want to pursue particularly if question notice is short, that they should declare that in advance. I do not think we advance respect for Parliament or our own political exchanges by treating them as some sort of finals exam in which you cannot see the paper until you sit down at the table.


  244. Are you then saying that from your point of view, Mr Cook, you would like to see Prime Minister's Question Time revert to what it used to be (I forget when it changed) and go back to specific questions to the Prime Minister rather than have, as we do now, half-an-hour of open questions when we have, as you say—and I share your view—a rough-and-tumble of the scoring of political points?
  (Mr Cook) I did not come here to argue for removing open questions to the Prime Minister. That would be a big step. However, I certainly think that it would be in everybody's interest if people were free and indeed were encouraged to table specific questions for the Prime Minister to answer. Obviously, we would have to have different rules for the Leader of the Opposition, who must, quite properly, be free to raise issues of concern at the moment. Without wishing to be discouraging, one can easily spot what the opposition is going to raise because there are only so many issues around in the ether. Personally, I think it would be to everybody's advantage if there were more specific, targeted questions and fewer open ones in which you can be asked about anything at all.

  245. Can I seek to strengthen here: there are some who believe we should go back to the old situation where question time was primarily for backbenchers and it was only infrequently that opposition frontbench spokesmen and women actually took part. Do you think that question time should revert to being primarily a backbench occasion for backbenchers to raise matters with the ministers that are appearing in the House?
  (Mr Cook) It is a very delicate question you raise there, Chairman, and I would hesitate to stick my neck too far out. I would like backbenchers to have the opportunity to raise the questions and areas of concern. Of course, that is a particularly sensitive issue on our side because the alternating practice means it comes to our side much less often than the other side of the floor. However, the reality is that the public out there have come to see Prime Minister's Questions as the opportunity for an exchange between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, and that is at the heart of it. Indeed, it is a very important part now of our process of Parliamentary debate and scrutiny, and I do not think, realistically, anybody would wish to lose that.

Rosemary McKenna

  246. I understand it has cult status in America and on a Sunday night it is watched by many people. It is a bit of theatre, I think, without actually throwing any light on things. However, going back to the closed questions, specific questions, it has been suggested that occasionally a minister has not answered the question—blatantly. It has also been suggested that, perhaps, the Speaker should have the right to allow the Member a supplementary question.
  (Mr Cook) It has been suggested and I can actually see the attraction in it. If we were to move to something similar to the House of Lords' style of questions, as I was discussing with Mr Luke, in which you had, say, ten questions which went through in your hour and each question got five to ten minutes (some longer than others at Speaker's discretion), in that kind of envelope of serious discussion on a limited number of questions, I personally think that, without making any judgment about whether the question is properly answered, it would be entirely reasonable to allow the Member who initially asked the question to ask a supplementary at the end. That would seem to give a reasonable balance and shape to it. I genuinely think we would have a more serious, more useful, more viable and more productive form of scrutiny question time if we had that serious exchange over a reasonable period of time in which the Member could come back with a supplementary. Of course, it really comes back to what I find is a frequent dilemma when looking at modernisation: if we are going to be effective and relevant we need to be reported and what the media like to report best of all is the theatre. If we want to restore our respect among the public we have to show that we are carrying out serious business and not party political point-scoring. I think the form we were exploring earlier might help.

  Chairman: You will be aware that we have taken evidence from Lord Norton of Louth and, as many here are aware, he has also given evidence to your Committee about modernisation. I am going to ask Desmond Swayne to come in and put two questions to you, basically to do with what Lord Norton has proposed.

Mr Swayne

  247. Actually, it was the Father of the House in his evidence to us who said that if there was one thing which he could put his finger on that had so lowered public perception of Parliamentarians it was the open question at Prime Minister's Question Time and the corrosive effect that has had. Lord Norton suggested that we would do well to have a fixed number, say five, closed questions at least in, say, two sessions of half-an-hour each per week of Prime Minister's Questions. How would you react to that suggestion?
  (Mr Cook) As I said earlier, I am sympathetic to having more closed questions within Prime Minister's Question Time. I think it would advantage Parliament and it would be to the advantage, also, of the way in which it came across as a serious attempt to advance public interest and the public knowledge, as opposed to what—if I am honest—often appears to the public outside as if we are looking to score a point, taking part in political advantage rather than pursuing the public interest. The public love it in terms of watching it as theatre, but I do not think they respect it in terms of serious Parliamentary exchange. You also, Mr Swayne, in your question, refer to two half-hour sessions. I think I would be remiss if I let that question pass by without saying that the fact I am answering the question does not imply assent to two half-hours. If I can respond to this from the perspective of the administration, which is a matter, after all, of legitimate concern to all Members of Parliament, enormous effort goes in, by both the Prime Minister's office and by the Prime Minister himself, to answering questions in the House of Commons. Since we moved from two quarter-hour sessions to one half-hour session the current Prime Minister has actually missed question time less often than his predecessors because he is obligated there once a week rather than twice a week, and therefore, pro rata, for time in office, has actually answered more question time than his predecessors. It is an enormous demand we make of our Prime Ministerial time, entirely justifiable when you are accountable to Parliament, but I do not think it would be prudent to double that demand we make of him, particularly in the modern world where so much of the job that is done by the Prime Minister necessarily and unavoidably (and I am talking about the office not the person) has to involve a degree of foreign travel and foreign meetings. When I was Foreign Secretary I found it difficult enough organising Prime Minister's foreign visits on the basis that he had to be in Parliament every Wednesday, and you sharply reduce the number of places in the world you can go for a working day if you have to be in the House every Tuesday and every Thursday. I do not think that is in the national interest.

  248. Given that the theatre—however much the public might enjoy it—does not necessarily enhance the quality of scrutiny, what case is there for removing Prime Minister's Question Time from the chamber, at least on occasion, and setting it in the context of a Select Committee-type environment?
  (Mr Cook) Are you proposing that as an alternative?

  Mr Swayne: No, as an occasional feature.


  249. In Westminster Hall, Mr Cook, perhaps where there could be greater informality in putting specific questions to the Prime Minister.
  (Mr Cook) First of all, I would certainly have said that if we can escape from the gladiatorial combat on the floor we might enhance the status of Parliament, even if we reduced our ratings, by being seen to be doing something more serious. I think we would have to be careful that we were not, in taking this step, introducing a gladiatorial approach in places and procedures where at present we are free from such things, eg. in Westminster Hall and Select Committee hearings. Speaking as an individual I would not close my mind to it, but do remember that we have had over decades a very firm rule that has run through many Prime Ministers that they do not give evidence to an individual Select Committee, and the moment they give evidence to one where do you draw the line with others? I think if we were looking for this the Liaison Committee is probably the place where it would happen.

  250. Desmond may want to develop this further but we were thinking of having a period of questioning with the Prime Minister, as it were, in a more informal environment than the chamber. We know why the chamber is designed as it is and I think it has, perhaps, prevented revolution and, literally, physical fighting over the years. Sometimes it might be very appropriate, for Members in all parts of the House in numbers that can be accommodated in Westminster Hall, to have a half-hour session, as I think Desmond Swayne indicated, perhaps once every six weeks, when Members could meet the Prime Minister in rather closer proximity than across the despatch box in the House of Commons to put questions that are of particular relevance to them or their constituents or constituencies to the Prime Minister.
  (Mr Cook) It is a very innovative and interesting idea, and I think I would want to be careful that I neither killed it at first sight nor committed the Government to taking forward something which is put to me as a new idea. One thing I would say is that, if you look back at, for instance, the exchanges that we saw on television in which the Prime Minister did that with members of the public before the last election, if one is quite honest and humble in approach to Members of Parliament, I am not sure that those exchanges were not more illuminating than what happens across the floor of the House in the House of Commons. It is certainly an environment in which our Prime Minister would be very comfortable, with a more informal, less combative exchange geared more to actually making progress in identifying the truth and identifying solutions which might actually do a lot of good for us. One would have to, first of all, weigh very carefully whether the Prime Minister, with the demands and pressures on him, would permit time for such an innovation, and we would have to think very carefully about how we preserve the kind of informality of approach that you outline without us finding in Westminster Hall that we have simply transposed the gladiatorial atmosphere of the chamber. On the design of the chamber, of course, it is pure accident that we sit the way we do. We sit the way we do because Henry VIII gave us St Stephen's chapel in which to sit and we still sit, to this day, in seats facing each other in the way they did in the original chapel.

  251. Can I, then, put a further question to you, Leader of the House? At the start of your government, in the 1997 Parliament, the present Prime Minister authorised arbitrarily a change to Prime Minister's Question Time, replacing, as you have indicated already, the two weekly 15-minute sessions with a single 30-minute session. Do you think that any future changes to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time should be done on a basis of consultation with the House and its Committees, or should what the Prime Minister did be the order of the day in future? Should provision for Prime Minister's Questions be made in Standing Orders and, thus, brought under the formal control of the House of Commons rather than, as I say, a decision that the Prime Minister was quite legitimately able to take for himself?
  (Mr Cook) I think we can make too much of the distinction, Chairman. You say that standing orders are under the formal control of the House of Commons and, plainly, that is the case and any standing order has to be voted upon by the whole of the House and command a majority. Equally, it is the case that, on the other hand, only the Government can table a standing order and nobody else can table a standing order so the degree of latitude to the House could not possibly be over-stated. In 1997 we were a new government and we came in with a thumping new mandate. I think the Prime Minister was quite right to seize the initiative and make the change there and then. I fear consultation, which you aspire to, would have meant we would have ended up doing it months down the line, by which time we would have established a new precedent of this Prime Minister doing it the old way. For what it is worth, I think the new way of doing it is much better; it is more efficient, certainly in relation to Prime Ministerial time, and a more efficient use of the House's time, and it has enabled us to have a sustained exchange for half-an-hour instead of what were two jerky and short 15-minute exchanges.

  252. Some of us believe, yes, perhaps it has been good for the Leader of the Opposition because he, or she, can have six bites of the cherry, but of course six bits of the cherry reduces the ability of other, what I call genuine backbenchers, from getting an opportunity of questioning the Prime Minister. Do you not feel that perhaps, although indeed it is a bite and a large bite of half-an-hour, that really has not increased the genuine backbench participation because, of course, the Liberal Leader gets two bites of the cherry, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition gets six bites of the cherry and the Prime Minister has to answer each time? Therefore, that is quite a section of that half-hour dominated by what I call the front bench.
  (Mr Cook) There is an issue as to what is the balance between the frontbench questions and the backbench questions. I do not think it directly arises from whether you have one half-hour or two quarter-hours. In the days of the quarter-hours the Leader of the Opposition got three bites in each of the two 15-minute sessions and did have a total of six bites if he wanted to use them all. If you take today, Mr Ian Duncan Smith got up at 16 minutes past and was finished three minutes later. You still had the rest of the time for backbench Members, which is certainly no worse, and possibly better, than it was in the old days. That is not to say that I can see that from the point of view of the backbencher on the Conservative side it may well be attractive to have more time for them than for Mr Ian Duncan Smith. I would not imagine you would want us to put that to the vote of the Labour Party.

  Chairman: Minister, I congratulate you on your level of briefing before you came to this meeting.

Ms Munn

  253. Moving on now to issues about written questions, I want to ask a couple of questions. We have heard an awful lot over the period we have been looking at this about a steep increase in the number of questions being tabled. I am seeking your general views about this, what you think is behind this and, also, whether because of that you think there is an erosion in the quality of the answers people get to those written questions?
  (Mr Cook) The answer to the second question is yes, and the answer to the first point is that we are getting an absurd number of priority questions. As the figures show, we are approaching roughly half of all questions being given priority by the Member tabling the question. I have the greatest respect and affection for my colleagues but I just do not believe that 48 per cent of all questions tabled are really pressing and urgent questions. I do think that we have to try and find some basis in which a cap, or a discipline, is placed upon the use of the Named Day and short notice to elicit the answer. Unavoidably, if almost half of all questions are given priority by the Member and in the context in which the overall volume of questions is sharply increasing anyway, there is going to be a rise in answers that say "We will write or we will get back to you another time. We intend to reply at a future date." That is unavoidable. Personally, I would much rather we could have evolved to a situation in which there were fewer answers which were holding answers and more substantive replies but to get there we need some realism on the part of Members. Some of the questions asked can be statistically enormously complex and difficult. Unless statistics are held in a convenient way to answer a question, it can involve hours and days of work for civil servants trying to establish what that might be. Mr Bercow—bless him, I make no complaint about him—asks formidable questions of statistical detail which you are not able to produce at short notice if you are attempting to answer it within the Named Day process. The fairest and most logical way of resolving this would be for Members to be required to demonstrate the urgency to the question: do they need it for a particular event or a date? Is there some external pressing reason of public interest why this question has to be answered in the next three or four days? In truth, I think, that would put the Clerks in the Table Office in an impossible position, having an argument with a Member as to whether or not the reason for urgency was bona fide. I personally think that the only way in which we can actually get a grip on this in a way that would be fair to the public servants and fair to Members also would be for there to be a quota of priority questions by a Member so that if you have used up your quota for the week or the day it would come to an end. To be honest, I am sceptical whether most Members would need to table a priority question on any one day for answer within three or four days in excess of three or four questions.


  254. You are, at the moment, apparently reserving your remarks to the Named Day. Would you not extend it also to the ordinary written question where, again, particular Members appear to dominate the order paper with not just dozens of questions, Leader of the House, but hundreds of questions?
  (Mr Cook) Thousands, in the case of Mr Baker and Mr Bercow—thousands. At this point we have to assert what is the very important principle on which questions are tabled, which is that Government should be open to scrutiny and Members of Parliament are there to carry out that scrutiny. I would be reluctant to impose a quota on the total number of questions that can be asked by a Member. I do think we have to impose a quota on the priority of Named Day questions because, frankly, it is unfair to other Members because resources are being diverted at short notice to get an answer in an unreasonably short period of time at the expense of other Members' questions. Yes, there are questions that go down which, I think, frankly, are a waste of everybody's time, including the poor research assistant who typed it up. I have just answered a question on whether I have carried out a cost-benefit analysis of the exemptions order from the Pensions Act 1999. The exemptions order applies to the three great offices of state: Prime Minister, Speaker and Lord Chancellor. It relates to exempting them from the division on divorce of pension liabilities between partners. To my knowledge we do not have a Speaker, Prime Minister or Lord Chancellor who has actually divorced since coming into office and, in any case, even if they had there is no cost to my office or anybody else's. I really do question whether it makes sense for anybody to table a question inviting me to carry out cost-benefit analysis on such a narrow point.

Ms Munn

  255. Helpfully, you have anticipated the second part of the question—helpfully to me because written questions still remain somewhat of a mystery to me, as to why people do the Named Day Questions, for the reasons you have outlined. One of the issues we have talked about is whether there should be an overall limit, perhaps, over a year or whatever, which you seem reluctant to bear. The other issue in relation to this is my concern that when I want to know something the first thing I do is I look to see if anybody has asked that before, and whether the information is readily available. Would you want to comment at all on whether enough questions are rejected on the basis that that information is there, given the intranet and the internet, etc?
  (Mr Cook) In terms of whether a question has previously been asked, yes, the Clerks of the House will not accept a question which replicates a question that has recently been answered or, indeed, recently been refused. You touch on what, I think, is an entirely reasonable point, which is that an awful lot of questions which go down are asking about matters which are easily in the public domain. To be frank, when I was in opposition I found it more useful to wander along the library and ask for information than to try and put questions to the Government. I am not making a party point but I got the answer in more convincing detail and, sometimes, quicker than when I tabled a question to the minister. Since those days the internet has exploded in terms of the availability of information. It is not for us, as a Government, nor for me as Leader of the House, to say Members cannot table what question they want, but possibly they could receive more guidance as to what is available other than going through the process of a question. Perhaps, also, we could do more with the Table Office to encourage Members to think of other ways of getting the information they seek. I think that has to be permissive. I would hesitate to do anything to restrict the right of Members ultimately to table what questions they want. They have had, I am afraid, to have some restriction put upon the use of the Named Day device because that is as expensive in attention to other Members' questions.

Mr Burnett

  256. That is the very point that I wanted to just finesse, that I personally do not want to see restrictions. I noted your point about priority questions and perhaps there should be a quota, and then no quota whatever on ordinary open questions. Would you say that your suggestion might be changed slightly so that if you did have a quota (not that I agree with that) there could be additions to quota subject to justification, notwithstanding the problems for the staff in the Table Office?
  (Mr Cook) No doubt, if the Committee is minded to propose that it may wish to propose an experimental period, which will give us an opportunity to see whether it was working out fairly. In fairness to the Clerks, if we do propose a quota we have to have it pretty absolute. The moment you leave anything dangling at the edges Members will argue about it, and we have to protect Clerks from being in the difficult position of disagreeing with a Member.


  257. You do not think there could be, as Mr Burnett has, I think, sought to establish, Minister, a strategic reserve to deal with unexpected but important developments?
  (Mr Cook) Yes, I see what you are driving at, Chairman, but, you know, we could give every Member a very generous quota and still halve the number of priority questions at present. I would take a lot of persuading that a generous quota would legitimately and seriously inhibit the ability of a Member to get the urgent questions that he really needed to have urgently answered.

Rosemary McKenna

  258. On that point, there has been concern raised by people who have given us evidence, and I think it was somebody from the Scottish Parliament who said they were concerned at the number of researchers who were clearly tabling questions for spurious reasons and these being used not to answer the question but to use the fact that all these questions had been tabled on behalf of the Member. That actually leads on to the main question I wanted to ask, which is about electronic tabling. Given the recent increase in the tabling of questions in general, is there a danger (and I very much support electronic tabling) that it will lead to an even greater increase in the number of questions tabled? Is there anything we can do to guard against that?
  (Mr Cook) Certainly I think it is very important we make sure we protect the integrity of the system, and of course there are technical ways in which that can be done, and your consultant will be better placed than I to advise you on that. In terms of whether it will necessarily stimulate more questions from a Member, it may do but if members of staff want to table questions now they can and do so. That has been going on for a long time. I remember, back in the 1970s, one of my mining colleagues was impressed that the Tory member was asking a lot of questions on pneumoconiosis compensation and looked out for the member at several division lobbies and never found him. He chased him up in the Conservative Whip's Office and was told that the member very rarely came to Parliament. My colleague complained "No, he asks all these questions on pneumoconiosis", to which the Whips laughed and said "Ah yes, but you see he has a constituency agent whose father died of it and he is always tabling these questions to give the impression he is here." That goes back 30 years, it is not a new phenomenon. I would not let that stand in the way of e-mail.

  259. Although you have said already you would not want to express a view about the system or the security, in the Scottish Parliament they have a system which says they can give written authority to the Table Office—that is all they need to do—to accept e-questions from the mailbox. Would that be sufficient, or would you rather leave it to the experts?
  (Mr Cook) I am not technically qualified to advise on what would be the most robust system of protecting the integrity of the system. I am quite sure, however, that we can do it. It is widely used in other parliaments, it is used even in this Parliament by the other place. There are immense gains from it, of course, for the Member and for the Government, especially if it gets us the answer quicker. If we can put it in a proper electronic basis we can then, of course, provide the reply electronically as well, which would be a great advantage to Members.

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