Examination of Witness (Questions 260-275)
WEDNESDAY 24 APRIL 2002
260. Minister, this is a very progressive Committee
and I give notice that we are likely to be visiting Scotland to
see precisely how the Scottish Parliament is dealing with this
matter. Can I, before I ask Meg to come on in this very matter,
ask you a specific question relating to some views you expressed
a moment or two ago? You said that you would give Members a "generous
quota" for the Named Day Question.
(Mr Cook) I said "even a generous quota",
I am not lobbying for a generous quota.
261. What I am trying to find out from you,
Mr Cook, is what, in your view, is a generous quota?
(Mr Cook) If you take the totality of questions asked,
speaking from memory the current number of Named Day Questions
is 48 per cent of the total. That is within a rapidly rising total.
I, personally, would have thought, as a rule of thumband
I am not going to pretend that this has any particular scientific
basisif one-tenth of the questions tabled were urgent it
is just about plausibleurgency, here, being defined by
you and me to have it before a public meeting or event, or the
public's need to know within a specified period before another
external public event takes place. I would have thought, in those
circumstances, 10 per cent of the total is quite high.
262. Can you put a figure on the 10 per cent
of that total?
(Mr Cook) It will be difficult. It would require a
little bit of short arithmetic, but if we take the current sessionand
this is only up to the end of January, from June 2001 to January
2002we had 41,000 questions tabled. That is a daily rate
double the previous three or four sessions. It really is cumulating.
Ten per cent of that would be about 4,000. So you are still left
with quite a large number of questions available for priority
263. You would not say that the members should
have 100 questions for this purpose in the course of a parliamentary
(Mr Cook) 100 would be very generous indeed, because
that would aggregate at 60,000 questions, which would exceed our
present total. If every Member was tabling, say, ten parliamentary
questions in the course of a session, you are still going to end
up with 6,500 questions.
Chairman: Thank you very much.
264. I wanted to pursue a related issue in relation
to electronic tabling. One of the things we have heard from Members
who feel that there are problems with the current system is the
problem of actually having to table on a specific day or a specific
issue. Say you were out of the country, you had gone on a visit
and you had seen something on which you think, "Well that's
an important issue and I want to raise that as a Foreign Office
question", you cannot do that. Would you support the ability
electronically to table from elsewhere and table from, say, a
period up to the day? As you said at the outset, at the moment
that is the first day you can table on for oral questions, whereas
effectively it becomes the day. Instead, you could have them electronically
from, say, a week before or something, and they would be sitting
there and dealt with on a specific day. Would you support that
as a process?
(Mr Cook) I think that if we are going to have electronic
tabling of written questions, there is no logical reasoning for
resisting electronic tabling of oral questions. I think that you
need to have a particular point on the day when the shuffle takes
place to decide who is in the top 10, or the top 20, or whatever
figure you recommend, but I can see no reason why that should
not be done electronically.
265. It can be incredibly frustrating for Members
and the public that during the long summer recess questions cannot
be tabled. In your memorandum you do not support the idea that
questions should be tabled during the summer recess. However,
would a change to the rules to allow tabling in the recess other
than in August really impose a great burden on the government
machine? I would add that most Members do believe that the summer
recess is too long. I appreciate also that Ministers, officials
and the staff of the House need summer holidays as well. So do
you favour dealing with thiswhich is a real problemby
curtailing the summer recess and allowing questions, say, after
the recess, during the party-political conference season?
(Mr Cook) First of all, I totally agree with your
comment on the long recess. I have always found it a little bit
difficult to describe the summer recess, because for those of
us in Scotland it is autumn almost anyway. That is why I have
put forward proposals that we should rise a bit earlier in July
and compensate for that by coming back in September.
266. In early September?
(Mr Cook) Yes. The big criticism of the House's long
recess occurs in September when the rest of the world is back
from holiday, when all the press lobby has filled up, when they
are under pressure from their editors to write copy, they have
no copy, in the sense that the House did not sit yesterday, so
they write copy saying that the Parliament is not sitting and
it is a disgrace. So I think there would be a lot of sense in
us being back then, and I think it is very important in terms
of the proper scrutiny by Parliament and Government that we should
not be absent for so long. I think there is an issue that questions
are not allowed between the end of July and the beginning of October.
That cannot be satisfactory. If we secure that changewhich
I hope to have in place for next yearthen of course questions
could be tabled as soon as the House returns in September. You
have therefore diminished the period by half during which questions
cannot be tabled. Personally, I am in favour of us accepting written
questions during the subsequent conference recess which we have
identified, rising again in September for the conference season.
All Ministers are around for the conference season, nobody is
using that time as a holiday period. It would be perfectly reasonable
for questions to be tabled then. As you say, Ministers and their
staff, and indeed our Parliamentary Clerks, are also entitled
to their holiday. I think that during the bona fide holiday period
of the end of July/August period I personally would not wish us
to get into the question of accepting questions.
267. This is a difficult point, because some
of us have had experience in the month of August of a really severe
crisis in our constituencies. Often Ministers are quite quick
and swift in dealing with correspondence, but there is no substitute
for getting the Minister's concentration than tabling a written
question, especially with a named day. Should there be some ability,
do you think, in matters of a really serious crisis for people
in one's constituency, or national crisis, that certain questions
be allowed in the holiday period of August?
(Mr Cook) No, I think you either allow them or you
do not, otherwise you are back to the discretion of the Clerkswill
they or will they not accept that this question fits these particular
circumstances. There is also a wider point here that every department
has a duty Minister during the holiday period, and that duty Minister
will field all enquiries that come up at a ministerial level and
in correspondence too. In a large department like DEFRA, or DTLR
or the Home Office that particular duty Minister may not of course
be familiar with the particular area of the questioning or of
the issue being raised, and therefore I think it would be unreasonable
to have a situation in which a duty Minister not familiar with
the issue was replying to a parliamentary question. That is why
I think it would be wise for Parliament, as well as for Government,
if we were to confine the tabling and answering of official parliamentary
questions to that time, so that the responsible Minister is there
to deal with them.
268. Could I just put a supplementary to what
John Burnett has asked. While I feel you are very confident, and
rightly so too, that you will get your changes through in respect
of the summer parliamentary recess, if you do not, would you be
prepared to support the tabling of questions for written answer
and for named day written answer during the month of September?
I fully support the fact that when we rise, whenever it might
be, at the end of July and through August there should be a period
of silence and non-tabling of questions, but would you yourself
support the tabling of questions in September, if the changes
to which you have referred as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee
were not implemented?
(Mr Cook) I have no plan B at the moment, so I am
going for broke, as it were. I would not want to speculate on
what we do in the event of a rebuff, but plainly I would not close
my mind to the kind of response that you describe. Can I just
make one additional point? Whilst I have been quite robust in
saying that during that summer recess, July and August, we should
not accept questions, I do think, as I mentioned in my memorandum,
we could be answering questions, and I do find it unsatisfactory
that on the last day of sitting you bring up Hansard and
every second question is answered with "I will write to the
hon. Member." Rather than have this dealt with by letter,
which is necessarily a private exchange, I see no reason at all
why we should not, for a fortnight in the summer recess, have
a special edition of Hansard in which we print the answers
to the written questions that we could not get out before the
Chairman: I thank you for your modest concession.
269. You spoke earlier about the issue of closed
and open questions to the Prime Minister. During the previous
session we were asked to discuss the issue of backbenchers. What
happened was that one of the issues was that there was a feeling
that obviously the system had been abused, and that the closed
system was put down for specifically getting the answer that people
wanted back at that time. So there was an issue of looking at
how the House had built on the use of Westminster Hall debates
to extend discussion on specific areas that departments want to
talk over. One of the issues we talked about with Mr Graham Allen
at one stage was the issue of using Westminster Hall and specifically
allowing a session with departmental Ministers with a portfolio
on a specific issue which was causing concern, to allow a session
where Members could come along with open questions, in the interest
of extending backbench scrutiny of specific issues. I do not know
how you would feel about that?
(Mr Cook) I would need to consult with my colleagues
who are more likely to be exposed to this novel procedure than
myself. My specific interest is the narrow one of the parliamentary
process and management. I retain, I think, my broad prejudice
in favour of questioning taking place on a clear, specific, preannounced
scene. I would have a worry, Mr Luke, that if we went down that
road people would sharpen their pencils and suck the end of them
until they came up with a clever-dick question of the kind we
currently see in the Chamber. I do not actually think that that
either enhances the process or the parliamentary reputation.
270. Obviously we have to look at your own session
on Thursday, because you do take open questions, do you not?
(Mr Cook) Yes.
271. At the end of the day we realise that a
problem may occur, and this could be an issue of topicality, a
specific issue that was relevant at the time, so obviously fixing
a slot for the Minister would be a difficult process, but is there
something that maybe could be done?
(Mr Cook) Yes, but Thursday has always been good,
clean fun. I enjoy it, I think my audience enjoys it. A little
bit of the stress is taken out of it, though, by the fact that
I am not the responsible Minister for the questions I am being
asked. There is therefore tolerance and good nature in these exchanges.
With a Minister they would be rather sharper, if they were actually
dealing with the Minister responsible for the area of questioning.
I think also one of the great values of the Thursday Business
Statement is that it provides a notice-board on which Members
can pin up issues of concern to their constituents, which is a
very important parliamentary function. Some of those issues raised
may be the talking point of their constituency, and it
is entirely legitimate that there should be an opportunity in
Parliament when they can be raised.
Chairman: Making an observation from the Chair,
before I ask Desmond Swayne to ask the last questions, there are
many of us in the House who think that Business Questions on the
Thursday are the most relevant and important question time of
the week, mainly because the Speaker seeks to call many, if not
all, Members who are rising on the Thursday, and it does give
Members an opportunity which very often they do not get at any
other question time during the week. So from the Chair may I say
how much Business Questions are appreciated. I think really that
was one of the purposes of what Ian Luke was saying: that we would
like, in a way, more opportunities for this sort of occasion.
I merely leave that with you as a point.
272. Lord Norton suggested that we could learn
from the experience of the House of Lords with their unstarred
questions. My understanding is that that is virtually what we
do with the Adjournment Debates for which Members ballot. Do you
see any advantages in moving to something rather more similar
to what the House of Lords have in their unstarred questions?
(Mr Cook) I think your view of the unstarred questions
and our Adjournment Debates is pretty close. The proposal being
put to me is that we should look at unstarred question which provides
for mini-debates rather than simply the sort of very brief Thursday
question time we have; and also the fact that a couple of times
a week they have a topical question added to that, which enables
them to be relevant to the issue of the day or the issue of yesterday.
Indeed, I went to the House of Lords earlier this week to observe
them doing unstarred questions. I certainly think that we should
be willing to learn lessons from other legislatures, and before
we roam the world looking for those lessons, we should wander
down the corridor and see what lessons there are in our own building.
But the culture in the House of Lords is so very different. I
therefore think we have to have a degree of commonsense about
the extent to which we simply pluck a procedure from the House
of Lords and import it into the much more heated culture of the
Commons Chamber. Indeed, I could see the exchanges I listened
tothe very sober, very serious and unheated exchanges in
the Lordshaving a totally different character in the Chamber
where people do interrupt and jeer, for example, in a way that
they do not do in the House of Lords. Can I just go back for one
second to the question of the informal changes. As I said, I think
serious question time is much better done on a clear, designated
question that specifies the topic. I can see much merit in more
informal exchanges between Ministers and Members of Parliament.
Indeed, maybe we can achieve some procedural changes that help
to provide for a more mature and more serious culture in the Commons.
It would be possible to have those exchanges on a cross-party
basis, not just on a single-party basis. But that is not necessarily
the process of Parliament. The process of Parliament is always
going to have a degree of formality, and quite properly so. Maybe
outwith the confines of the formal sittings in Parliament or Westminster
Hall there could be more opportunities for informal exchanges,
but I think that is a separate process from how we tackle reform
of scrutiny directly.
273. Following up Desmond Swayne's question
with a brief question to you which I hope you will be able to
answer, do you feel that an opportunity for Opposition parties,
particularly obviously HM Opposition, but not excluding minority
Opposition parties, putting what one would describeand
you used the word yourselfas a "topical" question
to the Government on a regular basis for a specific period of
time, might well, as it were, balance the huge advantage that
the Executive currently has in respect of its position and, for
instance, the making of statements?
(Mr Cook) I would not want to concede that the making
of a statement was necessarily an advantage to the Executive.
I think it is also important to Parliament, and an important element
of scrutiny, which is why Opposition are vigorously demanding
more statements not fewer. I would want to reflect on the possibility
of a topical question of the kind to which you referred. In my
mind, it is a matter which I would hope to discuss with colleagues.
Indeed, I would welcome the Procedure Committee discussing it
as part of its inquiry. One point I would make is that, and we
discussed this earlier, how do we make Oral Question Time more
topical? I think it is important and essential that we do that.
Of course, what is a topical issue at the moment may not happen
to be within the subject area of the department which has oral
questions, and therefore perhaps one needs to think creatively
and innovatively as to whether there are ways in which issues
which do not belong to that department can be raised at question
Chairman: Thank you.
274. How would you react to the suggestion that
the Opposition might be given a guaranteed number of Private Notice
Questions, and perhaps for that sacrifice some of the Opposition
days that they currently have?
(Mr Cook) The trade-off might be tempting. I think
I would want to have carefully thought over any such proposals.
If it were put in as a trade-off, I am sure I would be willing
to sit down and contemplate it. Of course, there are rules for
Private Notice Questions which have to be satisfied in terms of
their urgency and their basic importance, and therefore it does
not lend itself in its present format to an arithmetical quota
in advance. I think also one is bound to say that there may also
be a trade-off. If we do go down the road of topical questions,
what then is the point of the present PNQ system? There may be
an issue to be addressed there as well. All of these things I
think have to be taken in the round. I am very conscious that
there is a danger, when we approach modernisation, that we take
issues one at a time, without looking at the cumulative effect,
which is why I welcomed the way in which you referred to potential
trade-offs that may be there. Of course, in fairness to the nation
out there, they do require a government that functions and does
its business. That does mean that Ministers have to be able to
spend some time at their desk getting on with business. That is
very much in the interests of Parliament as well as of the citizens.
We therefore want to make sure that whatever changes we make entirely
enable Parliament to function and enable Ministers to get on with
275. Minister, can I thank you very much indeed
for the forthright and very positive way in which you have dealt
with all the questions. Can I thank my colleagues for the contributions
which they have made, but particularly, Mr Cook, can I thank you
for coming and spending an hour and ten minutes with us, which
I think has been very worth while and, I can say from the Chair,
I believe has been positively helpful in the important inquiry
which we are undertaking. We are very grateful to you. Thank you.
(Mr Cook) Thank you very much, Chairman. If I can
help in any written form to follow up any points, I would be very
pleased to do so.
Chairman: Thank you for the offer. Thank you