Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)



  280. Also, as you will have studied the evidence that has been given to us, that was very much the recommendation of Lord Norton of Louth, who believed that far fewer questions should be appearing on the Order paper and therefore there would be a more meaningful debate and exchange on the questions that were listed for oral answer. Just to clarify a matter which you led on to which was going to be one of my questions, if a notice period is reduced, the demand from departments for early sight of questions is in fact likely to increase, is it not?
  (Ms Irwin) I think it would be irresistible.

  281. What is the minimum period following the shuffle within which the text of successful questions could be sent to departments? You have partially given that answer. Could you be absolutely clear currently if we do reduce it to, say, three days (not necessarily two, which is what the Leader of the House indicated might be acceptable), how soon could departments get sight of the text of those questions?
  (Ms Irwin) Subject to any corrections Janet wants to give, we would need to allow an hour to do the shuffle because the questions have to be numbered, the numbers have to go into the machine, then the top 30 numbers that come out have to be married up with the questions and then it all has to be checked and it is checked very thoroughly. Thereafter we would need to get a list of the questions typed up in the Office because to send departments faxes or photocopies of the questions as handed in might lead to more complaints about inconsistencies and mistakes than hitherto because—and Members will excuse me—not all Members' handwriting is terribly easy to read and we have perhaps more expertise in the Table Office on that than they have in Government departments, so I would envisage typing up the list which would be perhaps another half hour's work.
  (Ms Hunter) I think an hour all told, 20 minutes for the shuffle and 40 minutes to type up. If they had to be edited that would take extra time.
  (Ms Irwin) That is the other point.

  282. Twenty minutes for the shuffle, 40 minutes for the typing up?
  (Ms Irwin) Yes.
  (Mr Phillips) This is if everything goes well because of course there are sometimes hold-ups. The thing about giving you an absolute time, Chairman, is that we cannot necessarily guarantee always to do the best and if the Government departments as part of their working practices expect questions by a particular time we have to be realistic about when things do not necessarily work straight off.

  283. Are there any grounds to propose that the time for tabling of a question might be returned to five o'clock?
  (Ms Irwin) I think if it was five o'clock we could on a good day get questions to departments pretty soon after six. It sometimes happens that one question does not get put into the shuffle because it is left in a pile of other papers and someone has put something down on top of it, so the shuffle has to be re-done. Something like that might cause a delay on occasion, but of course we could always telephone the department and tell them. Before you go on, Mr Chairman, could I add one other thing? I mentioned the idea of questions being perhaps tabled in advance of the day of the shuffle and you said that they would be less topical. It is at present the case that if a Member brings an oral question in at ten o'clock in the morning when we open and then at three o'clock decides that is not the question they want to ask, or that they want to change the wording, they can come in and correct that question or replace one with another. If a Member tabled a question, say, today for a shuffle some time next week and then on Tuesday something happens that leads them to think that they would like to ask about something much more topical, they would be able to do that. What we would do if Members tabled on earlier days is quite simply put them in a box and we hope we would be able to start entering the names into the computer system so that the shuffle could be ready. Effectively they would just be put in a box and wait.

Mr Burnett

  284. Unfortunately I have to go; I much regret that, but I would like to put one point. I do not mean to be legalistic or pedantic but I have always understood these two sitting days or three sitting days or five sitting days to be clear working days so that the date of the question when it is lodged, when it is tabled, and the date of the reply do not actually count, but I think there would be a great deal of pressure from Members of the House to have two clear working days so that we understand exactly what we are talking about. The Chairman suggested that you bring forward the shuffle to 5.00 pm so that the departments of state then have two clear working days in which to formulate their replies and brief ministers. Do you think that is about right?
  (Ms Irwin) I think "about right" really is something for ministers and civil servants to answer rather than staff in the Table Office who only do one end of the process. The wording of Standing Order No. 22 provides that notice of any named-day question, and orals are technically subject to the same minimum rules, must appear at latest on the notice papers circulated two days, excluding Saturday and Sunday, before that on which the answer is desired, which is the position you describe. I am sure that system is workable from our point of view. It is a matter for Government and of course for Members of the House whether they consider that is giving sufficient notice for an answer.

  285. But you do think it is workable from your point of view subject to bringing forward the shuffle?
  (Ms Irwin) I think it would be essential to bring forward the shuffle. The 6.30 shuffle is apparently convenient for some Members and I think—and Roger will correct me if I am wrong—that since it was introduced more Members have taken advantage of it than did at first. It does have a knock-on effect on the work of the Office. With a large number of written questions coming in by post, I often go into the Office in the morning or in the mid afternoon and see a pile like that (indicating) waiting to be dealt with and after the shuffle they are still waiting to be dealt with because Members come into the Office all the time to table oral questions and the Clerks in the Office simply do not have the time to work on the writtens that have come in by post. This means that they are having to do them all in the evening. There is then a knock-on effect on the printing press and our other staff down there. Bringing forward the shuffle would frankly be administratively convenient for the Office. In addition to that it is the only way to give the departments advance sight of questions.


  286. You would accept, I think, that to an extent this whole inquiry opens a Pandora's Box, does it not, because we could suggest that you might have a bigger Lower Table Office with more Clerks who could process more questions, but again this then affects the whole environment of the Palace and the convenience of the Table Office to the Chamber, etc, etc, etc. Of course, we have not yet touched on, and I suspect we are going to, matters relating to the electronic tabling of questions. I am not going to trespass into that preserve at this very moment. There is a tremendous amount that we can take into account. Would you accept that if we are going to bring the tabling of questions down to, say, three or two days, and from the Chair that certainly would be my preferred option, it would be more satisfactory all round for the time by which questions have got to be tabled to be taken back from 6.30 to five?
  (Ms Irwin) I think it is the logical thing to do. If we do not do that then there is not much point in us sending questions over to departments in the evening, I suspect. They might as well just get them from the Office in the morning.

  287. Does Roger, who is very much at the coal face, wish to add to that?
  (Mr Phillips) Helen has given a very clear and full answer. I was just going to say that from the conversations I have had with Members generally I think that they would like the convenience of having more time in which to table oral questions because it is a very narrow window of opportunity at the moment which sets up quite a lot of pressure for Clerks and Members because they have for various reasons to hit a very narrow area. When Members go abroad, for example, they find it, I know, very difficult, so when we discussed liberalising and having a system where we could take questions early, which we did in the context of Mr Cook's evidence when we had read it, I think we were envisaging a relief of pressure on Members so that they did not actually need necessarily to have more hours in one day. If they could have any amount of time I am sure that many Members, from conversations I have had, would find that personally convenient, say, if they were going away on a Select Committee visit somewhere. It would mean that the previous week they could give us several questions rather than rely on a colleague, so that they could talk to us about it themselves.

  288. You do not think there would be an adverse feedback if we took back from 6.30 to five the tabling of questions?
  (Mr Phillips) I think it would mitigate any disadvantage to Members if we got rid of the insistence of having a very narrow opportunity.

  289. And tabled early?
  (Mr Phillips) Yes, so that we could take it earlier.

David Hamilton

  290. Maybe it is prophetic, Chairman, as I used to work at the coal face, to want to ask about the coal face. I came here thinking that two days would be sufficient but I am now convinced that there would be a practical issue here which has to be overcome. On reducing from ten working days to five working days, are you talking about, as I would, that if we say that it was three days before, and they would be able to produce it if they were going away the week before, two weeks before, they would be able to come knowing that they had three days of the window to do that, so that surely that would be beneficial to any Member to be able to say, "I will not be here next week but I know the agenda is coming through for two weeks' time or three weeks' time, so I will get in there and deal with it"? Surely that takes care of that particular issue, and if there was a deadline, that is effective whenever that deadline is, if Members are all aware of it, and they will not find what we have at present. I was in there today and had to wait in a queue of eight or nine to go through certain questions and get advice on how to do things. The benefit that you have with a three-day point is that I can go in five days before when it is quiet and sit down with Helen and go through it.
  (Ms Irwin) I think that is how we would envisage it working. I suspect that for a while, if you were to recommend this change and the House were to agree it, Members would still tend to come in on the day of the shuffle to table questions because that is the habit at the moment, but then they would probably take advantage of the extra opportunities.


  291. At present a sheet is put out indicating when questions are to be taken, and perhaps additional information is provided, and the latest date by which that question would be acceptable, so again Members would not just have to rely upon a Monday/Monday, Tuesday/Tuesday, Wednesday/Wednesday. They could see on a piece of paper which they could have in their office that a question to Defence would have to be tabled on a Monday, whatever the date might be, and that is the final date.
  (Ms Irwin) Yes. I have the question rota here, Mr Chairman. I cannot get it out of my folder but you can see that there is lots of space on the question rota. We could put all sorts of information in there if it was helpful to Members.

  Chairman: Excellent; thank you very much.

Ms Munn

  292. Continuing on the issue of topicality and a number of other possible options, the first one is a suggestion that perhaps people could just put their names into a preliminary ballot and then, once they had come out with topics, they could submit the question. How would you feel about that?
  (Ms Irwin) I put this in my original paper to the Committee, as did my predecessor ten and a bit years before, and your predecessors decided this was not a good idea in 1991. I know that there are reservations about it but it is another approach which would get rid of the queues in the Office, which would reduce the need for Members to think up questions in the certain knowledge that two-thirds of them would be thrown away because they will not come up high enough in the shuffle, and only those Members who were successful in the ballot would have to decide the questions to ask. The obvious argument against it, which the Committee explored in detail in 1991, is that it might further encourage the practice of what is generally known as syndication of parliamentary questions which I think the Office is quite clear is carried out by all parties and I think probably to all departments and has been (at least) since I was in the Office in the early 1980s. It is hard to see how parties would resist the temptation to encourage Members who were successful in the shuffle to ask a particular question. That, I think, is a judgement for Members and not for officials.

  293. In terms of just getting the details right, and I take your point entirely, and to some extent that is a bit like Prime Minister's Questions at the moment, although it is then not a written question so it is oral so it is not your problem, thinking back on the timescale, you would have to have the named-day shuffle, presumably, and then would you need a period by which someone would have to submit their question, and I suppose if the person had not brought a question in or whatever, they would get struck off?
  (Ms Irwin) I suppose so, yes. I would be surprised if many Members would not put questions down, but that is a personal opinion. What one needs to do in this instance is work back from what is the acceptable minimum notice for ministers that Members and ministers and civil servants agree allows the possibility of a reasonable answer in the House.


  294. Surely you would establish that to the suggested three days.
  (Ms Irwin) Let us say three days, so therefore, for answering on a Thursday we would probably be having the cut-off on a Monday. Let us say we could do the shuffle the previous week. Members could let us know in the course of a number of days whether they wanted to enter for a ballot. We could even take standing instructions, I suppose: Members were always in the ballot unless we were told otherwise. The ballot would happen, the notice would go up and all Members who were successful would be able to let us know. The number of days in advance that the shuffle had to be held in that circumstance is almost arbitrary.

  295. But you have just added one thing which certainly I had not considered. You have said that you would assume that all Members would be in the ballot.
  (Ms Irwin) Forgive me, no. I was not intending to say that. I was intending to say that I would assume that all Members whose names came out of the ballot in the top 20 or 30 or however many would then take the opportunity to put down a question. I suppose it is arguable that every Member other than those who by convention do not table questions might want to put their name in for every ballot (although they probably would not) - most Members tend to specialise. But there are some Members who table to every department.

  296. The reason I say that is that some Members, perhaps like Mr Hamilton, Mr Joyce and myself, might not be here for parliamentary questions on a Monday because we attend to things in our own constituencies before we fly or take the train or car back to London, and therefore we would not want to be in on a Monday.
  (Ms Irwin) You would give us that instruction. Anything like this would involve the Office in quite a bit of work to set up the right systems and computer programmes. We wait with eager anticipation to see what the Committee recommends and then we will be able to start preparing for it in detail, but we could have some sort of a system where you made it clear to the Office that if you did not enter the shuffle on a Monday that would mean that your name did not go in the ballot.

  297. You do not think still that they should indicate by e-mail or personally that they wish to do it? It is the first time, I have to say, that it has been suggested to us that there might be a standing order that you want to be entered into every ballot for questions except, shall we say, Monday.
  (Ms Irwin) It is just an idea, Mr Chairman. I would not necessarily want to push it.

Ms Munn

  298. I suppose in terms of topicality there is not a great deal of gain. The gain is that you do not spend a lot of time dreaming up your one question or picking it up from somebody else and putting it in with the option that it does not come out. It saves that bit of work but the topicality issue is no better.
  (Ms Irwin) No; I agree.

  299. Because the period of days would be the same.
  (Ms Irwin) Yes, I agree. It would be more to increase convenience to Members who would not have to stand waiting in the Table Office in order to put in a question which then comes out at number 80.

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