Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)
TUESDAY 21 MAY 2002
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 becauseand Members will excuse menot
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.
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
(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 thinkand Roger will correct me if
I am wrongthat 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
289. And tabled early?
(Mr Phillips) Yes, so that we could take it earlier.
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.
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
(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.
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
(Ms Irwin) No; I agree.
299. Because the period of days would be the
(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.