Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)



  300. Moving on to other possible ideas, not ones I am necessarily personally pushing but just exploring, one of the options which has been mentioned by a number of people is perhaps the opportunity to have a slot daily where topics could be raised at short notice as well as the ordinary questions. Is that a possible alternative to shortening the period of timing? There are issues which are going to be ongoing issues on which a lot of questions that come out are relevant still. It is only the fact that we have spoken particularly about perhaps foreign affairs where things are happening in the world fairly quickly and it can be very obvious that it has been two weeks since questions were tabled. If instead there was a slot of 20 minutes, say, on Foreign office questions, for example, where those issues could be raised, topical issues, as well as the ones which have been tabled some period before, what is your view on that?
  (Ms Irwin) I had not thought about it in quite the way you have suggested. In previous evidence you have had the suggestion has been made perhaps of a topical session after Question Time as some sort of halfway house between Question Time and private notice questions. I am sure this is something the Committee would want to seek the views of Mr Speaker on, but one could envisage, let us say, Foreign Office questions going on to 3.15 and then there being a slot for something tabled that morning or, say, the previous day on the issue of the moment. I know Mr Cook talked at some length when he gave evidence about the effect of the summer recess on Foreign Office questions in particular and the number of events in the world that can happen between tabling and answering. I would have thought it would work that way except of course that it would reduce the opportunity every week for what we might call the ordinary oral questions to be answered and that is a matter for Members to consider.
  (Mr Phillips) I just wondered whether you had in mind a slot that was always there that in a sense had to be filled or whether you had an opportunity which would be used only if there was a topical issue; because the two different approaches would have to be dealt with quite differently, would they not?

  301. I am thinking of something which would be more on a regular basis. The criticism has been, and, as I say, Foreign office questions are perhaps where it is most acute, that there can be some major stuff going on in the Middle East and there is not a question on the Middle East in the first 15, which happens. That does not help either in terms of back bench Members holding the Government to account or the Opposition holding the Government to account, nor in terms of how we as a Parliament appear to the outside world because everybody else is talking about the Middle East and we are talking about Africa, say. There is a mismatch there which I think it would be helpful if we could try and address.
  (Ms Irwin) The only argument against doing that within each question period when the minister would be there - but that is perhaps part of your thinking, so it would be relatively convenient would be that it would reduce the opportunity for Question Time as we know it now unless there was an extension of the period overall.


  302. Meg has touched on having a reserved period within Foreign Affairs or Defence questions or whatever questions it might be for topical questions. There is the thought also that there might be a specific period after the normal questions to have a topical question session, say, twice a week and this could well be a matter of discussion between Government and Opposition. The Opposition may well give up what we are doing today, two or three supply day debates, in order to have guaranteed, twice a week, a 20-minute or half hour slot for the Opposition to ask topical questions. Do you think that that would be more acceptable than the scenario which Meg Munn is painting, ie, having a slice of the normal Question Time devoted to topical questions within that sphere of questions, Foreign Affairs, Defence, whatever?
  (Ms Irwin) First, it probably is not for us to say what would be more or less acceptable, though I am fairly sure that in this field this is something the Committee will want to have discussions with the Speaker about. My immediate thought is that it would reduce the pressure on the Speaker to allow private notice questions if there was a regular accepted slot for topical events. Then one needs to think what sort of a system it would be, assuming that notice was given of them, which I think would be essential to get the minister there, briefed. We would obviously work with whatever system the House recommended. One would need to specify a minimum period of notice, I think, perhaps the previous day, at a set time. One would need to think about the rules for questions. Would one have the same rules as for all other questions? I imagine, if they were strictly topical, that most of them would take the form of something like, "If he or she will make a statement about —", so that probably would not be difficult. If there were many applications there would have to be some criteria for selecting them. You would either say that the Opposition has this slot every week or there is a period of, say, 20 minutes, half an hour, during which topical questions may be asked and then it is all right if, say, you only get three in. But if there were a dozen applications as, let us say, during the foot and mouth crisis there might have been lots of different angles to foot and mouth where Members wanted to ask a topical question, somebody would have to select and I suppose that somebody might well be the Speaker with a bit of advice. I do not know if, when the Committee was in Edinburgh, you had any discussion about the selection of First Minister's Questions there.

  303. We did.
  (Ms Irwin) There the Presiding Officer selects the questions and they publish a set of criteria which I can pass on to the Committee if you have not got them already.

  304. And generally, if my memory serves me correctly on that very successful visit that we paid to the Scottish Parliament nearly a couple of weeks ago, the two main Opposition parties get slots one and two in the First Minister's questions. I am not sure then how the rest fare but we do have the evidence that has been given to us. Six questions are selected. Preference is given to topical questions and questions suitable for supplementary questions. Reasonable political balance between the parties in their share of question is maintained over time. Questions from the Opposition party leaders are taken first and second, as I have implied, but otherwise diary questions on the line to ask the First Minister when he last met X are avoided. Unnecessary duplication of questions already randomly selected for Question Time is avoided, and, subject to the above, account is taken of individual Members' previous record of selection for Prime Minister's Question Time which seems to be eminently fair.
  (Ms Irwin) I think some such set of criteria could be established if you needed criteria for topical Question Time. If you did not I think there would have to be some means determined between the usual channels of providing the opportunities for other parties, but I think it is either selection or the usual channels.

  Chairman: We do not want to put you in a difficult political spot.

Ms Munn

  305. My final question, in terms again of looking at the different options there might be around opening up opportunities or doing things in different ways, is perhaps an idea that departmental ministers might have a Question Time in Westminster Hall at some point, or even that there might be a different type of Prime Minister's Questions in Westminster Hall, again with perhaps a selected group of Members. Do you have any views on that over the selection of Members for such a thing or how easy that would be to set up a system to deal with that?
  (Ms Irwin) I would not presume to suggest how to select a group of Members to question the Prime Minister, but I do notice that he is going to appear before the Liaison Committee.

  306. All 34 of them.
  (Ms Irwin) I think it would be possible to have Question Time outside the Chamber. We have one sort of Question Time outside the Chamber already which is the European Standing Committees where, after making an introductory statement, the Minister is then subjected to questions without notice for a period before the debate begins. I think those are generally reckoned both by Members and by ministers to be successful occasions. Grand Committees, as Roger prompts me—Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland—all have a Question Time possible and it is a matter for negotiation before each meeting of the Committee, I believe, whether there is going to be a Question Time. If there is, the Table Office accepts questions up to a date, indeed questions in advance. We take questions over a number of days (so perhaps my earlier suggestion is not as novel as all that) for Question Time in the Scottish Grand Committee. There is not a quota and on the determined day, which is announced in the Order Paper when the date of the meeting is announced, we have a separate shuffle for that to determine the order in which questions are asked.


  307. Anything else to add, Roger?
  (Mr Phillips) No. Helen's answer was very full.

David Hamilton

  308. Without digressing, it was one of the issues that was discussed in the last Parliament, the Scottish Grand Committee, the Welsh Grand Committee and the Northern Ireland Grand Committee Question Time. It may be one of the areas that each of the regions in England may wish to look at because we feel that that is quite a successful mechanism to ask about local issues. The question was, in relation to topical days, are we to pose any move towards an Opposition day? If you work out the figures, the Opposition get far too many questions as it is. It is a fact. They get far too many questions based on the number of MPs that are here. Therefore, to have a further Opposition Day where Labour MPs are merely cut out of the circle would be totally wrong. I would agree with topical days to talk about a topic, but I would not agree with an Opposition Day. One other point. There were many good things that we saw in Scotland. It was an enlightening visit and I will come on to the electronic part now. One of the things which was a major disadvantage was that on the day that we were there the Leader of the third Opposition, Conservatives, did not make it because of the funeral on that morning, and if the Deputy Leader had not had a question in the first six the Presiding Officer would have had to find a mechanism to allow him a path to get in to speak on behalf of the Opposition. They do have their own problems in relation to that and it is one which they picked up from us, that that just would not have happened down here, so it is maybe one they can take back and have a look at. That is just an observation.
  (Ms Irwin) I was just looking up the Standing Order about the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs while Mr Hamilton was speaking because I could not remember whether it had provision for Question Time. It does not, though it does have provision for questions after a statement. One could certainly envisage a similar sort of Question Time in the Regional Affairs Standing Committee to that in the other Grand Committee.

  Chairman: To clarify the remarks made by David Hamilton, the point that I put about topical questions, not unlike perhaps the system in the House of Lords, is that the subject would be chosen by the Opposition and the people who got in would be Government and Opposition backbench Members. It would not be exclusively Opposition Members, very similar, of course, to what goes on currently in the House of Lords which is well thought of by many people in the House of Commons. This is some of the evidence that we have taken in questions that we have put already, and if such a proposal came forward it would clearly reduce the number of supply days that the Opposition has, ie, they would barter a different procedure for the number of supply days. This has been put forward in some of the written evidence that we have had. It is a way of trying to make the House of Commons more relevant and that clearly is one of the major objectives of our inquiry.

David Hamilton

  309. At the present time we have 481 written questions (each day) as opposed to back in 1997/98 when we had 252 questions. If we were talking in terms of the electronic tabling, and the recent increase in the number of questions being tabled, how significant is the increase? What are the reasons for that? Is the trend likely to continue and is it having a detrimental effect on the ability of the Table Office to process questions and advise Members? I made the point earlier on that I was in there today and the queue went right to the door, so I left rather early. Does that create a major problem for you?
  (Ms Irwin) The queue is usually of Members wanting to table oral questions, although I think sometimes a Member bringing in an oral question may want also to talk about other questions at the same time or questions on which we have indicated there is a problem. There has been a very marked increase this session. We have just been looking at numbers going back further and I think we have supplied them for the Committee's information. There have been other years in which there have been a lot of written questions, never as many as in the last year. The figures I have here are for sessions but not for financial years which are figures we have already given you. In election years we have got up to 52,000/56,000 written questions. In a year which was not an election year, let us say, 1994-95, there were 44,994 written questions, of which slightly more than half were ordinary written. One cannot tell whether the number of questions is going to stay very high. It very much depends on Members. It does have an effect on the work of the Office and I think we are perhaps coming on to electronic questions. One of our, I would not say worries but one of the things we are anticipating if electronic tabling is allowed is that the numbers may go up yet again and we will have to take steps to address the resource implications. It might be helpful if I say that I have already sought authority for an additional clerk in the Office for the coming session, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is to help with the implementation of any recommendations that may come out of this inquiry or because of changes in our printing arrangements which are currently ongoing, and because if some sort of e-tabling is allowed I would envisage that that would increase the workload.

  310. I will stick with the manual questions at the present time. I notice that one Member of the House has asked 3,300 questions to date. I think we should have a department just for that alone. The issue is, what are the arguments for and against imposing a quota on the number of written questions which can be tabled each day. If there are to be quotas, should these apply to all written questions or only named-day ones, or should they apply on a daily, weekly, monthly or sessional basis? What are the administrative implications of such a quota being developed?
  (Ms Irwin) Most complaints about Members relate to named-day questions and the delays in answering them. I would guess, and as Members you are much better able to answer this than I am, that most Members would resist an overall quota on the number of ordinary written questions that a Member might ask. We observe that all questions get answers and are treated very seriously by Government departments in answering them. The question of a quota really arises about named-day questions and in particular questions put down for the earliest named-day, when we have talked about how we could handle a quota which is not always straightforward. We would find it quite difficult to manage a quota that went over a long period of time, like a year or a month, because the POLIS system on which we depend for a lot of our managing of data is not set up to do that and so we would have to set up some additional system in the Office and it would I think be quite labour intensive to do that. A weekly or daily quota would be quite easy. We could manage quotas which were numerical. Quotas which were a percentage of anything would be really quite difficult to keep track of.


  311. Would you, in answering David Hamilton's question, perhaps be prepared to share with us what you consider would be a reasonable daily and weekly quota for named-day questions?
  (Ms Irwin) I think it is hard to see why more than one or two questions in a day are so urgent that they need an answer on the earliest named day. Then of course something really big might come up, so the quota would probably have to be more generous.

  312. Are you going to help us with precise figures? I do not want percentages. I want figures, ie, straightforward numbers.
  (Ms Irwin) I am going to cop out. Perhaps Roger can help.
  (Mr Phillips) I am just going to remind you, Chairman, that of course some people who table questions are spokesmen for their parties and may be preparing for a debate, and so to impose on everybody the same quota and for us to find a number would be to enter into something that is beyond our qualifications because it depends on what you are preparing for. If you know that two weeks from now there is going to be a debate coming up and you are a party spokesman, you may well quite validly need within a week to have a whole raft of questions answered. Any system would have to be able to cope with that.

  313. Let me act as Devil's advocate. Would you say five named-day questions a day would be adequate, ten named-day questions a day would be adequate?
  (Ms Irwin) Five would already be way in excess of the actual named-day questions tabled by all but perhaps a handful of Members.

  314. But it is the handful of Members that abuse the named-day question process.
  (Ms Irwin) About 50 per cent of questions are put down for named days. The proportion varies from year to year but it has been pretty steady at about 50 per cent since the named-day system was introduced.

Eric Joyce

  315. The question really is, is there a small number of people that put in such a large number of questions that it significantly affects the overall figure?
  (Ms Irwin) Yes, there certainly is. Do you have any numbers about named-day questions, Janet?
  (Ms Hunter) I do not on the named days. I do not think any of the top six that I have there would do that. Roger might want to come in.
  (Ms Irwin) Members who have tabled the most questions this year account for about 15 per cent of written questions overall. Could we look easily and see how many of those are named days?
  (Ms Hunter) No.
  (Ms Irwin) It is not statistically maintained but we could do you a snapshot.

  Chairman: It would be helpful if you could do that. I am merely seeking to respond to some of the evidence that was given to us by civil servants who indicated that in their view there were a number of named-day questions which really there was no reason for them to be named days. There was no urgency and it did of course create considerable problems for the civil servants and I think I can understand that.

Mr Swayne

  316. To what extent do you distinguish in your statistics between the first available named day and other named days? It was my habit as a spokesman to give ten days' notice. Had that been an opportunity I would have given longer notice but I was not prepared frankly to lose a question by not making it a named-day question because the chances are then that some two months later you are still getting answers to the question. I am still receiving answers now to questions that I tabled when I was a defence spokesman at the end of last year. It is not just a question of there being an urgency. There are other reasons.
  (Ms Irwin) We have already given the Committee some figures on these. Twenty three per cent of written questions tabled were tabled for the earliest named day in 1994/95. Last year it was 26 per cent tabled for the earliest named day. Coming back to what you said earlier, Mr Chairman, it is very difficult sometimes to see why one question is put down for the earliest named day as compared with another which a Member regarded as an ordinary request, but there are some which are clearly regarded as urgent.
  (Mr Phillips) To say what is an abuse and what is not is very difficult for us, of course, but it is certainly true that many Members automatically ask for the first named day. That is an instruction that we are not allowed to take except orally from a Member when they turn round and say, "What is the first named day? I will have that one." Whether that is an abuse, that is to say it is not actually really urgent, and that it is that they just want in some way to get their question up in the queue because they think it will be lost otherwise, is a matter for you to judge. I think a large number of the questions that are effectively named day questions are put down by Members because they have that habit. It is certainly true that the sense of urgency and the named day system has been broken. I think the statistics will show that.


  317. The reason we are pressing this matter is that we do not want the question process to be abused and we want Members, when they do get an answer, to get a proper and full answer, not just a holding answer which is to virtually everybody most unacceptable. Therefore, if a named-day question is required, it should be necessary because of a debate, whatever it is, that that Member wants that information for. If there is not a specific purpose for getting it on a named day one should rely upon the normal written question procedure.
  (Mr Phillips) The other thing that occurs about a ration of course is that if you did impose a ration you would have to be very strict, I assume, about deciding what constituted one question, because of course at the moment a written question can have quite a few questions within it, which is another common theme: for example whether a question was five questions or one is something which we would need guidance on.

David Hamilton

  318. With regard to the rules governing the contents of the questions the Table Office have the job of enforcing the House's rules on the content of the questions. In your experience do the Members observe the rules? Unless there is a level of self-discipline by Members it is very difficult. Do you get animosity or any problems when you delay questions because you consider them to be in breach of the rules?
  (Ms Irwin) Perhaps I might start and Roger, who deals with Members face to face all the time, can come on. Members will know that if a question is held up by the Office because we consider it is in breach of the rules, I have to authorise as head of the Office the delaying of the question. Therefore, a Member who disagrees violently with the Office when a question is held up has a first and obvious place to come and complain and that is me. No Member has come to complain to me about a question being held up in the 12 months and a bit since I became head of the Office.[20]

  319. Is that to do with you?
  (Ms Irwin) No, on the contrary, I think it is to do with the Clerks in the Office in whom Members generally have confidence. Roger deals with the difficult conversations every day so perhaps he can amplify that.
  (Mr Phillips) After 20 years' service I am still surprised at how politely we are dealt with by Members, and I am very grateful for that. It is of course difficult. All our conversations really are based on specific questions and so most of our conversations are about why this should be against the rules and so on. It is our duty to explain why the rules are there. I do not think, and I was very interested to pick this up in the evidence before, that many Members disagree with the rules in principle. They may be frustrated, quite reasonably, about their application, but I think there is a very central question here which is extremely important, namely, what do you want questions to be for, because most of the rules that we apply boil down to the fact that they are either for getting facts or pressing for action. Pretty well everything that we do arises from those two principles. I do not get much feedback from Members that in principle they disagree with that.

20   Note by witness: This answer refers to formal complaints which would need to be examined in detail and possibly referred to the Speaker. There is every day, of course, much informal discussion, including with the head of the office, about the orderliness of individual questions. Back

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