Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)
TUESDAY 21 MAY 2002
320. A person comes into the Vote Office on
the day because he has got a card to tell him he has to come in
because of a contest. He or she is then informed that the question
has already been asked the previous day. He or she then accepts
that. How much extra work would it be if you then said, "Why
would you want that information?" For example, send a card
to me saying, "Why do you want that information on a set
day? Why do you need to have it then?", because that would
reduce the named-day questions if you tell Members, "You
do not really need a date for this", and then the Member
would have to come back.
(Mr Phillips) If you are asking me whether we could
apply a rule asking Members to justify why they should have a
Named Day Question, clearly Clerks cannot apply subjective rules.
There would have to be a set of objective criteria against which,
just out of simple justice, we could point to the Member and say,
"Well excuse me, Mr Hamilton, but this is your quota, you're
one over", or "Excuse me, but there isn't an upcoming
debate which this refers to", or whatever the rule is that
the House seeks to impose.
321. Then in that case would it not be appropriate
that when the question goes in there is also a section there which
indicates that it has to be on a named day, if it is on a named
(Ms Irwin) We could invent some such set of criteria.
I think they would need to be blessed by the Committee and the
House before they could be applied. I suspect that even if there
were a set of criteriafor example, a debate coming upthere
would be circumstances in which Members disagreed with the Office's
interpretation of those criteria, and one might end up with a
lot of appeals for Mr Speaker against refusals by the Office,
which I think would be an uncomfortable outcome of a recommendation
for quotas. I think the Committee has to decide how big or how
small a quota to recommend. This really is much more a matter
for Members than for us, but we could certainly operate a system
322. So what you are saying is that a quota
system could be administered?
(Ms Irwin) Yes. Could I just say that it possibly
would be best if it were self-policingin other words, if
it were a daily quota so that Members did not have to wait while
their record was checked. If we had a daily quota, Members would
very quickly get into a habit of policing it. Of course, some
Members might then put all their questions down for the named
day, so the number of Named Day Questions might go up, but they
might be spread.
323. Is it your belief or understanding that
if there were a quota on Named Day Questions it might improve
the answers that Members get from the departments?
(Ms Irwin) I think it would be a reasonable expectation
that there would be a reduction in the number of holding answers.
Chairman: Thank you. We now move on to Eric
Joyce who has a series of questions which I know he wishes to
put to our witnesses.
324. You have already answered questions about
electronic tabling. Do you think it would increase the number
of questions that were put down?
(Ms Irwin) I do not know whether you need to impose
some kind of limit, but my expectation is that it would increase
the number. By how much depends on some of the other factors around
electronic tabling of questions, principally who writes them,
whether they are written by the Member or whether they are written
by a researcher, or whether they are written by an outside body
or organisation which sends them to a Member and asks them to
325. On verificationwhich is, I guess,
one of the key issues of submission by e-mailit seems to
me that you can either have a fairly complex system (and I refer
to the technical expertise behind me), so you can have a fairly
complex system like swipe cards and so forth, or you can have
a system which relies very much on the word, if you like, of the
Member that it is theirs and that they know it is actually being
submitted. Each has, I guess, both strengths and weaknesses. Do
you have any comments on either of those systems?
(Ms Irwin) I think you are right, those are the two
poles. The House of Lords simply take an authorisation from a
Peer that they may accept questions coming in by e-mail and, as
far as I am aware, have not encountered any problems with it,
but of course the scale of questions in the House of Lords is
very, very different from this House, so they probably, frankly,
recognise the style of the Peer writing the question. In Scotland
they have a slightly different system, I think, in that a Member
has to authorise the Office to receive questions from identified,
specified e-mail addresses. One thing we have thought about was
whether the parliamentary networkthe PDVNitself
could be the sort of wall around the system, so that electronic
questions could only be tabled from addresses on the network such
as either Members' offices here or in their constituencies.
326. Or in their constituency or their home?
(Ms Irwin) Yes, if they were on the network, via the
present Citrix connection. The PCD are doing quite a lot of work
on that, and I presume the Committee has had some material from
PCD about this. It boils down to how much certainty you want to
build in that the question originates with the particular Member.
We all know that Members table questions, Members pre-sign question
forms, and it would be invidious of me to tell you here, Mr Chairman,
whose question form this is, but I have here an exampleand
the Office receives them by accident. Quite frequently when a
pile of questions comes in from a particular Membernot
one particular Member, but from Memberssome of them will
be blank pieces of paper with a signature on the bottom. Members
trust their researchers. I know that in some cases the researcher
will know more about the subject matter than the Member, and the
Member is probably using their researcher's expertise to draft
questions for them. I think that the point at which the Committee
needs to be worried about authentication is the risk that the
system might be genuinely abused. The House is clearly open to
hackers trying to get in. Members are significant public figures,
and someone might try to table a question for entirely mischievous
reasons on a Member's behalf. As I alluded to a minute or two
ago, there are many organisations who, as we know, try to get
questions tabled in the House by asking Members to table them
for them. There is nothing improper about that if a Member is
doing it knowingly and the questions are otherwise in order. However,
if an organisation with which a Member has some sort of a financial
relationshipthey were an adviser, for examplesubmitted
questions directly electronically in a Member's name, there is
a risk that a Member could breach the advocacy rule prohibiting
the initiation of parliamentary proceedings from organisations
from which they have benefited. I do not think it is an entirely
far-fetched worry; I think it is one that the Committee should
bear in mind.
327. Could this be covered if e-mails or electronic
questions were only able to be within the wall of the PDVN?
(Ms Irwin) I am not a technical expert, as you know,
Mr Chairman. You would need to take much better qualified technical
advice than from me.
328. I agree with you. Professor Hynds, who
is advising us, I am sure is hearing what we are saying. I am
concerned, like you are, that there could well be a lobbying organisation
which could have got the code or number of the Member's swipe
card or whatever and copied it, or in some other way they are
able to identify themselves as the Member for X. They could table
a whole series of questions without that Member ever knowing that
the questions had been tabled in his name until he perhaps saw
them on the Order Paper.
(Ms Irwin) That is the ultimate that I am suggesting
might happen. I should stress, I am not trying, Mr Chairman, in
any way to suggest that we think that electronic tabling of questions
should not be allowed. The Office is generally committed to using
IT wherever we can.
Chairman: I think we can tell you that it is
Mr Swayne: Steady on!
329. I said "it is almost inevitable".
I cannot anticipate the Committee, but I fear, from the strength
of opinion in the House which resulted from the survey that this
Committee put out, that there is overwhelming support for the
electronic tabling of questions. Whether we recommend it or not,
at the end of the day the decision, as you know, Helen, rests
with the House.
(Ms Irwin) Indeed. I think the Committee has to decide
whether it wants to recommend a system which is relatively straightforward
and not terribly expensive, which would involve some additional
work being done in the House's PDVN system and a bit of software
work in our Office, or whether you want to go for something which
is more secure, closer to the sort of thing the banks do with
I think what are called electronic keys or swipe cards, as you
mentioned, using the parliamentary pass. My understanding is that
that would be significantly more expensive, but it would be significantly
more secure, and I think the Committee has to decide where it
wants the balance to rest.
330. On the practicalities of dealing with questions,
would it still be carded, if the question was an appropriate one,
if it were done by e-mail? I think that in your submission you
said that that is sometimes done and that you deal with EDMs and
queries by e-mail, when required. Is that how it is going to be
(Mr Phillips) We page people on requests. We do not
actually e-mail them so far.
(Ms Irwin) But we have an e-mail address and we are
accustomed to having queries from a handful of Members by e-mail,
though I have to say that most Members do not use that. I would
envisage, if questions were received electronicallyat least,
I am advised by colleagues who know more about IT than I dothat
we should not talk about e-mailing questions, that is not the
most sensible route, but one should talk about using a web-based
system where Members fill in a template. I would envisage that
we would build into the system in the Table Office some means
of automatically telling the Member that the question had been
received, because you cannot guarantee the time an e-mail arrives,
and also an e-mail card instead of a cardboard card if there was
a problem with the question. I would be very reluctant, I think,
to go beyond that into an e-mail exchange with the Member about
the text of the question if it needed significant change. That
might build in quite long delays because, as you will understand,
the Clerks in the Office are always going to have to give priority
to the Member who walks in, but we would send an electronic version
of the present card saying, "Please ring the Office or please
(Mr Phillips) I think a different set of problems
arises, Mr Joyce, between oral questions and written questions.
Whenever we are discussing electronic means of communication I
think we need to bear in mind that the two things are completely
separate. We are a paper-based system, and I think that until
several years hence we will remain so, so we would receive everything
on paper, print it out, examine it in the traditional way and
then contact the Member. In the case of written questions, there
is not a deadline, so we can send an electronic card. When the
Member telephones, we can talk about it and the business is done.
Particularly if you change the deadline for oral questions to
something quite close there is a problem. If we are receiving
all the questions that way and the paper is printed out, clearly
Members who are present take precedence. So by the time we look
at the question, decide we have to card it, send the card and
the Member may no longer be in his office or her office, there
are problems associated with making sure it goes into the "shuffle".
Therefore, I think we would issue a health warning about use of
e-tabling for oral questions too close to the deadline. If Mr
Hamilton's viewpoint is adopted and we are more liberal, so you
can send it in a week in advance, or three days in advance or
whatever, then of course that particular problem tends to be mitigated.
I think that oral questions are an especially difficult category
to cope with and, of course, we could not in realistic terms,
as Helen has said, enter into correspondence by e-mail.
(Ms Irwin) Perhaps I could go on, Mr Chairman, to
say that you said earlier that this was potentially some sort
of Pandora's Box. It is certainly true that everything is related
to everything else, and I think that if the Committee were minded
to recommend that oral questions could be tabled by e-mail, one
would then need to revisit the question of tabling oral questions
by post. You will recollect that in 1991 the Committee recommended
that oral questions must be handed into the Office in person.
The reason for that was to try to prevent syndication, which I
think probably it is fair to say it has not done. It may be that
you would want to recommend that oral questions could be delivered
by post, and if there was more than one day on which oral questions
could arrive in the Office then that might be quite convenient
for Members too. It is not, I think, terribly practical if all
oral questions have to come in on the same day and rely on the
331. I have a couple more points to put to you.
If there was a big upsurge in the amount of questions put down,
what would the resource implications be for your Office?
(Ms Irwin) For that reason, as I said earlier, Mr
Joyce, I have asked for authority for an extra Clerk in the Lower
Office this year. It is a bit more a question of wait and see,
I think, for the other staff and, indeed, equipment. We would
certainly need another computer with different sorts of software.
I envisage that we would have a Clerk upstairs working on questions
that come in electronically, at least to start with, because of
the queuing in the Office, and we may have to look at the resourcesnumbers
of staff, hours, shiftsin the Upper Office as well, depending
very much on how many Members use it and the system we find most
satisfactory for dealing with electronically tabled questions
in the end. As Roger said, because we will have to print them
out to have a formal record in case there is a query later, something
to put in the Member's file at the end of the day and something
to get to the printers, in the first instance we would be printing
things out. There are various IT developments in the House which
may mean that longer term much more will be done electronically
and we shall be able to work on a question coming in on electronic
form and sending it thereon to the printers and into the system.
One of these developments is what we call the Vote Bundle project
which is changing the way the Daily Papers or the Vote Bundle
is printed, so that instead of it being originated at the press
it is much more under our control. We are moving into the questions
phase of that next year. Any recommendation this Committee makes
will obviously be taken into account in the system we develop
for that database. There is a much bigger House-wide project probable,
though final authority has not been given yet, for an overarching
information management system perhaps. That gives the potential
to move things electronically, but when we talk about that project
we are talking about a number of years. I am assuming the House
will not want to wait that long for Members to table questions
electronically. So at our end of it it might look a bit steam-driven,
but I think it is possible to give Members an opportunity to get
their questions in electronically relatively soon.
332. Does it impact, Janet, upon you at all?
(Ms Hunter) It will do, yes, but just with the amount
of printing out that we would have to do, though that would obviously
depend on the system we had to put in place.
333. If and when we run a pilot, do you think
it would be sensible to put a limit initially on the amount of
questions that can be sent via e-mail on a pre-assigned form,
or simply not to have a limit and see what happens?
(Ms Irwin) I had not thought about that. I suppose
it would make it easier for us in working out how to handle them,
if there were some sort of a limit. I had rather envisaged that
any introduction of e-tabling might be quite gradual, because
not all Members would do it at once, so in the first week it would
be one or two and then it would build up. Indeed, I suspect there
are quite a lot of Members in the House, possibly even the Chairman
of this Committee, I might say, who might not take advantage of
an opportunity to table questions in that way.
(Mr Phillips) There is, of course, already a ration
for oral questions, so this is only written questions you are
334. It is worth getting on record that there
are, of course, quotas, as it were, or a ration of oral questions;
you cannot ask any unlimited numbers of oral questions on a particular
(Ms Irwin) But if the Committee were minded to recommend
a pilot, it probably would be to our convenience if there were
some sort of initial limit, unless that made even more work by
administering the ration.
335. Are you going to comment on that, Janet?
(Ms Hunter) No.
336. You are not. Discretion indeed.
(Ms Hunter) Yes.
337. I have one final question. There might
be implicationsthis would effectively be pre-judging thisfor
EDMs and motions in the House and so forth, that if such a pilot
were successful then logic would dictate that that might be a
sensible way to do those other things in the future.
(Ms Irwin) I am sure that if electronic tabling of
questions starts, there will be irresistible pressure for electronic
tabling of other proceedings. My colleagues in the Public Bill
Office I think would be able to advise on an acceptable system
with time, but it might very well be best to wait and see how
questions go before other bits of new systems are developed around
338. But we are associating very closely with
questions parliamentary motions, Early Day Motions?
(Ms Irwin) Indeed. On Early Day Motions I have just
two worries, and you may or may not think they are significant.
One is that a lot of Members sign the same motion more than once,
so the numbers would come in over and over again. The other is
that there have been instances, one quite recently, when Members'
names have been attached to an Early Day Motion without their
express authority, without their knowledge. There might be even
greater scope for that if you could accept instructions electronically.
At the moment we rely on a signature or the word of a Member in
Eric Joyce: There is always scope for abuse
with electronic systems. In some forms of abuse people are submitting
questions that were not submitted by the Member and the Member
had no knowledge of it, and on occasion I think this has been
treated as a criminal offence. If it was done by someone in the
House, I presume there would be some kind of penalty imposed by
the Speaker such asI do not knowa slap across the
bottom with a slipper. If you were to submit something and the
Member did not know about it, surely there could be some kind
339. You are sitting next to somebody who knows
a great deal about corporal punishment, your colleague Meg Munn.
What I am saying is that there is already evidence, is there not,
and there have been, I think, a number of occasions when Members'
names have been added to Early Day Motions without their sanction,
it has been raised on the floor of the House and Mr Speaker or
Madam Speaker has deprecated such activity?
(Ms Irwin) Indeed, very strongly, not many weeks ago.
Chairman: Thank you very much. We come now to