Examination of Witnesses (Questions 64-98)|
Mark Durkan MP. Jane Ellison MP. Paul Flynn MP. Duncan
Hames MP. Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP
8 December 2010
Q64 Chair: Thank
you all for coming. We appreciate you very much giving up your
valuable time to share with us the benefit of your views in respect
of our inquiry into ministerial statements. It is an unusual inquiry
in that I think there is a unanimous view as to what the outcome
should be, namely that Ministers should make their statements
first to the House and not to the press outside. What we are particularly
looking at is what mechanism should be in place to encourage that
and what sanctions should fall upon a Minister who doesn't follow
the rule that the House should be told first. Do any of you wish
to make an opening statement giving us your views and comments
or do you wish to go straight to questions?
I'm happy to get straight to questions.
Q65 Chair: Is
that the view of you all? There has been talk of setting up a
protocol to deal with this. How do you see such a protocol working
and what do you think should be in the protocol? Maybe we could
just start from Mark and move across.
Mark Durkan: That
begs the question as to who establishes the protocol and who owns
it. I think that's part of the problem that Parliament has in
this, that the whole issue of ministerial accountability is deemed
to be the preserve of the ministerial code, and any time that
Members find themselves raising questions or issues around what
statements Ministers haven't made or what has been in statements
they have made, the Speaker has found him or herself basically
playing a Wailing Wall role listening to this complaint and then
saying, "I'm sure your complaint has been heard on the Treasury
bench" and then it's left to the Treasury bench to resolve.
If we believe that Parliament is a chamber of
accountability then we, as Parliament, should be drawing up our
own House "code of accountability", as a phrase I would
use, or protocol in your terms, where we have to indicate. It
probably can't be fully precise and exhaustive but at least start
off as a credible, sort of Highway Code as to the dos and don'ts
in relation to where statements are made, where priority needs
to be given to Parliament, and that maybe sets down guidelines
and they will be nuanced over time as to where a written statement
is sufficient and appropriate and where an oral statement is absolutely
So I think it's establishing a House code of
accountability that then becomes the property of this House, whether
it's then under the guardianship of this Committee or some other
construct that we have. But I think that's what needs to happen.
That's something that needs to be taken from the Executive. This
can't be something that's left in the Executive black box as to
whether or not the requirements for accountability and openness
and transparency to the House, on the part of Ministers, have
been adequately discharged.
Jane Ellison: I
suppose a couple of points, if I can make them as a new Member,
I mean I think that whatever you consider, it would certainly
be helpful if we addressed the issue of predictability. Some stronger
guideline that we all understood about when a statement might
be made and when it could be expected is certainly something I
hope that you address. I've certainly found it quite hard to get
to grips with a parliamentary timetable that can be so heavily
shifted very quickly out of kilter by statements, some of which
occasionally are emergency statements, but many of which could
have been predicted quite a long time in advance and planned for.
Certainly, it can make life quite difficult.
One of the points I made, when I spoke in the
debate on this subject, was about a protocol that helps to drive
a culture change because I think that actually the problem isn't
just with Ministers of whatever Government. I think probably some
of the problem lies in a sort of general diminution of respect
for Parliament, Parliament's role over a period of time, when,
for want of a better word, "kitchen Cabinets" have been
seen to be running the country and therefore a sense of, "Oh
well, we don't need to let those guys down the road know about
it" has grown up. So I think that any protocol that your
Committee comes up with and recommends to the House and to the
Executive should be one that would also help them drive a culture
change within their ministerial department, so it's clearly understood
I suppose I'm slightly conscious that whatever
protocol you come up with shouldn't be something just used as
a blunt instrument to bash Ministers over the head with. It needs
to be something that actually encapsulates trying to make the
House do its job better rather than be seen, if you like, just
as a tool for whoever is the Opposition of the day.
Paul Flynn: Can
I take the point that Jane made about the timetable for these
announcements, which all come out by 12 o'clock when we first
hear about them? There is absolutely no reason why they shouldn't
be announced at least a week earlier in most cases. I mean they
could always change them round if necessary, but it'll take a
lot of the criticism out of this if we had advance notice.
It's also used the other way because on 16 November
there were two very important statements made. They were very
newsworthy, and that was the one on the Redfern Inquiry about
the unauthorised taking of body parts from former nuclear workers,
and it went on for 40 years by the nuclear industry without the
consent or the knowledge of their loved ones. This was a statement
of enormous importance. And also immediately afterwards the Guantanamo
Civil Litigation Settlement, again a matter of some controversy
because it was being made, millions of pounds were being given
in compensation without any defensible rational policy for doing
it. But both those statements were buried by the news that came
out that same day of the engagement in the Royal family, and it
seems that certainly the Government took advantage of that period
to do that.
The problem is there aren't any sanctions that
are used currently in the House. I'm sure there are sanctions
under Erskine May. I can't see why we can't revive the process,
which has hardly been witnessed by anyone who is still in the
House now, and that's calling Members to the Bar of the House
to be admonished by the Speaker. I'm told it's a terrifying experience
but it hasn't been used, and it can be used, I think, without
any change. If the Speaker believes that the Minister has decided
to leak for their own advantage beforehand the substance of a
report, he can do that.
We know the experience in the Scottish Parliament,
which I'm sure you're well acquainted with in 2001, wherein the
Speaker then refused to allow a Minister to make a statement because
all the detail of the statement was in that morning's newspapers,
and I believe he went straight into allowing the Opposition to
address what was in the morning's newspapers. The great difficulty
there, there wasn't that chance for Members to question the person
who was making the statement, so there are difficulties there.
It is a possibility. But I believe the Speaker could assert his
authority in a different way.
There is another area, which is a very difficult
one to anticipate, and that's the statements that have great gaping
holes in them, and there were two recently: one by the Foreign
Secretary and one by the Prime Minister after they had both visited
Afghanistan. They did statements, one in May, one in June, to
the House in which they described in glowing maniacally optimistic
terms how well things were going in Afghanistan but neither of
them, on the two occasions, mentioned that they couldn't complete
their journeys and their planned itinerary because of the threat
of the Taliban. The Taliban might have shot down the helicopter
that David Cameron was in. These two huge facts, the most significant
thing by far that happened on their itinerary, were somehow omitted
from the statements. So we have sins of omission as well as sins
Q66 Chair: Before
I come on to you, Nick: just going back to what you've said, if
you were to have a system where statements were announced a week
in advance, wouldn't that increase the number of leaks, because
the press would want to find out what was behind the heading that
had been flagged up?
Paul Flynn: If
we take what the position is now where the last two Governments
have been obsessed with the need to have a daily drip feed of
adulation from the press. They talk about them, I believe, as
announceables, and they carefully plan these to make sure that
the Government is seen in the best possible light. Well, I believe
if we are talking about a policyI mean today we heard on
the Today programme this morning there is going to be a
new policy on drugs. I mean, there is no statement in the House.
One would have thought there would have been. But the Government
can avoid their cross-examination on that. We did have a statement
on the social security system, which always takes place every
year, the uprating statement takes place, but I believe there
isI mean we are hearing, even from a Government as young
as this, the possibility that Secretaries of State are organising
their own leaks. That has been suggested and it may well be happening,
but I don't know how we'd avoid that.
But certainly as far as backbench Members are
concerned, we'd certainly like to haveI mean the Redfern
report is a typical point where I reorganised my week in a certain
way, and I had to change everything when I knew this report was
coming out, because it was something that I'd had a longstanding
interest in. But I believe it would certainly help backbenchers,
but the possibility of leaks I don't think can be avoided.
But if the Speaker could find some way of admonishing
the person that he thinks responsible, the head of the department,
it might possibly have some effect. At the moment, I don't think
he can do much but have a quiet word in private with the offender.
Jane Ellison: Chairman,
just a very small point, just picking up on the specific example
of the day Paul just quoted. I have as a former constituent the
last remaining British resident in Guantanamo Bay, so on that
day that statement meant I had one and a half hours to find a
substitute to be on a Bill Committee in order that I could be
in the Chamber to effectively represent him and his wife and four
children who live in my constituency. Thankfully, a colleague
did help me out in that instance, but it was a bit of a scramble.
Three observations, if I may: firstly, I don't think we should
complain about Government trying to maximise the positive media
for its policy. Any Government is going to do that. What I think
we should be doing is ensuring that the procedures that operate
here allow the House, once again, to claim primacy in terms of
presentation of Government policy and statements, and there to
be proper and effective sanctions where that code is not properly
followed. I agree very much with Mark that, unless we have a House
of Commons code, which is given sufficient attention by Ministers,
I think it's very unlikely that we will see it.
There is a ministerial code, but breach of the ministerial
code is solely for the Prime Minister to gauge. If that breach
has resulted in positive presentation of Government policy the
Prime Minister is not going to be particularly keen to rap that
Minister over the knuckles, unless they transgress to a point
where he begins to be embarrassed. That is why in my written submission
to you, when you announced this inquiry, I suggested that where
there is a transgression the Prime Minister should also be required
to attend the Chamber as well as the Minister responsible. But
for that to happen there has to be a code that the House can enforce
and the House can insist that a Minister who has transgressed,
and the Prime Minister, should both attend. That is point number
Point number two is: I agree very much with
Jane that culture is crucial here. Ministers are surrounded by
people who don't necessarily have a great regard for the House.
Civil servants see the House as a slight irritant, something that
has to be worked with, they understand that. But their main objective
is their loyalty to the Minister and to their departmental objectives.
Special Advisers treat the House with total contempt. Their main
points of contact are usually the media. They usually are absolutely
focusing on getting the best possible attention for their Minister's
So the culture that Jane described is absolutely
encouraging Ministers to behave in a way that does not necessarily
give the priority to the House. If we are to re-establish the
House as the primary cockpit of national debate, which it should
be, I think we must have a procedure that counters that culture
and that tendency. That rather reinforces the earlier point I
was making about having a House code or protocol.
The third point is the timetabling of statements.
I think we don't help ourselves by talking about statements as
though they were all the same. There are very different types
of statements. There are the statements that are essentially reports
of international events or conferences that can often be timetabled
months in advance because when there is going to be a G20 or a
European meeting, finance ministers or whatever, the date of that
is fixed a long time in advance and it should be possible to,
in advance, pencil in statements where they are expected as a
report on those sort of events. Secondly, there are major international
disasters or other events of that nature that cannot be forecast,
and with those you have to allow the flexibility so that a statement
can be made in a hurry; when there is a need for a ministerial
response to such an event. Thirdly, there are announcements of
Government policy. Well, that should be always first to the House,
there should be absolute presumption that that should be made
to the House and the timetable should allow Government to have
some flexibility, including, in my view, the use of Westminster
Hall for some such statements.
I find it frankly galling to listen to a Minister
on the Today programme talking about a change in policy
that will be the subject of a statement to the House, using the
fact that there is going to be a statement to the House to avoid
answering questions, and then to discover it was a written statement
in which we would have no opportunity to question that Minister.
Frankly, that is a nonsense, and there has to be a presumption
that Ministers will make statements first to the House, that the
timetable of those statements is very much up to them to determine,
but that we should programme statements, including the use of
Westminster Hall for some additional statements, in order to facilitate
that. Clearly, the most important will come into the House and
the ones the Government regards as perhaps less important would
go into Westminster Hall, but there would still be greater flexibility.
Duncan Hames: You
will know from my comments from your earlier request for views
that I endorse very much what we've just heard and, in particular,
the suggestion that there should be greater notice for Members
of statements. I thought Jane made very clear an example of the
disruption that that can cause. The arguments that I've read,
which suggests this can't be done and this is too difficult, are
based on hard cases. That's why it's entirely right to say that
we deny ourselves a much more civilised arrangement for many statements
by insisting that it should be the same for all of them. I think
that is a bit of a pitfall for any kind of codified set of rules.
I have a lot of confidence in the Speaker to be able to determine
what is and what isn't appropriate, and he has proven quite effective
in recent times dealing with the problem of the lack of a ministerial
statement on a subject through the use of urgent questions.
I think simply, if you like through willingness
to improve, on many statements we could provide a lot better notice
to Members without necessarily enforcing that in circumstances
where it wouldn't be appropriate. The other comment, I make, and
I draw the example of the statement we had recently on electrification,
sometimes there are issues around market sensitivity, but there
we had a written statement that day that said a certain amount,
not an awful lot actually, but it was enough in order to address
this concern about speculation. We had a much fuller oral statement
to the House that gave Members the opportunity to ask a lot of
I believe that that safeguarded the pre-eminence
of the House and perhaps there is greater opportunity for a measured
and responsible combination of written and oral statements on
the same subject on the same day.
Q67 Chair: Thank
you. If we had a House protocol, who do you think would be best
placed to decide whether there had been a breach of it and to
then enforce ita committee of Members or the Speaker?
My own view is: the Speaker would have to do it, but the protocols
were written in a way that makes it relatively easy for the Speaker
to reach a judgment without too much latitude and discretion.
Q68 Chair: Does
anyone dissent from that?
Jane Ellison: No,
but I would agree with the last qualification very strongly. I
think it needs to be reasonably tight if you are leaving it to
Paul Flynn: I think
our judgment is affected by the personality of the present Speaker
who has already showed himself to be a reforming Speaker, when
he has told Governments he doesn't want to see statements on Opposition
days, for that is one of the abuses involved. I think, presuming
if we continue to have Speakers of his kind of personality, yes,
I think the Speaker should judge.
Mark Durkan: I
would agree that, by and large, yes, the Speaker should have referee
powers here. There will be a question from time to time whether
there should be some other assistance where there are issues of
bigger controversy, so some facilities should exist whereby if
the Speaker wants to refer the matter to a committee, he or she
can. It may be too that, when the Speaker acts as the determinant
in relation to issues or complaints that arise, a committee such
as this Committee or another should have broad oversight on the
House's behalf, because we would put the Speaker in an invidious
position if there were problems with the code, and if the Speaker
were then in the position of trying to canvas for changes in the
code, because would it be the case that the Speaker was trying
to create changes that would get at a Minister, or was trying
to create changes that would mean that a Minister could claim
the benefit of the doubt in some other situation? So I think the
Speaker will be in a difficult enough position making judgments
in some potentially controversial cases and certainly shouldn't
be left to be in complete oversight of the procedure in terms
of adjustments or developments that need to be made. The code
should be in the possession of the House and the House committee,
but the judgments and enforcements in relation to the code should
hopefully, by and large, be left to the Speaker.
Q69 Chair: Would
it be a fair summary then to say that what you are saying is you
think the Speaker should be the person to adjudicate and to enforce
the code, but he should have the power to refer it to a committee
of the House if he felt that was appropriate in certain cases?
Is that basically what you said?
Mark Durkan: Issues
may arise. There may be new practices or patterns that emerge
because systems, Special Advisers, civil servants, Ministers,
have great ways of getting new ruses, or getting around things.
There are a lot of people who work below the radar within the
system we have. One or two are therefore immune from some of the
accountability mechanisms that we are trying to establish here.
So it could well be that issues arise whereby
the Speaker would at least want to refer those as matters for
more general consideration to a committee that he could not fully
Jane Ellison: Chairman,
could I just add one small thing? I mean I have no idea what the
sort of protocol is around people recommending to the Speaker
how he proceeds, but it seems to me that the group of the Speaker,
plus the Deputy Speakers, you have a kind of balance there within
the team anyway, a natural balance, different personalities, different
perspectives, even different political backgrounds. If you decide
to go down the route of seeing the Speaker as the arbiter it might
well be something your Committee would want to consider whether
part of that recommendation would be that it's, if you like, considered
by the Speaker and his Deputies together, because I think if you're
looking for something that gives the whole House confidence, the
idea that something gets chewed over and discussed may well be
part of that.
Paul Flynn: I mean
the present Speaker can't refuse a statement. He has to be informed
of the statement, but unlike the Speaker of the Scottish Parliament,
I understand, who can refuse it, our Speaker can't, but I think
he should have that power. In the example that we both quoted,
the Redfern inquiry, that might well be occasion when the Speaker
would likely say, "You're using this day to bury bad news".
Can I slightly differ on that one? I think it was a very dangerous
precedent and I think George Young made the point in his evidence
to you that this could be very welcome to a Minister who wanted
to make his announcement on the Today programme and didn't
want to appear in the House. So I would be very wary about giving
the Speaker power to refuse, which is why I argued the case for
greater flexibility to ensure that we had more time for statements
and the ability to use Westminster Hall as well as the Chamber.
Q70 Mr Gray: You
touched briefly on sanctions. I think, Paul, you suggested summoning
the hapless individual to the Bar of the House for a jolly good
dressing down and, Nick, you suggested summoning the Prime Minister,
and we have just a moment ago talked about the possibility of
refusing the right to make a statement, on which I agree with
Nick that there are downsides. Leaving those slightly sort of
nuclear sanctions on one side, because after all these leaks vary
from very minor things through to extremely major deliberate leaks,
one has to imagine, and some of them, presumably, the Minister
might well say, well, it was nothing whatever to do with them,
it's pure press speculation, and you can't summon the Minister
to the Bar of the House to answer that. Leaving aside the nuclear
options, what kind of sanction would there be if the committee
or the Speaker were to deem that there had been a breach of the
Paul Flynn: The
other alternative is to replace the statement, where the Government
does have an advantage because the Minister answers all the questions
and so a huge amount of time is given to the Minister announcing
it, and exchange that for a debate where backbenchers can make
speeches and the Leader of the Opposition or Minister could make
a speech as well. So instead of having a statement, it could be
replaced by an hour-long debate, where the advantage that the
Minister has now would disappear and it would give a greater chance
for backbenchers to make their comments.
The purpose of a nuclear option is that it should not be used,
but it should be a deterrent. I personally feel the prospect of
having to sit next to a Minister who has to explain why he broke
the code would be a particularly salutary experience and would
lead the Prime Minister to enforce the ministerial code. My complaint
with the ministerial code is not what's in it; it isn't actually
enforced at the moment.
Q71 Mr Gray: All
right, but, for example, Ken Clarke had some statement recently
where it had been leaked to the Sunday papers by somebody in his
department over the weekend, I seem to recall. He said, "Well,
I don't know anything about that. I don't know how it occurred.
Nothing to do with me. It's disgraceful, I'm going to find out
who did it and whoever did it will get the sack. If they're my
Special Advisers they'll be in real trouble" and all that
kind of thing. How would you then summon the Prime Minister back
from his State visit to Tokyo to sit beside Ken Clarke to answer
Crudely, you wouldn't because it would be the Speaker's decision
as to whether or not there had been a breach, and the Speaker,
looking at those facts, would conclude there hadn't. If the Speaker
believed there had been a serious deliberate breach by the Minister
concerned he would then, no doubt, arrange a date and time for
that Minister to appear before the House together with the Prime
Minister, on a date when the Prime Minister was here.
Q72 Mr Gray: You
are the only one that was a Minister, I think, Nick, of the five
people. In your long and distinguished ministerial career, can
you remember any occasion on which a statement that you were going
to make, or that your Secretary of State was going to make, was
Q73 Mr Gray: By
yourselves or the press people or by someone you didn't know about?
By people I didn't know aboutI never myself leaked anything
in advance. I took the codeI don't want to sound pious
about thisbut I did take the code very seriously and believed
I had a responsibility to the House. But there were occasions
where things were said, and some of those may have been said by
media advisers working on behalf of the Government. I talked about
Special Advisers and their relationship with the media. Some of
it may have been leaked by people who were party to it who were
hostile and therefore felt that a leak would help. So this is
going to happen. I think one should be realistic about it, which
is why, as I said in answer to the earlier question, the Speaker
does have a responsibility to decide whether the breach is a serious
material and deliberate one or is one of those accidents that
Q74 Mr Gray: The
questioning here is about sanctions and, if there were leaks during
your time as a Minister, but you're absolutely plain that in your
long and distinguished career you were never ever responsible
for it; indeed, you were extremely cross when you found out where
that leak occurred, surely no matter how serious the sanction
was you couldn't do anything about it?
No, I agree. Because my concern is where
Q75 Mr Gray: So
sanctions hold no useful function.
My concern is where Ministers deliberately act in a way that does
not give priority to the House, and my overriding concern is that
the House should be the first place at which Ministers report.
Q76 Mr Gray: I'm
sure they'll agree with that, but that is why there is a broad
spectrum of leaks, isn't there?
Q77 Mr Gray: And
on most of them people would say, as you just said, and as Ken
Clarke said the other day, "Nothing to do with me. I don't
know anything about it". I'm sure you're right in saying
that where it can be demonstrated that a Minister deliberately
and intentionally leaked something to the Today programme
or the Sunday newspapers before making the statement, then quite
plainly he is in breach of the ministerial code. He is risking
his job. He is looking at the sack. Certainly, bring the Prime
Minister back in, get him to the Bar of the House. I can't offhand
remember any occasion on which that occurred. They are always
much more minor than that and nearly always the Minister will
say, as you did, "Nothing to do with me, Guv'nor". If
that is the case the whole discussion about sanctions becomes
meaningless. You make the sanction the chap will lose his seat
and be expelled from public life for all time to come, it would
have no effect at all because it's not him.
I gave an example earlier of a Minister speaking on the Today
programme, using as an excuse for not answering difficult questions
the fact that he had to give priority to the statement he was
making to the House later in the day, and there was no statement,
no oral statement. There was a written statement. That seems to
me to be an abuse of the system.
Q78 Mr Gray: It's
pretty blatant though, and what we're talking about here is a
much more common event than that, which happens most weeks, trying
to find some sanction, some protocol, some mechanism, which would
prevent that happening, give the House back itsand merely
putting in place a nuclear option, what effect would it actually
Duncan Hames: Leaks
don't necessarily happen on the morning on which the statement
was going to take place. In fact, the timetabling of the statement
is something that isI'm sure Governments of all parties
have founda particularly prized privilege, and so if a
leak happens much earlier than that, then surely through the use
of urgent questions the opportunity to deny the Government control
over the timetable of that parliamentary scrutiny by bringing
Jane Ellison: If
I could just comment just briefly on your point, I mean I sat
through the debate when we looked at this thinking exactly that,
really, that there was a potential. I've tried to look at that
in my opening comments. There is a potential to create a system
that is just going to incentivise opposition, to kind of basically
plant people in PR teams to leak things strategically and get
Ministers into constant hot water, which would very quickly bring
the whole protocol into disrepute. I think, you're right to sort
of drive at that.
It would, however, have an effect on people,
who then are themselves perhaps a little contemptuous of Parliament,
at least on people thinking nothing of talking in advance about
something. I mean that does happen, and I think it would focus
minds in that regard at least, but I agree with you that making
somebody ultimately responsible for a massive Government department
is a bit of a sort of conspiracy charter
Q79 Mr Gray: I
think that is quite correct. Finally from me then, would you not
agreeI think Duncan's point is an extremely good onewhich
is that if you were to bring in a procedural sanction like a UQ,
if there is any leak of any kind whoever is responsible, whatever
the circumstances, whatever it was, you will lose the opportunity
of handling the timing and everything yourself and it will suddenly
become a UQ or some other procedure that would take it out of
your hands and become in the hands of Parliament. That is less
ad hominem and less dramatic than a summons to the Bar of the
House, but actually might well be more effective. Would you agree
with that general thesis?
I would see it as part of the armoury and I think the greater
use of UQs in the last year or so has been a really salutary process.
Mark Durkan: I
think UQs would be one yellow card device that could be used to
signal that something is wrong, but at the same time the play
goes on and the people are able to perform their role, but just
under caution and not with the same advantage as they previously
enjoyed. It's also important to think about, if it is the Speaker
who is making these judgments, what the Speaker is doing. Reference
by the Speaker to a committee to look at some of the particulars
of the issue would, in itself, be a sanction because Ministers
will not want to be taken into that committee to explain on what
exactly they did or didn't know or what lessons can or can't be
Potentially, of course, officials in the department
have to be callable before such a committee as well, so that people
can't be just saying, "Well, it's not a matter for us"
because to take Jane's point, if it is about changing the culture
people within the civil service and people within party support
structures need to know
Q80 Mr Gray: I
wasn't concerned on that, but can I come back to Mark's point
then? If you did that, would you not agree with me that you would
be removing responsibility of the Minister? At the moment the
Minister has responsibility for absolutely everything. He's the
one responsible in Parliament, and the Minister is the one that
will get the rap on the knuckles, or will have to answer questions.
The moment that you said a parliamentary committee could summon
officials to answer as to why it was, you then make Parliament
rather like a leak inquiry, which should be done internally. Surely,
it should be the Minister responsible not officials.
Mark Durkan: I
think as a resort
Chair: I think the point
is: shouldn't the buck stop with the Minister, whoever under him
Mark Durkan: Yes,
I think, by and large, the buck should stop there, but in many
cases you will find Ministers giving very honest statements of
account as to the fact that it wasn't them. They didn't know anything
about it. They didn't license it or agree it in advance, or whatever.
But the Ministers might well have suspicions as to how leaks came
about or whatever. I do believe that a committee should beand
maybe it is again a nuclear optionable to at least inquire
of Permanent Secretaries or whatever, maybe not individuals, but
Permanent Secretaries who are the channel to which the Cabinet
Office go when there are issues of leaks inquiries. It's the Permanent
Secretaries who are held responsible for the performance of the
departmental side of things. There should be a sense of departmental
responsibility as well.
Yes, first and foremost, Ministers should do
it, but if Ministers are able to say honestly, hands on heart,
that it was nothing to do with them, and this was something that
happened through some other way because of budget or departmental
turf games being playedcertainly, as a Minister in Northern
Ireland I had experience of where leaks were happening through
the most bizarre ways. People were second and third guessing each
other with pre-emptive leaks trying to spoil what news stories
were going to come out of other departments or whatever.
Certainly, as Minister for Finance, the complaint
that I used to get was that I didn't brief anything about budgets
in advance and I didn't agree statements until I had finished
them on the day, precisely to prevent leaks. But it didn't stop
others because they knew through the civil service information
chain, they knew all sorts of things doing it. So a committee
that is only able to talk to Ministers will end up quite frustrated.
There has to be some other line of inquiry they can do beyond
that to at least enforce some of this culture change.
Q81 Mr Gray: I
must let you move on, Chairman, but is it not a thought that possible
sanctions, and we are talking about sanctions, would be any leak
could result in the Permanent Secretary of the department being
invited in to answer questions as to whether he believed it was
the Minister who leaked it, or Special Adviser, or someone? That
is a possible interesting sanction, is there not?
Mark Durkan: Yes.
Q82 Chair: Are
you all, in effect, saying, that even in a clear-cut case, where
it was the Minister, you would be satisfied with the most severe
punishment being available that that Minister has to make an apology
to the House with the Prime Minister in the Chamber? That is in
effect what you are saying, and you do not see any need for anything
I believe that is a prettyand James described it as a nuclear
optionsevere sanction and I can't believe the Prime Minister
who had to endure that would give any latitude to other Ministers
to repeat the process.
Q83 Mr Nuttall:
Moving on from the issue of protocols and sanctions, on a wider
front, how valuable, how useful do you think oral statements to
the House are in the context of holding the Executive to account?
Do you think there are any changes that could be made to the existing
procedures to make them even more useful and more valuable to
backbenchers? If I start perhaps at this end with Duncan first
Duncan Hames: I
think they are very useful and it's worth contrasting them with
question sessions where Members will be aware that sometimes the
same question appears in the names of several Members. This may
just be a coincidence or it may reflect a degree of co-ordination
by MPs. So I would suggest that maybe there is an effort to secure
an amount of time for a degree of agenda on particular subjects
of question sessions, whereas a statement ensures that that subject
is what is going to be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny, not
what other Members may have been persuaded to put in questions
about. So I think that's very important.
I think it's pretty important for the prestige
of Parliament that on these major matters of the day there is
an opportunity for Parliament to be the focus of attention in
debating the merits or otherwise of what has happened.
I just want to say I agree with that. I just would stress the
difference between different types of statements I referred to
earlier. The most complex and difficult one that I ever did, and
I did it for four years, was the local government financial settlement
because you had to cover an incredibly complex series of issues,
and every single MP had an interest and was likely to ask a question
about their own constituency. So the timetabling was difficult,
and then you had to immediately, after the statement, go and brief
the press from heaven knows how many areas who wanted the angle
for their area.
So it can at times be a really difficult process,
and I don't minimise the task of timetabling things in a way that
makes all that possible, which is why I argued for the maximum
flexibility, including use of Westminster Hall, to make sure that
we have the opportunity in the House to make the most of this
process, which does hold Ministers to account.
Paul Flynn: I think
the Speaker deserves great credit for improving the quality of
questions asked by the backbenchers by his exhortation to be pithy
and by his body language, and his open irritation when people
are going on. I think we are all in that position of using verbal
polyfiller to expand our remarks, and I'm trying, with the help
of the Speaker, to encourage, trying to set an example myself,
that all oral questions should be Twitter length, so about 140
characters. If Members become disciplined to do it that way, the
questions will be far better.
Chair: Thank you. David,
do you have any follow up?
Q84 Mr Nuttall:
Yes. Do you see any particular advantage in having the questions
before? Statements are always after question time. Do you see
any advantage in changing that to another part of the parliamentary
day? Do you think they are at the best time?
Chair: Do you think we
need to look at the time that statements are made?
Implicit in my earlier comments, if we are to use Westminster
Hall then that would allow an opportunity for perhaps morning
questions, morning statements.
Mr Nuttall: Yes, morning
Paul Flynn: It's
the best time of the day, as far as attendance and attention from
the press is concerned.
Mr Nuttall: That is a
Paul Flynn: There
was an issue a short while ago, and I don't know if Members of
the Procedure Committee are aware of this, when an attempt was
made to change the announcement of the deaths in Afghanistan in
question time and one group were announced on a Monday and one
on a Tuesday. There is also a rule in the House, which is again
a ruling by the Speaker, that Members aren't allowed to read out
the names of the fallen in Afghanistan. I've done it on two occasions
and the Speaker has ruled that that can't be done anymore.
So it's interesting. I don't know whether it's
part of procedure as such, but I was stopped when the Deputy Speaker
thought I was going to do it again. I wasn't in fact. I believe
there is a reason for saying thatinstead of reading a speech
a stronger impression can be given on what's going on there by
standing up and reading out simply the names of the 247 who have
now fallen in Afghanistan. But it's not allowed.
Q85 Chair: Mark,
I understand you may have to leave us shortly because you have
a debate in Westminster Hall. Is there anything you want to say
about any aspect of this before you go, which we may be covering
later, but you won't be here?
Mark Durkan: Just
to come back to David's point. First of all, statements are certainly
useful. At this stage, in the life of this Parliament, they are
particularly useful to Ministers. There has been a lot of ministerial
joyriding at the despatch box. They're behind the machinery of
government, able to say, "We're changing this, we're doing
that". There's lots of turns. I'm not saying anything about
U-turns or anything else. So some of that has been launched, which
is useful to Government, but it is nevertheless important that
Parliament, where significant changes are being made, has the
chance to question those.
I do think there should be, while I agree with
what Paul has said and understand what he said about some of the
questions, I do think latitude maybe does need to be given where
it is a constituency Member with a particular interest, where
maybe some information has to be imparted to the House by a backbencher
as well as the questions asked. Certainly, on behalf of the smaller
parties I would have to say that our equivalent of frontbench
spokespersons are only ever given backbench time and are just
jumped upon. At times, Scottish parties are trying to point a
particular Scottish context or something or somebody from Northern
Ireland, and it shouldn't apply all round to every party, but
at some point we should maybe just be given a wee bit more time
in relation to statements, so that it is more a matter of accountability
in those terms.
Jane Ellison: If
I could just add to that point, and just make a couple otherI
think that's an interesting point about the length of time. I'm
on the Backbench Business Committee and it has struck me as an
early curiosity that the only people who are timed, for example,
in the backbench business debate are the backbenchers. I think
again there is room to push at that for statements as well, because
it might well be the case that, where it does affect like the
Redfern one, or whatever, a backbench Member representing a particular
area or interest group, or perhaps an all-party group chairman
or something, may well have a far more detailed and forensic line
of questioning to put to the Minister concerned than a frontbencher
who might just go through the motions and effectively make a speech.
I have certainly heard that and it was good to hear the Speaker
pull up one Opposition spokesman this week and sort of say, "You
know, questions, not speeches".
So I think it will be good to perhaps explore
whether you could recommend more latitude in that area because
sometimes one of the things I'd like to see happen is the expertise
of backbenchers, which I have been amazed and inspired by. So
many people have so much expertise in areas, but often they're
very restricted in how that can be put across. That is just one
point I would put into the mix.
Mark Durkan: The
other thing I would suggest is the Opposition frontbench should
be allowed a question at the end of the statement as well because
often there are issues that have been raised by backbenchers,
somehow the tenor of a statement, the significance for bigger
players, sometimes changes. So I know the Opposition frontbench
don't get a lot of time on some of the statements and complain
about that. They should have a chance to at least have a comeback
with a final question at the end as well.
Q86 Jacob Rees-Mogg:
The Government has made two suggestions on time limits for oral
statements, which you may know about. One is to have a new category
of time limited statements that are on less significant issues,
to be agreed with the Speaker in advance at the request of the
Minister, and that could limit the time both for the statement
and for the questions afterwardsthat is the less significant
bitthen a more general time limit on all statements, whatever
their importance, with exceptions such as the Budget. I wonder
whether you generally think that time limits would be a good idea
or whether it's better to continue with the current practice of
allowing the Speaker discretion.
Jane Ellison: I
made the point about the timetable and what it's like when you
reorganise. I mean, broadly speaking, I think that some indication
is a good thing, but I would think my own view is that there should
always be some latitude there in exceptional circumstances. It
is the case that sometimes backbenchers are guilty of repeating
something that's been asked already but just inserting the name
of our constituency. I think that it mightI know, shock,
horrorbe the case that there are still 15 Members who wish
to ask a question, but I think that sometimes it's not necessarily
advancing the issue any further. So it cuts two ways. It's not
always Ministers guilty of that as well.
I suppose some ability to plan your day and
some recognition that the business coming later may well be really
important and people have prepared speeches. We've seen a lot
of instances recently of debates at the very outset being down
to six minutes of backbench contributions and squeezing them to
five, and I've even seen fours and threes right at the end of
a debate. I think we have to look at the parliamentary day in
its entirety and realise that there are colleagues later making
a debate contribution who may well have put a lot of thought and
time into it and they want to say something that takes eight minutes,
and it will be a less significant contribution for being squeezed
Q87 Jacob Rees-Mogg:
The follow on from that is whether you should allow injury time
at the end, again at the Speaker's discretion, because I know
some Opposition Members on Opposition days feel that it's very
unfair if there's possibly even two statements and they lose a
lot of their time, or on a debate like yesterday when a very important
European debate that lost over an hour to a perfectly equally
important statement. When it's an issue that is generally thought
to be important, but is contentious or is an Opposition day, should
the Speaker have discretion to say, "We've lost an hour and,
therefore, instead of ending at 10.00, so the hour of closure
being 10.00, it's moved to 11.00", or would that so upset
Members' planning of their lives as to be beyond fair? I would
be very interested in the views of the balance of that.
Chair: We would be interested
in hearing your views because the Leader of the House said, in
his view, Members prefer the certainty of voting at a certain
hour, 10.00 or 7.00, than the uncertainty of added injury time,
and I just wondered what your view is on this issue. Who would
like to start?
Paul Flynn: I think
that's certainly the mood of the House at the moment. We'll never
go back to those days when we were here until 3 or 4 in the morning
for no apparent reason, and with no apparent gain to the House
at all. I think the membership of the House wouldn't put up with
Having served under four Speakers, it depends
very much on the Speaker. I can remember one Speaker who wouldn't
call any backbencher on a statement if they were a frontbench
spokesman, even on another subject. You wouldn't be called at
all, and there were other Speakers of different idiosyncrasies.
I mean at the present time most people are called on statements,
which hasn't happened in the past. We were lucky if half the people
standing were called. And it's to do with the self-discipline
of Members and pressure put on by the Speaker to make them pithy.
I think that's better than simply any rules to restrict the time,
because it has an effect on the quality of the speeches being
made and the contributions being made. It's probably beneficial,
but extending the time rarely extends the value of speeches made,
in my opinion.
Mark Durkan: My
instinct of sympathy would be with injury time, being able to
make the time good, but that suits me because I am not a Greater
London MP and I am staying in a hotel nearby here, so an hour
or so extra in the House waiting to vote at that time of night
doesn't make much difference to me. But, under the regime, for
Greater London MPs, it would make a huge difference I believe
to them, if there was that sort of uncertainty at that stage.
In terms of written ministerial statements I
believe that there are at times questions as to why the written
route has been chosen, and I've certainly had experience of where
it seemed to be chosen as a way of avoiding questions or opening
issues up. I do believe that there should be some device, whether
it's in Westminster Hall, or whether it's in the Chamber, or in
a special committee stage session on a Tuesday morning as a committee
on accountability, where Members can ask questions and topical
questions about written statements that were made the previous
week. Secretaries of State wouldn't necessarily have to be there,
but just departments would have to have some Minister there available
to answer questions that might arise about what was in particular
written ministerial statements, including the questions as to
why it wasn't an oral statement.
Similarly, it might be that any oral questions
that were going to run over their time and MPs didn't get in asking
questions because the Speaker was managing the timetable, those
could be picked up in that as well, so it could be injury time
on a different day and a different session. That could also deal
with questions about if people had issues about whether or not
statements had been misleading or had been complete and comprehensive
again. Rather than people asking questions of the Speaker, there
could be that occasion, say, for instance on a Tuesday morning
where people could ask those questions with greater reflection
about statements made the previous week, either written or oral.
Duncan Hames: I
think the consequences of injury time can be rather uncivilised
and, if I was looking at curtailing aspects of the parliamentary
business in order to avoid the need to do that, I wouldn't start
by looking at one of the more participatory aspects of the day
in a statement. I'd almost certainly look at the opening speeches
in a debate. Sometimes they are used, and perhaps even abused,
by backbenchers as a way of getting the debate over and done with
in the first two speeches. Given that Members that wish to participate
in a debate ought to have been present at the first two speeches,
there is an added advantage in a degree of restraint in those
two speeches. I'd certainly be happy to see personally the time
limiting of backbench speeches in debate start earlier on so that
there is more consistency in the time limits applicable. That
affected me only last week.
But on the suggestion that we might have some
shorter statements, clearly there will be some statements where
there isn't a need to have such a long period of time. And for
me the advantage doesn't come from reducing the amount of time
on a statement but the ability for colleagues to be able to predict
what happens later in the day. So if there is a statement that
the Speaker considers isn't going to need the full 55 minutes
then if the order paper can reflect that through a judgment about
how the day may be timetabled then that will help colleagues.
One last thought on this: given that some Members
won't be present for a statement but will want to be participating
in the debate that follows, it would be helpful for them to be
able to see perhaps from their office or the annunciator that
the statement was coming towards an end. One clue for that would
be this idea of having an Opposition question at the end of the
statement, and for the Opposition spokesperson's name to appear
on the annunciator at that point. It means those wishing to attend
the subsequent debate are more likely to be there from the very
start of the opening speech.
Two observations: one I'm not sympathetic to time limits on statements
because I do think statements are so very different, and I think
a degree of discretion for the Speaker to judge when is the right
time to end it is probably the right way forward.
I am personally, as a London MP, not uncomfortable
about a certain amount of injury time. Injury time, if it was
to allow for one extra statement that perhaps might take three-quarters
of an hour to an hour is not going to mean a return to 3.00am
sessions. This evening we might have assumed we were going home
at 7.00, because it's a Wednesday, but we are not. That is part
of our life, and I personally, within the kind of limits I've
described, would not be uncomfortable with injury time being applied.
Q88 Jacob Rees-Mogg:
I think those were the type of limits we were thinking of. I don't
think we were contemplating 3 in the morning.
Jane Ellison: If
I could just respond on the same point: I mean again, I'm very
close, as a London MP, but although it might sound slightly counter-cultural,
if anything, I think Monday and Tuesday would be the better nights
for injury time because hardly anyone will have planned to go
on to another engagement. I think what is sometimes difficult,
obviously, Wednesdays and Thursdays are far more difficult, so
it probably doesn'tit sounds a bit mad, but I think Mondays
and Tuesdays when you're here, and it's highly unlikely somebody's
going to an engagement starting at 10.30 at night, as it were,
would be better days to have injury time.
Q89 Sir Peter Soulsby:
Nick and Mark have both drawn attention to written statements
being used as mechanisms for avoiding answering questions, whether
it's on the Today programme or on the floor of the House.
Mark suggested one mechanism for making them subject to such oral
questions. I just wondered whether the others have any thoughts
on Mark's suggestion or indeed any alternative ways of allowing
the House to have a go when all the statements have been made
and there are questions to be asked.
If I can just add, the UQ is undoubtedly a very powerful weapon
in that situation and I think the Speaker should be applauded
for making use of it where a Minister has made a written statement
and the Speaker believes there should have been an opportunity
for Members of the House to question the Minister.
Now, that then leads on to the thought that
maybe there might be some mechanism, perhaps involving the Backbench
Business Committee, to indicate subjects where they would like
an opportunity to question a Minister and they haven't been given
it, and that could allow perhaps questions, oral statements and
questions, a few days after a written statement has been laid.
Again, going backI don't want to sound like a gramophone
recordbut going back to the use of Westminster Hall if
that was available it would be an additional facility that would
Paul Flynn: I think
our judgments depend very much on what our interests are. I found
the suggestion today that the Government were going to change
the entitlements of membership of the Drug Advisory Committee,
which amounts to scientists out, bigots in, an outrageously anti-intellectual
one, and one I would have thought merited a statement in the House
and raising a point of order on it. But I think that depends on
our point of view on what we'd regard as being important. But
it is very irritating, as other witnesses have said, to hear this
on the Today programme and hear a Minister having the glorious
opportunity to make these points, but not being properly challenged
by the expertise that's in this House that could have challenged
him, when Richard Nobdob is available on the Today programme.
Jane Ellison: Very
quickly, I'm sure John Hemming has probably made this point and
will make this point, but two things we've encountered on the
Backbench Business Committee, firstly there is a slight tendencyI
mean I was quite attracted to the Westminster Hall ideabut
there is definitely a tendency we've encountered already for people
to see it as a second string option and some people feeling downgraded
by being sort of invited to take time at Westminster Hall. Not
universally the case, but particularly, it's been the case with
those debates that were traditionally part of the annual parliamentary
timetable in the Chamber, to being now asked to sort of come and
bid for time. Some people seem to have felt it was somehow downgrading
their issue. I wonder if you might want to bear that in mind when
you're thinking about whether some statements might be made there,
that we've come across that. That was the main point I wanted
Q90 Sir Peter Soulsby:
Duncan drew attention to one recent exception to this, but in
general things are either a written statement or an oral statement.
I wonder whether you think there are any advantages at all in
having written statements that are specifically intended to be
subject to oral questioning so that they don't have to be read
in the House. They're issued in advance. Have them have an opportunity
to consider them, and then they are timetabled for debate with
the Government's intention that that should be the way it's handled.
The danger with this is that it's a wonderful opportunity for
the media to grab the subject and to have the debate about it
before the House has an opportunity to question the Minister.
I see the risk of that. I referred earlier to the Local Government
Finance Settlement, which is hugely complex, the budget equally.
If you were to say there would be advantages in people having
a chance to see this in the written form for an hour or so or
a few hours before debates so they can think about questions,
I'm afraid we'd just simply be, even more than the current framework
allows, giving the media the opportunity to seize control of the
debate, because they will be debating it long before we got around
Q91 Chair: But
if, let's say, the Minister's statement was released to Members
and to the press at noon, and then the Minister comes to the House,
instead of then reading it it's deemed as read, rather like a
question on the order paper, we'd have more time for questioning.
And wouldn't that questioning be more thorough because Members
would have had time to reflect on what the Minister has said,
rather than as now where what is said may come as a surprise and
Members have very little thinking time?
I think it would encourage Special Advisers and many Ministers
to think about how it would play on the 1.00 news rather than
on how it would play in the House at 2.30.
Q92 Chair: Does
anyone dissent from that?
Mark Durkan: Chair,
I think there is benefit in considering what Nick had said originally,
that statements are quite different in their character and nature.
Some statements are the subject of written statements because
the House has to be told, but maybe they are apparently technical
in nature or they are a follow through on undertakings that were
given in a previous oral statement. It's probably appropriate
that they are made as written statements. But there would be no
harm maybe in providing for some such short statements to be subject
to a very short question time on the basis of the assumption it's
a short written statement and people can read it and can ask questions.
Maybe the questions should be very much just about by way of assurance
not necessarily challenge, just by way of assurance that this
matter has been considered or that it doesn't mean something else.
But in relation to Nick's other point about the urgent
question, the urgent question might be appropriate if a Minister
is making a very big announcement in the context of a written
statement. Often the written statements are making big announcements
that affect maybe a particular region or a particular policy community,
but maybe aren't deemed to be of huge political or media importance.
I think some facility to allow some comeback question on those
statements, rather than having to maybe wait for up to a month
for the departmental question time to come around, would be available,
whether it's in the Westminster Hall style or whether it's in
the Chamber, but in the committee style, say, on a Tuesday morning.
Some questions in many ways would maybe be parallelthe
sort of way in which some of the questions in the Scottish Parliament
are done, the Ministers have to be available almost on a free
range basis to answer some of the questions. I think some sort
of session of accountability, brief and time limited, would be
very helpful in making sure the people have adequate comeback
in relation to written statements.
Duncan Hames: I
think the example I gave was one where the Government cited market
sensitivity as a particular reason, so perhaps it was exceptional.
It's certainly my feeling that written statements
are very unsatisfactory for backbench MPs, and at certain times
in the parliamentary calendar there can be an incredible flurry
of them, and there is very little to even announce that they've
taken place. I wonder whether it might be helpful perhaps to require
the Leader of the House or his Deputy on certain occasions to
simply announce to Members the written statements that are being
made, if not that day then that week, so that there are some very
clear audible signals that the statement has been made. Otherwise,
often Members are scurrying around off to the library at a later
date when they've heard that something has come out. I think that
that would be helpful.
But I'd certainly be interested in suggestions
that colleagues had for ways to provide some scrutiny, perhaps
not on the same day, perhaps at a later day if there was a sufficient
degree of interest in what had been a written statement.
Q93 Chair: You're
right about flurries. They tend to occur on the last day before
Jane Ellison: I
was just going to respond, Chairman, to your earlier point about
the question of a statement being released a couple of hours before,
the media and the House. One of the least satisfactory statements,
I think we probably all agree, that has happened certainly in
the last few months, was the Building Schools for the Future one,
which was just a bit of a mess all round. Certainly, it informed
the debate that subsequently happened on ministerial statements.
In that instance, and there are others that
I know of from talking to colleagues, as soon as something is
press released to the media people assume they might not be in
the House. They might be in meetings. The first time they might
know about something important in their constituency is from their
local paper calling them. I think, whichever way you slice it,
that is a really unsatisfactory state of affairs for Members.
Chair: Yes, I think we
agree with you on that.
Q94 Mrs Chapman:
On the issue of debates in Westminster Hall, I think Nick you've
expressed quite strong approval for this, but do the rest of you
have any view on the holding of statements in Westminster Hall
as well as the Chamber?
Jane Ellison: I
think it's a good idea but I just put a caveat in that I mentioned
of the experience we've had so far of people sometimes seeming
to feel that they've been downgraded a bit by being on them. Not
everybody feels that, but occasionally. I think it would be a
shame if it turned into a sort of political attack or "that
statement's not considered important enough", when actually
the House is being offered a further opportunity.
Paul Flynn: Fine
idea, I think. I think it should be done, as long as there's sufficient
notice and we're aware of what's coming in, as long as it's properly
signposted, why not?
Duncan Hames: I
wouldn't want it to lead to statements that otherwise would have
been made in the Chamber itself being less likely to be so. If
it means that there's more scrutiny of statements that otherwise
wouldn't have been oral statements, then it would be welcome.
Q95 Mrs Chapman:
I suppose the issue then is who would decide which statements
were made where and what the criteria might be. Do you have any
views on that?
Jane Ellison: If
I can respond first, I think that's where it gets quite tricky
actually, because you would naturally be drawn to the idea that
a statement that affected one particular region, for example,
or a locality might lend itself quite well to Westminster Hall
because everybody, a sort of identifiable group, could thenbut
again what we have encountered when people have been bidding in
the Backbench Business Committee is a slight sensitivity, sometimes
feeling, "My region's been downgraded" or, "My
subject's been downgraded". So I would just caution that
sometimes there is that sensitivity. I suspect with enough use,
you'd get over that and I think, as I said, if it was presented
that this is increasing the amount of time that Members have to
question Ministers. But I think initially you would have that
little bit of a hurdle to get over.
Paul Flynn: All
the subjects I feel passionately about should be in the Chamber
and all the others should be in Westminster Hall.
Jane Ellison: You
Paul Flynn: Yes,
I think there's a real difficulty here because I think, if you
adopt Duncan's principle, which I wholly support that this shouldn't
reduce the number of statements made in the Chamberit should
allow more opportunities if you do that then almost inevitably
you are going to reinforce the perception that this is the second-class
place for statements. So I think you have to be rather careful.
One way that it could be handled would be by an approach that
said on days where there are anticipated statements following
international events or things that are known to be coming in
advance, then the presumption should be that any other statements
that day would be made in Westminster Hall rather than the Chamber,
which would protect the House's business against being squeezed
and would avoid the Westminster Hall ones being only those statements
that were regarded as kind of second degree.
So it slightly breaches the principle because
some of those will be terribly important and would previously
have happened in the Chamber. But it would not be the case of
there being a day in which there were no statements in the Chamber,
and there were only statements in Westminster Hall, which I think
would be a more serious problem.
Q96 Mr Gray: We
have already touched upon written statements, but just a couple
of further bits on it. Are you satisfied with the practical way
in which they are dealt with at the moment, in other words on
paper, on the letter board and in the press lobby, and then on
Hansard the following day, or would you like to see a change
in some way or another? For example, it has been talked about
having an answer by email. What consequence would that have or
are there other things you would like? Would you like to see written
statements delivered in some other manner than they are at the
momentpretty blank actually, to tell you the truth?
Chair: Who wants to start
I'm an old traditionalist and I am the last person to talk about
Q97 Chair: Can
I tell you? We came acrossit was a written question I'd
tableda flaw in the present system. When an answer is given,
apparently someone has the job of going around the building putting
it on the board for the Member, going to the Official Report
and then going to the press gallery. This person chose to give
it to the press gallery first. As a result, I had a phone call
from a journalist half an hour before I had received the answer
to my own question, where that journalist has received the answer,
which I did not regard as a very satisfactory scenario. If the
answers were issued by email, of course, in theory at least, everyone
should get them at the same time.
Paul Flynn: Absolutely,
it would be a great improvement. I mean there's so much in the
House that is still antiquated in the old cardboard and sealing
wax days, and the nearer we get to using the tools that we use
every dayI'm sure, like many Members, the majority of my
correspondence and communication these days come via email. It
would be far better to get the answers back and much easier to
use them as well. If we want to transcribe them somewhere else,
then it's much easier to do it by email. It saves a lot of trouble.
Chair: Does any Member
of the Committee have any further questions?
Q98 Mr Gray: The
Government has suggested that it might possibly make written statements
at 7 am, in other words bringing it forward quite a long way,
with no notice. What do you think of that?
I thought you dealt with that very well in the session when Sir
George Young was proposing it. It's clearly completely in the
interest of the Government and it would infuriate Members who
found themselves listening to the Today programme and heard
something that they had had no opportunity to question.
Chair: Can I, on behalf
of the Committee, thank you all for giving up your valuable time
to be with us and sharing your ideas with us? You have ensured
that, whatever conclusions we reach, they will be better informed
than they would have been without this session, and we do greatly