UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 778-i

HOUSE OF COMMONS

ORAL EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE THE

Procedure Committee

E-tabling of Written Questions

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Chris Ruane MP

Paul Evans

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 56

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

1.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.

Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

3.

Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.

4.

Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 21 November 2012

Members present:

Mr Charles Walker (Chair)

Jenny Chapman

Nic Dakin

Sir Roger Gale

Helen Goodman

Mr James Gray

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Martin Vickers

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: Chris Ruane MP gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Thank you for coming to see us, Chris.

Chris Ruane: Thank you for having me so soon.

Chair: I will not call you Mr Ruane. I will call you Christopher or Chris. You are here today because you have concerns about restrictions placed on e-tabling.

Chris Ruane: That is right.

Q2 Chair: These concerns were made known particularly to colleagues during the campaign for the chairmanship of the Procedure Committee. Not just yourself but a number of other colleagues expressed concerns about the limits on e-tabling and the constraints you believe this is placing on Back Benchers to question and hold the Government to account.

Chris Ruane: Yes.

Q3 Chair: About setting the scene, it is a scene we are all familiar with. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Chris Ruane: Is it possible just to go through my statistics?

Chair: Yes, briefly.

Chris Ruane: Yes, briefly. It is just a summary of the recent scrutiny of written parliamentary questions. In 2002, the Procedure Committee rejected it, believed that it would be wrong in principle to do so. In 2007, the Leader of the House rejected the idea of a quota. In 2009, the Deputy Leader said, "Questions are a vital part of how we do our business and hold the Government to account". In 2009, the Procedure Committee said, "The use of WPQs is vital to the scrutiny of Government and, in line with previous recommendations of the Committee, we believe that no restrictions should be placed".

Opposition MPs, such as David Laws and Oliver Heald, were opposed to it. Oliver Heald said, "This is one of the most important tools that an Opposition has". He also said, "Any attempt to curtail their use would be viewed as a partisan move by Her Majesty’s Opposition and strongly resisted. I believe that vigorous use of WPQs is a sign of a healthy democracy". The Procedure Committee, I think 18 months ago or a year ago, overturned that, and it is the statistical evidence that was presented to them that I wish to shine a light on to you today.

There are lies, damn lies and statistics, but the two key statistics that were included in the report of last year are on the next page, and they are from paragraphs 35 and 36 of HC 800. I do not believe, when these statistics were presented to the Committee, that we were comparing like with like; apples with apples. In paragraph 35, that was the statistics for a whole week. You see 1,113 ordinary written questions. I do not know why that week of 24 January was selected. I do not know if it was a three-day week, a four-day week or a five-day week. If it was a three-day week, there would have been 371 questions per day, a four-day week 272, and if it was a sitting Friday, 222 questions. You are comparing it with the table below, average per sitting day, of which written answers were 410.

I am not sure if the Committee members were fully apprised of that, what they were comparing it to; whether they thought it was 440 versus 1,113, which would be alarming. I think that is a key bit of information that should have had more light shed on it. There should have been more transparency. In fact, the Committee then said, after those two tables, "Such figures indicate that we are on course to continue record levels, which had been reached when our predecessors expressed concern". That critical sentence there said, "The evidence proves that you are on course for record highs and the concern is still there."

The bar graph and the table there show you-this is from parliamentary question 121098 and parliamentary question 121714-the breakdown of the number of questions per sitting day, the bar graph, from 2005. When the Committee made its decision, which I think was on the one with 410, 25 May 2010 to 21 October, in that period, the questions were not at an all-time high. They had stabilised to around 400 per day, as opposed to the two previous highs of 467 per day in 2005-06 and 455 per day in 2007-08. I do not have the breakdown for e-tabling on this, so more work needs to be done on that.

I then looked, if you turn over, to the impact of the introductory date of the restrictions, 21 October, the eight sitting days immediately before and the eight sitting days immediately after, and there was a 14% drop. I had been noticing that my Hansard is a little thin of late. Either Members are speaking more slowly and there are fewer words being recorded, or I had a hunch that the number of written parliamentary questions had gone down. I asked Charlie Coleman, the social and general statistics statistician, for the information on the number of written parliamentary questions in October. That was only received on the 19th, and I have done that; and if you turn back a page to the bar graph, you will see that in the past month the number of written parliamentary questions-that is the last column-is 280 per sitting day. You can see the effect: 410, 329, and 280 in the past year.

I then move on to how this has affected different Departments-a departmental breakdown-and that is the one with the grey last column. You see the ODPM, 100 days before the change and 100 days after the change: a 50% decrease in the number of questions; Secretary of State for Wales, 43%; Prime Minister, 40% down. I have left out the smaller Departments. They are included in the last table, but virtually all the big Departments of State have had a decrease, except for DECC and Northern Ireland.

Last of all, I want to pay tribute to the team in the Table Office. They are the most professional, courteous and helpful officers that I know in the House. This is no criticism of them. I believe their numbers have risen to 6.3 full-time equivalents earlier this year. I think it should be higher than that to allow them to do the job that they have done so well over the years. I do believe that the decline over the past year was as a result of the e-tabling limit, and I would ask the Committee to review that and take this unnecessary limit away from Parliament to make us a healthier democracy, in the words of Oliver Heald.

Chair: Chris, thank you for that very brief canter through a rather expansive and well-researched paper. I think I will just let colleagues start.

Q4 Mr Nuttall: Chris, could I just quickly come in and ask you a very simple, straightforward question? Do you have a big backlog, personally, of questions waiting to go in?

Chris Ruane: No. I am not doing this from a personal perspective.

Mr Nuttall: You have no backlog?

Chris Ruane: No backlog whatsoever.

Q5 Mr Nuttall: It is not holding you up from doing your duties?

Chris Ruane: No, and I never have had. I am not doing this from a personal perspective. I am not doing this from a party political perspective. I am doing this from a democratic parliamentary perspective, to point out that the implementation of that rule, I think, has had a detrimental effect on Parliament.

Q6 Mr Nuttall: Are you aware of any of your colleagues who are sitting on a big backlog?

Chris Ruane: No. I put questions down to all Departments on the number of questions, and it is has been recently answered in the last week or so, to 23 Departments for the number of-

Mr Nuttall: I am sorry; I think you may have misunderstood me. The Departments would not know if an individual Member had a backlog.

Chris Ruane: Sorry; from the Table Office. No.

Mr Nuttall: Yes. It would be the Member who would be suffering because they would be saying, "If only there was not this restriction, I would not have this big backlog of questions that I am dying to ask."

Chris Ruane: No, I do not have a backlog at the Table Office that I am aware of, and Departments are handling the numbers of questions. From the 23 responses I have had, they seem to be handling the number of responses.

Q7 Mr Gray: David’s question, as far as I understand it, was, do you know of any Members of Parliament who have large numbers of questions that they are currently unable to table because of this rule? That is the question.

Chris Ruane: No, I do not.

Q8 Mr Gray: In which case, why are you bothered about it?

Chris Ruane: I am bothered about it, because the statistics that I have produced show that eight days before and eight days after the implementation of this there was a 14% drop. In the year afterwards, there was a 20% drop. In the past month, there is a 31% drop, and I do not think this is healthy for democracy.

Q9 Nic Dakin: You said it was detrimental. Can you explain how you believe it is detrimental, other than the impact in terms of fewer questions and a belief that more questions are healthier for democracy? What is the detriment, as you observe it?

Chris Ruane: To quote David Laws, when he was speaking before the system was changed, he said that the parliamentary system is "one of the Rolls-Royce elements of parliamentary accountability here in Westminster. We must be careful not to compromise the powers that the system gives". To quote Oliver Heald again, "Any attempt to curtail their use would be viewed as a partisan move by Her Majesty’s Opposition and strongly resisted. I believe that the vigorous use of WPQs is a sign of a healthy democracy". His words were used by the 2008-09 Committee in their summing-up: that it was vital for democracy. All I am saying is, if it was vital for democracy in 2008 and 2009, it is vital for democracy today; when you look at all of the changes that are occurring around the world and in this country, the more questions, the better.

Q10 Nic Dakin: People might say that you can still table by going along physically to the Table Office. Can you explain why that does not address the issue?

Chris Ruane: The issue is that there were a large number of questions when e-tabling was in place and they were done. I do not have them here, but I have the lists of the high questioners from the previous Parliaments, when the Conservatives and Liberals were in opposition. I am mentioning no names, but the Speaker, I think, was number 20, and there were MPs there and they were Front-Bench spokespeople, many of them. They were not necessarily Back Benchers. Some of them, in that Parliament, 2005 to 2010, had tabled 5,000 questions. A lot of that was down not just to that individual Minister, who was very, very busy writing out those questions at 2 o’clock in the morning. A lot of that was done by their research teams-capable people, researchers employed by those Front-Bench spokesmen in opposition-and others, who were able to do that. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Q11 Helen Goodman: Do you agree that the bar chart for the average WPQs tabled per sitting day shows that between the year 2010-11 and October 2012 there appears to have been a 30% drop in the number of WPQs tabled per day?

Chris Ruane: The 280 to the 410; is it a 31% or 30% drop? I do not like using small periods of time, and that is one of my criticisms of the information that was given to the Committee in March 2011. That was a one-week period, and I am not sure why 24 January was chosen. It was one week compared to a whole parliamentary Session, so you were not comparing apples with apples. Why that was not given for 100 days here and 100 days there so you could compare it, I do not know. Again, I only received this information on Monday, 19 November. I had my staff quickly process it today. It is only 15 sitting days in October, but the number was 280.

Q12 Helen Goodman: Would you say that one reason the numbers might have fallen, and yet some people-obviously, you have not canvassed every Member of Parliament, so you do not know if there are not some people who have the kind of backlog that David Nuttall was talking about-but do you think it is possible that for some PQs, sometimes, an issue is that it is timely to find out and it is preferable for a Member of Parliament to find out through PQs, and that maybe information comes out later on a slower timetable, or through FOIs put in by other people, and that is why people do not have big backlogs?

Chris Ruane: FOIs have been available since 2001. They did not affect the year 2005-06, where it was 467 questions, and they did not affect the year 2007-08, where it was 455 parliamentary questions a day. Why is it only in the recent sessions?

Q13 Helen Goodman: No, I think perhaps you misunderstood my question. I was trying to square the circle as between how it can be that we see a big reduction but people have not complained to you. One of the suggestions I was making, and I was wondering whether you entertained this, was that because sometimes e-tabling is to get information out on a timely basis, and if the opportunity is lost through the limit then it may not be worth finding out, whereas it would have been worth finding out the week before.

Chris Ruane: Yes. I think there are lots of reasons for e-tabling, and that might be one of them. Another is that researchers are employed. There is Short money for them. They are capable people. They know where to shine the torch, and that was being done in the previous Parliaments, and that ability has been curtailed by the introduction of this rule.

Q14 Helen Goodman: Can I ask you a follow-on question? Do you think there should be no limit at all, or do you think that it is just that this limit is too high? For example, if we were to have a limit of 100 e-tabled questions a day in order to prevent people from abusing the system, would you object to that? Do you object to any limit, or do you just think that the limit of five is too low?

Chris Ruane: Again, to quote the words of the honourable Oliver Heald, "Any attempt to curtail their use would be viewed as a partisan move by Her Majesty’s Opposition and strongly resisted", and I share those views.

Q15 Mr Gray: Can we, first of all, put Oliver Heald to bed?

Chris Ruane: I would rather not.

Q16 Mr Gray: The point he is making-and I am sure it is a point that all of the Committee would strongly agree with-that written parliamentary questions are an important weapon, and certainly no one should restrict their use. There is no question about that at all. Nor, indeed, was the restriction that was brought in intended to do that. The restriction is merely about the number of tabled questions e-tabled on a daily basis. We are not trying to restrict the number of questions tabled. It is just the e-tabling. A moment ago, you said that you knew of nobody who had been prevented from tabling because of the restrictions. Is that correct?

Chris Ruane: I have not surveyed them. I have not asked anybody. I have not asked the question.

Q17 Mr Gray: All right. You are not aware of anyone having had a problem as a result of this restriction? No one has said, "I am determined to put questions", and they have been turned away?

Chris Ruane: No, but-

Q18 Mr Gray: Let us move on, then. If that is the case, it is difficult to imagine what Member of Parliament would have a problem because, after all, we are here for votes and everything else. It would be perfectly easy to table questions personally. There is no restriction on the number of questions tabled. It is a question of just how many are e-tabled. Perhaps the fact that no one has complained means that that is because we, as Members of Parliament, can drop in to the Table Office any time of the day and table as many as we like, physically. It is just e-tabling. No one has complained. That brings me on to what you have hinted at twice, I think. You said this was an important weapon for researchers; not Members of Parliament, but for researchers. Are you indicating that you think researchers have the right to table parliamentary questions?

Chris Ruane: No. I am saying that many of the top questioners in the previous Parliament, the ones that were asking 5,000 questions in the session, were front-bench spokesmen. I find it hard. I am only a junior member of the Opposition, and I am run ragged just as a whip. I would find it difficult to believe that those 5,000 questions that were put down by those Opposition Members were each penned in their own hand, when they had teams of researcher and advisors as back-up. That Minister would not say, "No, I do not want you to table that. I want to write it out tonight at 2.00am".

Q19 Mr Gray: That may be the case. The people who advise on what the questions are or who draft the questions could be anybody. It could be an outside lobby group. It could be one’s mum. Nonetheless, it is the Member of Parliament who is tabling them. Therefore, the drafter does not matter. The Member of Parliament is the only person who is allowed to table questions. Is that a fair point?

Chris Ruane: Absolutely.

Q20 Mr Gray: In which case, restricting researchers from the ability to table is establishing what we believe to be very important, namely it should be Members of Parliament who table, not researchers.

Chris Ruane: Absolutely, yes.

Q21 Mr Gray: Therefore, if a Member of Parliament is complaining because he can do it physically in person, the only people-you hinted at it twice; two or three people, you said-being restricted were researchers. You were saying there were researchers doing this. Do you know of any occasion in which researchers do e-table themselves, directly?

Chris Ruane: No, and my researcher does not do mine. Every single question I have put down in this Parliament has come from my own hand. He may have e-tabled it, but I have scribbled it out on the train back up to Rhyl, and he has tidied it up and put them in.

Mr Gray: I see. Your researcher does do e-tabling?

Chris Ruane: Some of them, if I am going through a document and there are lots there and I write them out. I do not have the pro forma. I write them out in a list, and he will e-table them on my behalf.

Mr Gray: Hang on. Chairman, could I suggest we move into a private session?

Chair: Yes. Why?

Mr Gray: Because I am just about to move into the area that you told me not to move into.

Sir Roger Gale: Sorry, I am opposed to this. I think we want to remain in the public session. This is the core of the whole argument.

Mr Gray: All right. I am prepared to take your advice, Chairman. Let me move on; then we can decide whether to make it private or not. What you are saying is you-

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Chairman, sorry, on a point of order.

Mr Gray: In Latin.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thought we agreed before we started that, although we did not understand the advice, we would follow the advice, because we had not had the full reasons.

Chair: Mr Gray is going to follow the advice as to-

Jacob Rees-Mogg: But we have not moved into private session. If we are following this line, we have decided-

Chair: You are going to move off this, are you?

Mr Gray: No, no, I am not. In that case, all right. Mr Chairman, I hereby propose we move to private session. I now intend to question the-

Chair: We will move into private session. We have received some advice that I found out about at two minutes to 4.

Chris Ruane: Right.

The Committee deliberated in private.

Q22 John Hemming: My question is slightly different. I came to a view myself that parliamentary written questions should be used as part of an escalation process, and generally I tend to write letters to Ministers rather than do written parliamentary questions. Would you accept that the number of written parliamentary questions is not necessarily a one-to-one correlation with scrutiny?

Chris Ruane: No, there are horses for courses, and I think there are different attitudes in government and out of government. Some things are better handled privately with a meeting; some issues with a letter to the Minister, and with some it needs to be physically on the record.

Another issue that I have noticed, separate to this, is that this information can be found on http whatever, and it is not committed. The information, even though it might be a small amount of information, not pages and pages, is not on Hansard. If you have a journalist or a member of the public flicking through, if it was there and they could see it, then there is more chance of scrutiny happening. If it is on an http website, that is a further step removed. I would ask, perhaps at a separate occasion-part of the reasons given was that you wanted to reduce the quantity to improve the quality. I am not sure if any analysis has been done on the quality of questions, but that, for me, would be a drop in quality, when you just say, "Well, do not bother me. Go and have a look at this website," rather than having it in Hansard, where it can be examined by the press and by the Members of Parliament who flick through it on a daily basis and think, "I want to ask another question on that."

Q23 John Hemming: Prior to being elected, I was involved in local government, and very often we would get information via email. Would you think there would be an improvement if you could have a system whereby you could ask questions via email, say, and the answers are then published? They go off to the Department, the answers are published, not necessarily in Hansard, but somewhere, to get around that problem that letters, effectively, are not published, and therefore there is not the wider public scrutiny of the process of accountability that is going on?

Chris Ruane: I do not think this system is broken, and I do not think it needs fixing. I agree with David Laws, who said, "The written parliamentary question system is one of the Rolls-Royce elements of parliamentary accountability here in Westminster".

Q24 Mr Nuttall: Chris, do you think, over the years-and you have gone right back to 2005 with your table-that perhaps one of the reasons why there has been a decrease in the number of questions tabled is that there has been an absolute explosion in the amount of information that is available on the website and, as years have gone by, researchers and Members have become more adept at digging around on the internet and finding out what information they need to see?

Chris Ruane: I think most Members, if they have a question, even if they know the answer-I know you are not supposed to put the question down if you know the answer-they want it on the record. They want it there in public, so that people can analyse it; press can analyse it, other MPs can analyse it, the public can analyse it, and-dare I say?-lobbyists and concerned organisations can analyse it.

Again, looking at the bar graph, there has been no dramatic drop-off. Over the years, there is a 10% reduction from 467 questions. It stabilised in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. It was 410, 402 and 410. It had gone up, it stabilised, and I think that was an acceptable level. It was an acceptable level before the general election and an acceptable level after the general election. When the change was introduced, as I say, eight days before and eight days after, there was a 14% drop. That might have been a coincidence. It might be a coincidence that it has dropped by 20% over the year, 30% over the past month. Something happened in that October that has resulted in questions being reduced, and I think it is a bad thing for Parliament.

Q25 Helen Goodman: I am surprised that colleagues on the Committee say that they have not heard anybody complain about the impact of the limitation of five, because I have sat in this Committee and complained about the impact on my work of the limitation of five. I wonder if you agree that it is particularly arduous to expect people to walk over the Table Office if their own offices are a long way from the Table Office. For example, my office is not in the old palace. My office is on the fourth floor of Norman Shaw North. One could hardly get further away. Every time I have to go to the Table Office and go back to the office, it would use 20 minutes of my day. Do you think that is a good use for a Member of Parliament’s time?

Chris Ruane: Not at all. I think the idea of questions is that it should be as easy as possible. The more barriers you put in place, the less scrutiny. The whole process should be as easy as possible. As I say, that system was in place for the past six or seven years, and I do not think it was broken. You had a couple of peaks, it stabilised and it should have been left at that.

If the issue is tabling staff-and I have put the question down on this as well-since the war, it has varied between four and six members in the Table Office, and I think it was up to six members of recent years. In January to March of this year, it was up to 6.3. Those officers are overworked. If the issue is just putting one more officer in there to make sure that it is not an onerous task-what is an officer, £40,000, £50,000, £60,000 or £100,000 a year?-that would be money well spent on making sure the morale in the office was okay and that the staffing in that office was at a sufficient level to handle the questions that were coming forward for MPs.

Q26 Helen Goodman: Do you think that sometimes important information about resources in Departments needs to address cross-departmental resources; in other words, to make comparisons? For example, do you think it is reasonable to ask questions that ask each Department, "What have you spent on X, Y and Z?"

Chris Ruane: Again, that was raised in one of your reports, and I think it was described by Jack Straw as trivial, when people wanted to know how much floor space-

Helen Goodman: I am asking you what you think.

Chris Ruane: Yes, and I am going to give his answer. The floor space was a trivial question; the number of wine cellars, a trivial question. When that was given, the Procedure Committee itself said, or Members said, or those giving evidence said that these are questions that need to be asked, "How many wine cellars do we have? How much have you spent on plants?" We have had the question for Portcullis House, "How much has been spent on the fig trees or the olive trees there?"

Q27 Helen Goodman: Do you think that, in that case, given that there are 21 Departments of State, it is somewhat absurd to have a limit of five?

Chris Ruane: Yes.

Chair: We are going to let this run to 5.00 pm, and then-

Chris Ruane: Good. I need to be on the Bench, Chair.

Chair: Then we are going to go into closed Committee again, because we have a director from ICT here who can tell us what all the kerfuffle is about, and then we will go to Mr Evans.

Q28 Mr Gray: Just on this question of complaint-the number of people complaining about this problem, and whether there are or not-do you remember, of the three magnificent elections this year-there was the President of the United States, there were the Police and Crime Commissioners, and then there was the election for the chairmanship of the Procedure Committee, hotly fought on this occasion-you certainly emailed me, and I imagine also you emailed Charles, saying, "Would we look at this issue again?" and all that. It was copied to every single Member, I think, of the Labour Party, or maybe all Members, even, was it?

Chris Ruane: Yes.

Mr Gray: It was quite widely circulated. Apart from your own interests, do you know how many of all of those people followed it up to me? I replied to all 300 addressees, perhaps, and I said that was an interesting issue and one we should re-examine at some stage, which we are now doing. Do you know how many others, apart from yourself, expressed an interest in the matter?

Chris Ruane: I don’t know.

Q29 Mr Gray: Not one, is the answer. Not a single member of the Labour Party nor anywhere; nobody, not one, apart from you. Despite the fact that both you and I had emailed them, saying, "Here is an issue, a hot topic and we must talk about it," not one single person agreed. Nobody showed any interest at all. I just suspect that you are saying-

Chris Ruane: They are obsessed by the Police and Crime Commissioners.

Mr Gray: My point is all you are saying is that the numbers have fluctuated and that must be a bad thing. I suspect the fluctuations may be due to something else.

Chris Ruane: Can I ask what?

Mr Gray: The restriction to five e-tabling is not necessarily all that serious.

Chris Ruane: Could I ask what other alternative it would be?

Mr Gray: In terms of what?

Chris Ruane: What other reason?

Mr Gray: It happens anyhow because of the time of year, the interest, what is happening in the world. People get more interested and more questions get put down. There is a whole variety of reasons why they might fluctuate. I personally find I might go for a month and do none, and then spend a month doing loads and loads.

Chris Ruane: Then again, if you are right, then it is going down anyway, so there is no need for this rule.

Mr Gray: That is the catch-22, is it not?

Chris Ruane: That is the nub. As Charles has said-

Chair: Mr Gray is in on it.

Chris Ruane: That is the nub of the issue. If it is going down anyway naturally, because of world events and whatever and disinterest and the internet, then remove the limits and see what happens. Have another little experiment for another year.

Q30 Mr Gray: The old thing about the rule about not spitting on the floor. No one spits on the floor. Therefore, you do not need the rule. That is true. The chicken-and-egg-

Chris Ruane: Yes.

Chair: Have we roughed up Mr Ruane enough for one day? Mr Vickers, you have been noticeably quiet at only your second meeting.

Q31 Martin Vickers: Yes. Based on the fact that I was not here in the original discussions, I am somewhat bemused, Chairman.

Chair: I was not here either, Mr Vickers.

Martin Vickers: If, as has been described, no one is finding a problem, except Chris-

Helen Goodman: I am.

Martin Vickers: I am sorry; you are.

I am sympathetic to what you are saying, because I do not think there should be any restriction at all to finding information. It has been known for Governments to be somewhat reluctant to release information; not this one, of course, but in the past. Certainly no barriers should be put in their place, but at this stage I am not convinced that we have created a barrier and the system does, on the whole, seem to be working. I am with John. I do not table many written questions. I prefer to write off and have alternative methods, but I do not see that we have created a barrier that needs dealing with at the moment.

Chris Ruane: Can I ask, Martin? The statistics, I have done the eight days before, the eight days afterwards, the last month, the changeover and the past year. Does that not indicate that-

Q32 Martin Vickers: It throws up a question, but not one that I think we can answer. As James has just mentioned, there are so many variables that could be within that time. There is a whole host of reasons.

Chris Ruane: Again, the question I posed: if it is the variables that are bringing it down, why have it there?

Martin Vickers: It is a fair point, but as yet I am not convinced.

Chair: We are going to close this wonderful session off with Mr Hemming.

Q33 John Hemming: To be fair, as I say, I am not a great fan of written questions. I do think the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland is a somebody and, if somebody is suffering from the issue, we should look at it and how to deal with it. How long do you think would be a sensible experiment, were it to be changed?

Chris Ruane: I would take wider advice on that.

John Hemming: If the limit was lifted for a week or month-

Chris Ruane: Yes. Your trial period was three months before, was it, Charles?

Chair: I am looking out of the corner of my eye and seeing Hugh nodding. We cannot hear nodding.

Chris Ruane: I think your trial period before was three months. I think you would have to be careful which three months that was, because if you have holidays, there tends to be a backlog. Perhaps, whatever time of year the three months was that you had before, have it the three months the same time of year as well, if you do not have a moveable Easter.

Chair: Chris, thank you for that eventful evidence session. I do not think it was chaired particularly well.

Chris Ruane: I beg to differ, Chair.

Chair: I apologise for that confusion. We are now going to get to the bottom of that confusion, and we are still in public session, just for the moment. We are going to get to the bottom of that confusion by inviting a director from ICT to come and tell us what the confusion is. We are now in closed session.

The Committee deliberated in private.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Paul Evans, Clerk of the Table Office, gave evidence.

The Committee deliberated in private.

Q34 Chair: I thought this was going to be a fairly anodyne evidence session, but it has been quite exciting and gripping.

Paul Evans: Indeed.

Chair: You are clearly aware of the high-stakes game we are playing. I think, unless you would like to make a statement, I will throw questions over to colleagues. Would you like to make a statement as to your view on how restrictions on e-tabling are working, and colleagues can then pick over the bones of that?

Paul Evans: There are six different charts: A, B, C, D and E. I have come to baffle you with more statistics.

Chair: To be honest, I am not sure these charts make very good radio.

Paul Evans: No, and they do not tell you anything very much. I just make three points, Chairman. One is that nobody would deny that the number of parliamentary questions tabled for written answer is declining from its peak. The other is that the evidence for this being an inhibition on Members’ ability to ask questions is not strong. In the 2010-12 Session, only three Members asked more than five questions on average per sitting day-Mr Ruane being the winner-but I do not think that is quite the point.

One of the failings of our system that we have introduced is that we did not introduce what we promised to go alongside it and have been promising it since 2007, which is a basket in which Members can store questions. I can fully understand the problems Members have, who want to table questions from their constituency or from Norman Shaw North, or whatever, when they hit the 6.30 deadline or the five limit. It is very frustrating, and we should have solved that problem sooner, because, whatever quota you choose to have, or no quota at all, obviously Members do not work in numbers of five. Therefore, it is very irritating for them. We should have solved that problem. We believe, my colleagues from PICT here, that we will have that problem solved before the House returns in January and that Members will be able to store any questions that do not fit into any quotas or deadlines that your Committee chooses to propose to the House subsequently to this inquiry.

I think that has been our biggest single failing. On the quantum of questions that Members want to ask over a Session, five a day is pretty close. I am not quite sure why the Committee chose it. Five a day is pretty close to what the highest tablers want to ask over a Session. It is only the way in which they are spread over the Session that is the real problem-spread over the week, spread over the Session, or spread over the day.

Q35 John Hemming: To my point about how to get information from the Government, do you think there is any merit in trying to develop a system where you can email the Department? They publish the response to your email, but it does not necessarily have to go through the parliamentary proceeding or the collective question.

Paul Evans: That would be quite a step. The Table Office could then wrap up and put-

John Hemming: No, because you are still going to have parliamentary questions.

Paul Evans: We are still going to have parliamentary questions. We are certainly working on a system where that will happen with PQs. In other words, it will be all electronic, and the questions will go into a cloud and the answers will be plucked out of a cloud and all the rest of it, but that is some way away yet. I think your question, Mr Hemming, is not one for me to answer. If Departments wanted to have some kind of open-access electronic Q&A system, they should certainly feel free to do that and Members might choose to use it.

Q36 Nic Dakin: It would seem to me that electronic tabling is driven by a desire for greater access, particularly in the modern world. I find it very irritating when I am tabling questions at home at the weekend and I run out-the odd occasion when I have six or seven-and I then have to remember, because I am not the most organised person, I have not tabled these two. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been making my poor office check which ones I have not tabled. I cannot remember which ones I have not tabled because I was not that well organised at the time. I find it very irritating. The point you made about the IT system not being there at the moment to support this process: I was quite reassured by that, because it sort of recognises the problem at the heart of it, from my own personal perspective.

I just wanted to check, what is the purpose of the limit? What is the value of the limit? Secondly, you seemed sort of quizzical as to why five, why not six, why not four, or why not 10? I am quite interested in what the value of the limit is. Why have a limit at all, and if so, why have five rather than another number?

Paul Evans: I was not in the present post when these discussions took place previously, but I think the authentication issue that has been covered extensively in evidence with Mr Ruane was at the back of quite a lot of Members’ minds on the Procedure Committee; that the access to this system was open to circumventing the Member intervention completely. I think members of the Procedure Committee felt a bit uncomfortable about that. But five, 10, 15, 20-I am not sure where that came from.

The biggest gain in terms of how we provide a service to Members, for me, has been the 6.30 cut-off. The quota has also been useful because it manages the flow over the week. The 6.30 cut-off is helpful. There was certainly a situation, and it was particularly bad on Mondays, when Members had been sitting at their desks all weekend, or their researchers had, and we got 120 e-tabled questions from three or four or five Members first thing in the morning waiting for us. That pre-empted all the resources we had for the whole morning, which prevented us from dealing with all the other things we should have been dealing with from Members who had come into the office, or tabling a smaller handful of questions. That is always the balance that we are trying to strike. It is trying to manage the flow of work, so that we can provide a reasonably consistent, high-quality service to all Members, including those who use the office a lot and those who use the office fairly irregularly.

Q37 Nic Dakin: The issue around authentication could apply to written questions dropped off at the Table Office as much as e-tabled questions.

Paul Evans: We do insist on either seeing the Member who gives them to us or having them signed by a Member. It is alleged, and I am sure it is not true, that Members sign blank sheets and then they are filled in, but we do insist on an original signature on any piece of paper or the Members’ actual physical presence as the authentication.

Q38 Helen Goodman: Do you know why, when this Committee was given evidence last time when this issue was discussed, this particular week in January was chosen and was compared with a longer time period?

Paul Evans: I don’t, to be honest. I know you are referring to Mr Ruane’s evidence. No, I do not know why that particular week was chosen, I am sorry. I am going to draw your attention to the evidence I gave to the Committee in January or so. I said, in terms, the etabling limit has made no discernible difference to the number of questions received a day. Mr Ruane has a different view on the matter. This is a question of statistics. We took three months’ baseline before the system was introduced, and we took another three months piloting the system, and there was no significant difference. There was a change in the number of etabled questions, but there was no significant change in the quantum of questions between the baseline and the pilot period. It was tiny, scarcely perceptible, and I made that point to the Committee in my evidence. I said that the real gains had been not in the quantum of questions but in managing the workflow.

We have taken a snapshot before I came here of what has happened in the last week or two, and that evidence is quite different. What is interesting is that the proportion of e-tabled questions declined when we introduced the new system-the limit-from 54% to 39% of all questions tabled, and it has now gone back to 65% of all questions tabled. As I say, I am not a statistician or an engineer, but that suggests to me that it is not e-tabling that is principally contributing to the overall decline in the number of questions. That is just a layman’s view.

Q39 Helen Goodman: I would like now to turn to your letter to Mr Walker of 13 November.

Paul Evans: Yes.

Helen Goodman: Your concern to manage the work of the Table Office is a reasonable concern. I think to focus, as you do in all your numbers, on the average numbers tabled per sitting day is helpful from the point of view of thinking about the workflow, but it may not be helpful from the point of view of enabling Members to hold the Government to account, because there may be one day when I want to table 20 questions, three days when I do not need to table any, but another colleague might wish to table 15 questions. Do you not see that there might be a certain unreasonableness in making the workflow dependent on controls on every single Member every day, rather than balancing-it is a random population of 635 people-the interests and the subject matters that different Members have over the course of the week?

Paul Evans: I completely see that point, Ms Goodman, and I would say that I understand I think we should do it better. Members cannot be expected to work in batches of five, and I think that is right. I would be personally relaxed, from the point of view of managing the workflow, in having a higher quota. What I would like, if the Committee was prepared to grant us, would be a way of preventing the 120 questions on a day. There is a point between five and 100 where you might strike a bargain, because that does disrupt what service we can offer.

Q40 Helen Goodman: I think that point is eminently sensible. We do not wish to encourage Members to ask trivial questions. I do remember seeing questions on the Order Paper in the last Parliament that I regarded as trivial, but I think the current limit of five is exceptionally low. Do you think you could manage with a limit of 20?

Paul Evans: I am sure we could manage. If we had the basket, which we will have, where Members can put their questions to wait, 10 or 20 would be the right sort of area to be in.

Q41 Helen Goodman: Sorry, was I listening properly? You cannot answer that question, obviously. When will the basket come on-stream?

Paul Evans: We hope when the House returns in January.

Q42 Chair: Mr Evans, that would be 10 a day. You could put 30 into the basket and they could be released at 10 a day. Is that what you are saying?

Paul Evans: Yes, for example.

Q43 Mr Gray: What you are really saying is that the number of written parliamentary questions has not significantly gone down, or it goes down seasonally, as it were. New Parliaments will load them with-

Paul Evans: Quite so; it has gone down, Mr Gray.

Mr Gray: I know, but not because of the restriction.

Paul Evans: Not obviously to me, because-

Q44 Mr Gray: At the beginning of the Parliament more people table things, and by the time of the middle of the Parliament fewer do. Presumably the purpose of the oral questions table and the EDM table you have given us is to demonstrate the same-

Paul Evans: The orals have gone up, which is unusual, which is causing us a bit of a problem in workflow, but EDMs, it struck me-for those of you who are art historians and can see the patterns in these things-there is quite a similar line. Ignore the spikes. EDM activity seems to have dropped roughly at the same proportion and level.

Mr Gray: Which is probably what you would expect from the new Parliament-

Paul Evans: Whether that tells you anything useful, I do not know.

Q45 Mr Gray: Just one final question; leaving aside the workflow and the Clerks, can I ask the spitting on the floor question? In other words, you indicated that you thought very few Members of Parliament tabled more than five electronically on a regular basis.

Paul Evans: Five in total per day, taken over the average. That is taken over the average, and I realise that is not-

Mr Gray: Are you are saying that relatively few people did that? Was that what you meant?

Paul Evans: Yes. As I say, in the 2010-12 Session, three members had more than five per average over the whole session. That is hard copy and e-copy.

Q46 Mr Gray: Are there not some occasions there could be-

Paul Evans: On some occasions, they will obviously want to put in more.

Chair: Peaks and troughs.

Paul Evans: Yes.

Q47 John Hemming: You mentioned the issue of workflow, and I wonder if, within that, the issue about the timing of e-tabling is perhaps more important than the quantum.

Paul Evans: It is very important, and if I had to give up one rather than the other, I would hang on to the cut-off.

Q48 John Hemming: The cut-off is the big thing?

Paul Evans: The only thing is I made the point about the 120 questions. You can say, "If a Member does that, they are abusing the system. Put them to the side; do them later." I would rather not have my staff choose Members’ priorities for them. Where I see the advantage of a figure of 10 or whatever you have set on-10, 20 per day-is Members are choosing their priorities. If they have another 80 questions they want to ask, they can jolly well walk over and bring them in by hand, but they are at least setting their own priorities rather than us trying to guess them.

Q49 John Hemming: Would you think it reasonable-say somebody put in 80 questions, that you were going to process 10 a day and you found that you can process more-that you speed up the process beyond what people are expecting?

Paul Evans: That is possible. It is unlikely to happen before Thursday.

Q50 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I just wondered if there is any logic in limiting e-questions for 120 if there is no limit on walking over with them, because it must disrupt your workflow just as much if somebody comes over with the forms filled out.

Paul Evans: There are two advantages to keeping that figure. One is that I do think, to go back to our discussion that we had about authentication, there are occasions when members of staff perhaps do not think through as a Member would about the consequences of their actions in the same way because they are often relatively inexperienced and new to the job. The other is that, if someone brings them over physically, even if it is the Member’s research assistant, you can have a conversation with them and say, "Look, which of these really matter? We are not going to deal with these until Friday. Is that okay? Are there some of them that have to be dealt with today," and so on. You can at least have that conversation.

Q51 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Can I follow up by asking you, on authentication, how do you think you could authenticate that it was genuinely a Member’s question-

Paul Evans: Through e-tabling?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Through e-tabling, yes.

Paul Evans: There are options: biometrics, complicated PINs, as used in your internet banking and so on and so forth. That would be something the experts in PICT would have to look at the options for, but I think certainly we could have much more stringent authentication than we have now, if Members were willing to sign up for it.

The big advantage, if I may say, Mr Rees-Mogg, of looking at better e-authentications-I can see that the world is coming where Members will want to be able to sign EDMs and table EDMs from their constituency on their iPads, add their names to motions on the Order Paper and so on. We have regular run-arounds in the Table Office when a Member is desperate to add their name to an amendment on the Order Paper, they cannot find anyone to come in and vouch for them, and we have some kind of argument over the phone and say, "No, we won’t take it," even though we know perfectly well that it is Mr Rees-Mogg on the other end of the phone, but that is the rule.

If PICT found a system of authentication that was really watertight, Members could starting signing EDMs or whatever, if they wanted to electronically, and if that is what this Committee suggested and that is what the House wanted.

Chair: We could have retina identification.

Paul Evans: You could.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Bloomberg has fingerprints.

Chair: We are probably on the cusp of great technical advancement within the House of Commons and within our own offices. I need to ask this final question. Colleagues, are we finished?

Helen Goodman: Yes.

Q52 Chair: I am going to ask the last question. Are there any possible improvements in the service offered to Members by the Table Office that you would like to discuss with us?

Paul Evans: I have already referred to the fact that oral questions have surprisingly gone up in the number that they have tabled. I am not sure of the reasons for that. I think it is better organisation by the Front-Bench support teams, frankly. It seems to me potentially rather a waste of everybody’s time that Members come in, have to propose a question, or alternatively they feel rather obliged to take a question that somebody else maybe has drafted and they would not normally be interested in and put it into the shuffle because they do not have time to do all these things, and it comes out and nine tenths of them never see the light of day.

I wondered if it would make more sense and do a bit for our workload and perhaps, I think, be of benefit to Members, if they just put their names in but rather further in advance-a fortnight in advance, say-for a shuffle. When their names came out in the top 20 or 25, we would then inform them and they would have a week in which to table their substantive question; put in whatever seemed appropriate at the time. We have the same period of notice for your substantive question, roughly speaking, as now, but you would be drawn out of the hat two weeks in advance and told, "You have 10 days in which to table your substantive question." I think that would possibly save quite a lot of time on either side.

Q53 Sir Roger Gale: I think that is an absolutely excellent suggestion. I loathe the fact that people on all sides of the House come up with wads of questions and say, "Would you mind putting in four of these for oral questions?" I apply exactly the same yardstick to oral questions, as I do to written questions. This is the job of the Member of Parliament. It is not the job of a Government Whip or an Opposition Whip or anybody else to put in 14 questions on the same subject in the hope that one of them, on a grapeshot basis, will hit the target.

Paul Evans: Or, unfortunately, all 14 of them come out of the shuffle.

Q54 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Could there indeed be a risk of this, which is that the Whips, once they know who the people are, have even more control of the questioning process because in the shuffle it may the awkward squad who come up and it is too late because their question is down and written, whereas if they can then be got at, they will be got at to be less awkward? I just wondered, in the law of unintended consequences, what would happen.

Paul Evans: That is a very fair point.

Q55 Helen Goodman: Is there also a risk that, if Members are shuffled two weeks before the occasion and then they have a diary change and they cannot make it, other people have lost the opportunity?

Paul Evans: I suppose we could have a promotion, if we had the names and we could have a cut-off right up to the last minute to promote people into the top 25.

Helen Goodman: In the first week?

Paul Evans: Yes.

Helen Goodman: Could I just suggest that if you are going to go down this path-

Chair: Nobody is going to go down it unless we suggest it.

Helen Goodman: that this is worth taking into account? Obviously, your diary two weeks hence is more likely to change than one week hence.

Q56 Chair: I think Helen has made a good point. This is something the Committee should take under consideration and have a good think about and look at it from all angles. Mr Evans, thank you very much for coming here today.

Paul Evans: Thank you very much. I just wanted to say, Chair, but unfortunately the person I meant to say it in front of is not here, how grateful I was to Mr Ruane for his comments on my staff.

Chair: That is much appreciated, and that will be noted. Thank you, Mr Evans.

Prepared 28th November 2012