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29 Oct 2002 : Column 727—continued

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The majority of my comments relate to motion 4 on parliamentary questions, and to motion 5 and the amendments standing in my name and those of other members of the Procedure Committee.

I begin by thanking and paying tribute to all the members of the Procedure Committee from all political parties, who showed tremendous commitment and hard work in producing this very important report. The Committee's report on parliamentary questions is the first major review of the subject for over 10 years. We say that the system of parliamentary questions is

However, there are major flaws in the way the system works.

We began our inquiry by seeking the views of all Members of the House through a questionnaire. I believe that it was important to do so, because the composition of the House has changed so much since the last major inquiry.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): For the worse.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: My right hon. and learned Friend is entitled to his view.

There is a new generation of Members, and we wanted to know how they use questions and whether they think the system is working as well as it might. The clear answer to the questionnaire was no, at least in some respects. We have put together a package of recommendations that attempts to redress the deficiencies that our survey clearly identified. I am pleased that the Government's reply to our report accepts most of those recommendations.

At this stage, I wish to pay tribute to the Leader of the House, who gave very stimulating evidence to our inquiry and has engaged constructively with the Committee at all stages. In a moment, I shall deal with a small number of recommendations that the Government have rejected, but that should not in any way detract from the fact that, overall, their response has been very positive.

The biggest single criticism of the oral questions system is that it lacks topicality and relevance. That is because the deadline for tabling questions is still 10 sitting days, or two calendar weeks. As a result, it is often impossible for Members to raise in the Chamber the issues that the rest of the country is talking about. The Chamber therefore appears to be out of touch and irrelevant. The real questioning of Ministers, as has already been said in the debate, takes place on XNewsnight" or the XToday" programme.

As part of our inquiry, we researched the history of the questions system. We found that the House never intended that the notice period should be so long. As we say,

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We also point out that very short deadlines were the norm 100 years ago. Before 1902, a question could be tabled for answer the following day, and from 1902 to 1947, only two days' notice was required. The current two-week deadline is absurd. We have recommended that it be replaced by a deadline of three working days. We accept that the deadline should not be shorter than that, because I believe that it is reasonable for Departments to have two working days to prepare the briefing for their Ministers.

The Government's response to our report broadly accepts our recommendation, but proposes that the three territorial Departments—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—should have a slightly longer notice period and that our proposal should be further modified by discounting sitting as well as non-sitting Fridays from the calculations. It is worth making the latter point to the House.

The Procedure Committee discussed the Government's response at its meeting last week. We were slightly sceptical about the need for the territorial Departments to be given several extra days' notice, which may conjure up the image of relays of horsemen galloping off to those far-flung places, Edinburgh and Cardiff, or people rowing across to Belfast. We concluded, however, that the Government propose relatively minor modifications of our proposals, which we are content to accept.

The overall thrust of our recommendations has been accepted by the Government, and is embodied in the Standing Order changes that the House is invited to approve tonight. I believe that if the changes are approved they will have a major impact on Question Time. They will make it much more incisive and much more relevant. We made several connected recommendations, which the Government have also accepted. In particular, we recommended that Members should be allowed to table oral questions on any day after their last Question Time and before the minimum notice period—that is, generally up to four weeks before the day for answer. That represents a major relaxation of existing rules, which would be much appreciated by all Members.

In general, Members who responded to our questionnaire are much happier with the written questions system than that for oral questions. However, there is concern about the distinction—I say this with emphasis—between named-day questions and ordinary written questions. About half of all written questions tabled are for a named day, and a third are for the earliest possible day. Frankly, the members of the Procedure Committee simply do not believe that such a high proportion of questions can legitimately be described as urgent. We believe that this is an abuse of the system. It is counter-productive, because it leads to a proliferation of holding replies and makes it less likely that the genuinely urgent questions will receive a rapid response.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I have limited time, so, as Chairman of the Committee, it is difficult to do so. If I can, I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

We have therefore recommended that the House should impose a daily quota per Member of five named-day questions. However, we rejected the Government's

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suggestion that the minimum period for a reply to a named-day question should be extended from three to four working days. As we say in our report,

We make another major recommendation in relation to the use of technology; I know that this is both controversial and sensitive. We considered the implications of allowing questions to be tabled electronically. The big problem is ensuring that electronic tabling does not encourage abuse, with Members giving carte blanche either to their researchers or, even worse, to outside organisations and lobbying groups to table questions on their behalf.

It would be ridiculous to ignore the potential benefits of new technology and refuse to allow electronic tabling. We considered whether we should recommend that the House insist on what we called Xstrong authentication" of the identity of Members. We could employ a system using what are called biometric techniques, such as fingerprint or iris recognition, which would ensure that questions were submitted only by a Member in person rather than by anyone else acting on his or her behalf. However, such systems would be expensive, complicated and, we suspect, liable to extensive teething problems. Members might also find it rather undignified to have to submit their fingerprints or squint into an iris recognition device every time they want to table a question.

We have therefore recommended that, in the first instance, the House should conduct an experiment in electronic tabling of questions using a Xweak authentication" system. It would be similar to the system already in operation in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Lords. There would be added safeguards—for instance, questions would be accepted only from addresses in the Parliamentary Data and Video Network, not just from any e-mail address. None the less, we recognise that there would still be potential for abuse with that option.

We have therefore recommended that Mr. Speaker should have power to abort the experiment if it became clear that large-scale abuse were taking place or if the number of questions tabled rose steeply and ran the risk of overloading the questions system. If that were to happen, we would have to cut our losses and revert to the more expensive option of strong authentication. I very much hope that that would not be necessary.

The Government have accepted all the recommendations that I have mentioned, sometimes with minor modifications. I shall conclude by dealing with the one major recommendation that they have rejected, which is that there should be a twice weekly session of topical questions in the Chamber. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, following departmental questions, there should be a 30-minute period in which questions would be asked on a single, topical subject. Mr. Speaker would choose the subject on the basis of applications made by Members the previous day.

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In making his choice, Mr. Speaker would be guided by specified criteria, including

this is even more even important to Government Members—

I am looking particularly at the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), when I say that. Mr. Speaker would aim to achieve an overall balance between those criteria over a period of time. He would also have discretion, if he thought fit, occasionally to substitute two 15-minute sessions for one 30-minute session.

I am sorry that the Government have decided to reject that recommendation. In my view, it would be an effective way of restoring to the House some control over the use of its time, and that is important. At present, the Executive have total control over when statements are made to the House and on what subject. The system of private notice questions gives the official Opposition some scope to take the initiative, but only very occasionally, and Back Benchers have no equivalent opportunities.

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