Examination of Witness (Questions 200-219)
PROFESSOR THE LORD NORTON OF LOUTH
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
200. Not just one party either; it is across the political spectrum.
(Lord Norton) I am giving this a bit of historical depth. I am thinking of those 10 or 20 years ago who are still in the House and who had a reputation as serial questioners but do not now to the same extent. I just offer that as an observation and I would have to test whether it is the case. On the point itself, it is undesirable to engage in that sort of exercise but, for the reasons we have been discussing, I am certainly reluctant to impose limits which would prevent that because in a way you might be restricting the one serial questioner in a way that then disbenefits other Members who are not serial questioners.
201. You have already covered a number of the issues about Prime Minister's Questions but I want to focus in particular on that. My perception is that Prime Minister's Questions now has less coverage on national news media than it has ever had. I had quite a significant argument with Adam Boulton on Sky TV about that a few weeks ago. Certainly on the BBC and ITV, whereas in the 1980s Prime Minister's Questions was a high profile thing on news bulletins, it seems to be much lower down the agenda now or sometimes does not even appear at all. I presume you would follow that argument by saying it is because of the structure of Prime Minister's Questions and you mention in your memorandum that you would like to see a return to two sessions a week, although maintaining a 30-minute structure. Could you talk a little bit more about how we could make those two sessions different if we started to move that way? Secondly, you also raised an issue about embodying procedures for PMQs in Standing Orders. Eric mentioned earlier the issue about governments arbitrarily changing the process and moving to Wednesday. I was not in the House then but it did not seem to be discussed in any great detail within the House even though this Committee had obviously done some work in that area.
(Lord Norton) It was not discussed at all.
202. It was an arbitrary decision of our current Prime Minister.
(Lord Norton) Yes, it was. Just on the historical detail, you are right, in 1997 it was just imposed, which jarred slightly with past practice. When Prime Minister's Question Time was introduced in July 1961 as a fixed period, that was as a consequence of some consultation between the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and the authorities before it was introduced. At the time he made it clear that he was at the disposal of the House as to what practice they would prefer. It was for the convenience of Members as much as the Prime Minister to have specific times for doing that. The last time the Procedure Committee looked at this, John Major put in a submission and made it clear he felt he was at the disposal of the House in terms of what the House would wish in that respect. What happened in 1997 was a departure from the stance taken by previous Prime Ministers. If I come back to your opening point on the coverage, a study was done of the extent to which Parliament received television coverage compared with when the cameras came in. In fact there is now less coverage of Parliament than there was when the cameras first came in. In absolute terms there has been a decline. However, I do think there is a problem, not just in terms of quantity, but within the coverage there is there is still disproportionate coverage of Prime Minister's Question Time, which is to Parliament's disadvantage. There is a double disbenefit. There is less coverage but what there is is still too heavily geared towards PMQs which gives a completely misleading impression of what Parliament is about. If you look at the declining coverage, the bodies which have missed out most have actually been Select Committees. Initially there was active parliamentary coverage and dedicated programmes which in the time slots they had in the schedule actually got quite a good viewing figure, but they almost disappeared from the scene in terms of dedicated coverage. Parliament has lost out enormously as a consequence of that. That is the general point about coverage. Too much emphasis is given to PMQs. It is highly televisual, which is why you get the coverage, but it is a case of plenty of heat but no light. What I should like to see is more light introduced into it. Breaking it up into two has a certain value in making sure the Prime Minister is in the House of Commons twice a week. I mentioned in my memorandum that historically, over the last 150 years, there is an underlying decline in attendance by Prime Ministers in the House of Commons. If we can do anything to reverse that, there would be some benefit in it. In terms of shedding more light and providing what you are looking for, which is perhaps some difference and variety in the way one might do it, when the Procedure Committee last looked at it, one proposal which was put forward on the basis of Tuesday and Thursday PMQs was that one of them might be open questions and the other might be closed questions. That is what the Procedure Committee looked at.
203. Presumably we could do that. The Government is unlikely to want to move away from the one session a week position. You could perhaps do alternate weeks, if you decided to adopt a different procedure.
(Lord Norton) Yes; you could. The problem with that would be the topicality aspect, because it would be every other week when you would be able to pursue the topical aspects. One way round it, if you stick with the single session, would be to have a limited number of questions but have the last or last two either as an engagement question or something of that nature or a topical question which is put down just a matter of hours before, something of that nature. That would allow you therefore to have the benefits of closed questions, a more constructive engagement with the Prime Minister, but still allow some room for topicality. Yes, you could do it within the one half-hour session.
204. What about this aspect of having the Prime Minister answer questions in the Grand Committee Room or Westminster Hall over a period of one hour a week?
(Lord Norton) I do not know about one hour a week. I can see the value of doing it. Anything which brings the Prime Minister back into Parliament is a good thing, whoever the Prime Minister is. I know the Liaison Committee would be quite keen for the Prime Minister to appear before the Liaison Committee. One possibility might be a session in Westminster Hall; not necessarily every week but on a basis which was open to all Members. That would avoid the problem of just seeing the Liaison Committee as the body of established Members putting questions. That might be one possibility. In the memorandum I certainly touch upon perhaps making greater use of Westminster Hall as a forum for putting questions to Ministers. If you wanted to move in the direction of open questions my point was you might have a session in Westminster Hall where you could just have a Minister with one specific departmental responsibility taking questions on an open basis for 15 minutes, half an hour, something of that nature. Whether you did something similar with the Prime Minister . . .
205. That seems to work very well on a Thursday afternoon when we have a Westminster Hall debate where the Government puts up a subject, presumably in discussion with Opposition parties, and people can come to speak on those occasions. Perhaps a similar proposal could be used for a Prime Minister's session where there would be some discussion or even a ballot for a topic and then the Prime Minister could come to talk about a particular topic that may be balloted for.
(Lord Norton) The only problem I would raise with that is a bureaucratic one. There is no problem with Ministers making use of Westminster Hall in a fairly flexible way. To some extent it is being done at the moment. Members are starting to appreciate that the opportunity to pursue something is fairly constructive. It does not have to be the grand issue of the day but if there is something you want to pursue the Minister is there and responds. That is extremely valuable. The practical problem if you have that sort of session with the Prime Minister in Westminster Hall is that you are not going to have space for Members who want to put questions. For an open session with the Prime Minister you are going to have to think in terms of the chamber.
206. The other option would be to ballot who would attend. You could limit the number of Members who could attend this session. You would have a session, you would have a topic and then Members would ballot for, say, 20 attendees.
(Lord Norton) That would be unnecessarily bureaucratic since you could have them in the chamber anyway so you are not limiting Members.
207. Just an idea.
(Lord Norton) I am a bit concerned if Members feel excluded from a process. If you have open questions in the chamber, you have equality of membership and all Members can turn up. That is my only thought.
208. The precedent has already been set for what I would call questioning Ministers in the European Standing Committees A, B and C, where for the first hour of any such debateI agree it has to be on the matter before the Committeeyou can not only ask a question, you can come back and ask several questions, but there is a limit of one hour to that particular part of the Committee's business.
(Lord Norton) Indeed; that is what I was suggesting in terms of Ministers with particular responsibilities being in Westminster Hall. It would be similar to that, say half an hour just to pursue that particular area with a Minister.
209. May I put to you a request that you might give further thoughts to the matters which have been raised by Members here about the Prime Minister appearing before Members to answer general questions? If you could look at it and perhaps give it further thought and produce a paper for us, I think we should be very interested indeed. I think it is an exciting and novel process which could bring great benefit to the House and I think too to the Prime Minister of the day.
210. I go back to the inquiry in 1996 when much of the evidence which came forward was to restrict the amount of preparation time the Prime Minister had to do and concentrate it onto the one day, so all briefing we had to have could be concentrated into a shorter time. I seem to recall that the Committee produced a report and before the Government responded to it, the new Government came in in 1997 and changed the system without even responding to this Committee. (Lord Norton) Yes, that is right, there was no response.
211. I would ask you again to concentrate on this idea of a smaller grouping of Members or balloting on that basis. Although the chamber gives the opportunity for a wider group of Members, one of the things which happens, whether it is meant to or not, is that the hierarchy kicks in and certain Members get more opportunity than others and that can be quite discouraging, particularly for newer Members, not in relation to the Prime Minister, but when we had a recent statement on steel, I was the only Member from a South Yorkshire constituency, which was the area most affected by the particular thing, but because I was the newest Member my question was 45 minutes into the session. You could argue my constituents were being disadvantaged in that way and that happens now. There may be other ways of getting rid of that but one of the things which is very useful about this sort of process, about Select Committees, is that regardless of where you are in the hierarchy, you get an opportunity. I think that is a bit of frustration that Members can feel. If you are persistent, yes, you will get in, but it can be quite discouraging for people to try to have that opportunity to ask questions.
(Lord Norton) I take that point. The value of the existing oral questions by ballot is that at least everybody is equal and you could do it exactly the same for some process of open questioning in the chamber. I can see the point, if you had balloting for Members who were going to participate and it were done through that route.
212. Where it is a specific interest, a specific pre-determined topic.
(Lord Norton) Absolutely; yes. That was my point in the example I gave of having a junior Minister in Westminster Hall just to answer questions on their particular area of responsibility for 50 minutes or half an hour. It would draw those Members who were genuinely interested in the area and that is what makes me think it would be a constructive exchange of the sort I am trying to get in Question Time itself.
213. We have pretty well thrashed the main reasons why there has been such an increase in questions. We rather attached it to this business of machismo. Are there any other legitimate reasons which you consider might be behind the increase in the number of questions that have been tabled?
(Lord Norton) An interlocking reason. I am afraid that there is an obvious ratchet effect once you start doing it: others emulate it, both at the individual level but at the party level as well. Why do you get the increase? One is to do with the individual Members: look at the growth in career politicians. This is where I may make myself very unpopular with Members. The other is just the party dimension. If you look at when syndication came in, once one party started doing it quite naturally the other side followed and once both sides were doing it, you could not de-ratchet it or you cannot rely on the parties to do it, which is why the Procedure Committee had to come up with some sort of method to try to address it by Members tabling questions in person. At the individual level, yes it is to some extent to do with the change in the nature of the membership over time. Coming back to my earlier point about when not so many questions were tabled, the Front Bench was not so involved and it was seen very much as a Back-Bench weapon; it was also seen very much as something you did only on those occasions when you felt there was something you wanted to ask a question about. It was not, "What is coming up on the rota, can I table questions, can I get my questions in for that?" It was more, "An issue has come up. I want to ask a question" and therefore you asked a question occasionally, not frequently. You could argue that is due to the change in the nature, the growth of government and so on and greater areas for questioning governments. I think it is the change in the nature of the Member of Parliament, the growth of the career politician, somebody who lives for politics and therefore gets elected fairly early, makes a career in politics. The career politician wants to get noticed and that means both in the constituency and by the whips and leaders, therefore how do you get noticed, particularly when you are rubbing shoulders with others who want to get noticed? It is quite natural that you will make use of the opportunities available to do that. You will table questions, you will get to your feet. If you look at the change in the nature of the House, it does coincide not just with the growth in the sheer number of questions to be tabled, both written and oral questions which are put in, but also with the growth in the sheer number of Early Day Motions which are tabled. Mr Chairman, when you first came into the House, you might have had 200 or 300 EDMs tabled per session. Compare that with the number tabled now in an average session. It is that change in the nature of the House and the competition then between Members to get noticed which has led to that. In that sense it is quite rational that it has happened: for the individual Member it is in their self-interest and things like syndication are quite rational because it is in the parties' interest. It might work against the benefit of the House as a whole and the way it is perceived outside, but for the individual Member and for parties, it is quite understandable that that has happened.
214. You suggested it might be appropriate therefore to give Members some training. Would it not be better to train the people who are supposed to be noticing them. If it became clear to the press gallery, for whom much of this business is played out, our party is much better at Opposition because it can table so many more questions than another, if we were to make it clear to them, the peer group we are playing to, that might be more effective.
(Lord Norton) I am not sure about more effective, but it is certainly important that there is that wider understanding of what Parliament is doing. This raises issues which go way beyond Question Time. It is absolutely fundamental. In looking at how Parliament is regarded outside, why it is regarded, is the problem simply the quality of media coverage or are there other changes in society which reflect it, or is it Parliament itself. Is it that what Parliament is doing is not interesting, is not relevant, therefore the media are not covering it? Should Parliament be looking at what it is doing, should it be making itself more relevant and therefore encouraging greater coverage or is it the case that it is merely the media's fault and they should be trained to appreciate that Parliament is actually an important body. My view is that it is both. There is a problem with the media in terms of understanding the process and what it is all about. There is not adequate appreciation, and by that I mean appreciation in the sense of actually understanding the process and what it delivers. There is a problem on Parliament's side as well that Parliament itself, in terms of what it is doing, is not necessarily operating in a way that makes it relevant to those outside. In substantive terms, there are problems in terms of process, in making Westminster more media friendly in terms of access. Rather than politicians going off to 4 Millbank, 4 Millbank should come more into the Palace of Westminster. There are many things which need to be reflected on in that respect. The point you are touching on is an absolutely fundamental one. One can see Members changing or trying to induce a culture shift on the part of Members, accepting that one has the Members one has, but there are wider problems in terms of Parliament's relationship, how it is perceived outside, yes.
215. I have quite a lot of sympathy for what you say about career politicians and people who come here and are desperate to get themselves noticed. I have some sympathy with the people involved as well. You are aware that some Members do get a plethora of questions from pressure groups and professional organisations and they set those down. Do you have any comment about that?
(Lord Norton) Only to agree with you. I referred to our study which was published in 1993. Part of that involved a questionnaire to Members about parliamentary questions, why they tabled them, their motivation, what they got out of it. In terms of written questions, one of the reasons for tabling written questions given by over 80 per cent was that they were asked to. With oral questions it was just under 50 per cent. I say that purely in an objective sense in that clearly this happens and it is nothing new. It comes back to the point I was making earlier about the inherent conflict between public interest versus private interest. It is not actually a bad thing, as long as there is a balance, as long as it is not squeezing out the public interest I mentioned and as long as the Member himself or herself is an active participant in the process, is a proper gatekeeper rather than just having some questions in front of them and then just acting as a conduit, as a postman for it, just passing it straight on. As long as the Member himself or herself is an active participant in the process, so accepts it is a relevant question, they want to know the answer, not just the outside group, if one is actually involved in it, then I do not necessarily see a problem; one is not actually employed by the organisation or anything like that. It comes back to our earlier discussion. I would not to do anything which would bar a Member and I cannot see that you could introduce a mechanism. I know some people have reflected on this, but I do not see that you can introduce a sifting mechanism formally which would prevent that type of question. It is impossible to know where it has come from.
216. For the record, by 12 April of this year some 43,933 questions labelled as written parliamentary questions had been tabled. Of that number, almost 3,500 had been tabled by one particular Member, which was 7.74 per cent of total questions labelled as written parliamentary questions. I think that is interesting, particularly bearing in mind what you said a few moments ago to me about the number of questions which would normally be tabled by Members in this House just two, two and a half, three decades ago.
(Lord Norton) Indeed; yes.
217. The numbers have been dramatically increased.
(Lord Norton) Yes.
Chairman: By the way, we do have Professor Hynds here who is advising this Committee and he is an expert and will be undertaking quite a lot of research for us as part of this inquiry.
218. On to electronic tabling. We have had a lot of interesting discussion about tabling questions electronically and I for one cannot see why we should not. We looked at some of the practicalities in terms of how you get corrections to our terrible language, which is always wrong according to the Table Office, etcetera. That aside, one of the issues which has been raised, which you are obviously aware of, is about people possibly sending even more questions. I do understand the reason you have to present yourself in person is so that you do not put so many questions, but clearly it is not working, in the case of some people anyway. If we did go down the route of electronic tabling, what would your view be on how we could lessen the likelihood of there being an even steeper increase?
(Lord Norton) You have asked the most important question in respect of electronic tabling. I am quite happy to defer to the experts as to whether it is feasible; my assumption is that it is quite doable. I am more concerned not with whether it is doable, because it is, but the consequences. You have touched upon the most important question: if Members can do it electronically, is there the danger that you are going to be flooded with even more questions than you have at the moment? Is this going to encourage even greater laziness than there is the perception there is at the moment? I am not quite sure what the answer is because it comes back to this question we were having earlier about imposing some limit on Members. You are quite right in saying the reason Members have to table questions personally was designed to reduce extensive syndication and initially it did work, but then the syndicated questions started coming back in in some number. You do have the problem of the sheer number and my fear is that if you can table electronicallyand I can see the argument for doing itfrom a Member's point of view it is efficient and possible if they are away from London.
219. That was one of the key issues which we dealt with when some of the Members were here. For example, if somebody is abroad and is looking at a particular situation as part of a Select Committee or for whatever other reason, they come across something, they want to raise that issue and they could e-mail it in this day and age. It is topical, it is there, they are tabling it. The other issue which related to this which we have talked about is this idea that you have to table on a particular day. Why can you not table up to that day and it just sit in a box waiting? If the point of questions is that it is about people who want to know something in relation to something they have come across, then these seem to me perfectly reasonable things that people should be able to do.
(Lord Norton) Yes; I do not disagree with the last point, that one has got in this situation, that the minimum and maximum are the same for tabling oral questions. One possibility that might address the problem on the electronic questionand I touched upon in the paper, because I see some of these proposals as linkedis to limit the number you can actually do. One other possibility which would address one of the problems is not to allow any duplication of questions on the order paper. You table a question, somebody comes along with the same question, "sorry, it is already covered". That might act as something of a deflator not only on the numbers but to encourage Members to write their own questions. That might in part address the point you are raising. Other than that one might for an experimental period limit the number that are actually tabled electronically and see how it works.