Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Are you against a question to the Prime Minister such as "Will the Prime Minister visit the Lewes constituency?"
  (Norman Baker) I cannot be against that because I continually table it under the present rules. That is the system we have at the moment.

  21. That does give you great opportunity, does it not? You can ask any matter then relating to your constituency which your constituents surely would like you to do?
  (Norman Baker) With any constituency issue, unless you tell the Prime Minister in advance what your question might be—occasionally, I have rung Number Ten and said, "I am going to raise this particular question. You will not know the answer but this is the background. Will you please get me an answer?" On occasion, that has worked quite well. If you are going to raise a specific question on the constituency, you have to do that. The only questions which work openly, in my view, are political questions. Anything specific has to be given notice of in advance. Otherwise, you are wasting your time.
  (Ms King) Everyone is agreed that we need more topicality. To do that we have to have more open questions. For that we need a 48 hour limit. The top line that ministers have when they come to the despatch box should be an aide memoire; it should not be a crutch with which they can bat the question away. Moving more to an open system would be better for politics.

Mr Hamilton

  22. The issue you raise is open questions. At the same time, if you want a detailed response, give the necessary notice, so you are not arguing against one or the other; you are arguing for a combination of the two?
  (Norman Baker) I came here advocating a 48 hour time limit. I have been persuaded by some comments that you could have some open questions, particularly one or two for the two main Opposition parties. That would be one way of dealing with it on a temporary basis to see how it worked out.


  23. Would you support a preliminary ballot for the opportunity to ask an oral question—ie, Mr Baker, Mr Bennett, Oona King, Tim Boswell or Graham Allen—to be followed in due course by the tabling of a detailed question itself?
  (Andrew Bennett) No, because it would be even worse. First of all, every Member would be encouraged to put in for the ballot so you would probably get more people competing. Secondly, you would have all sorts of people trying to persuade you to ask the particular question that they want. Therefore, the Whips would have even more control of it. I think it is much more important to try and get people with specialist knowledge to concentrate on the questioning. It has got to the stage where almost everyone enters the ballot. When you and I first came in, you would find there was a group of people interested in social security and you could count perhaps the 15 people who would put most of the questions in. They knew about it, so when they get waffle from the Minister they were able to come in pretty effectively with their supplementary. The danger now is that you have people who have been persuaded by the PPSs to put a question in. They know nothing about it and when they get a waffling answer they do not know how to cut through the waffle.

  24. Would our other witnesses agree?
  (Mr Boswell) Unusually, I would like to record my total agreement with Andrew Bennett.
  (Mr Allen) None of these things can stand on their own as reforms unless you start to change the culture. Part of that culture is the Members themselves. If Members are going to be treated as children and we have to feed them questions—I did it in a previous guise—but if we are saying that Members can be mature and can ask a question either of general political importance because of something that has happened that day or they have the brains to figure out that, if they have a highly specific question, they will inform the minister ahead of time, like Norman and probably like many colleagues here, I have not only informed my own Prime Minister; I have informed Mrs Thatcher and John Major if I have been fortunate enough to be drawn out for PMQs that I have a very serious issue; this is it. You can let the Prime Minister go away and research this seriously but I promise you I will ask the following question. In my own case, the one I remember most is about the video taping of evidence of children in child abuse cases. I told Number Ten virtually word for word what I was going to ask. I asked Mrs Thatcher to introduce the experiment of video taping children. I could have point-scored there about the Belgrano or something else.

  25. A lot of people share your view that there should be less point-scoring and more information seeking.
  (Mr Allen) It depends upon the maturity of the Members and how they choose to use any ministerial questions.

Ian Lucas

  26. Can I pick up on something Andrew Bennett said about expertise and people who ask the questions? Would you in any way support coordination of select committees with questioning? In other words, do you think there could be a role for select committees to be allocated particular powers to ask questions in specific areas?
  (Andrew Bennett) Not quite. It is very important, when you are looking at changes, that you try some experiments. You then have to evaluate the experiments. I am not totally happy with what has gone on in Westminster Hall, because I think it has chased Ministers round so they are just racing round, answering debates, not thinking of the issues behind the debates. You could look at a separate form of question time in Westminster Hall, in which before the session was announced it was a particular aspect of health—it was not health questions—and then people would be able to go in and ask questions on that particular area. You would have a topic on which people could ask questions. One of the worst things about question time at the moment is you very rarely get a lot of continuity. I always say, when I talk to groups outside, "Any minister who cannot dodge the first question is not worth being a Minister." By the time you have three or four questions all homing in on the same thing, a Minister has to have some mettle and some knowledge of their brief. If you have half an hour in Westminster Hall as an experiment to see how it goes and then possibly transfer it to the chamber with a narrow topic, with questions on that, I suspect you would only get the people interested in that topic going in and then you could have some continuity of questioning.
  (Norman Baker) There is scope for changing the format of adjournment debates which are secured for Westminster Hall and for the chamber. At the moment, we have 15 minutes and you make a statement in 15 minutes and there is a ministerial reply. The Minister may or may not give way to you. If you are lucky, you get two questions back at the Minister. If it is a non-controversial issue, you may get a satisfactory response but if the minister decides for various reasons not to answer the points you are making you have very little come back, other than the satisfaction of having made the statement. It would be rather more satisfactory and effective if one was able to put questions to the minister and have responses and put further questions as part of the debate and somehow free up the adjournment debate process a bit more.
  (Andrew Bennett) It is done in the Standing Committee on European Legislation, I think.
  (Mr Boswell) This is all really about procuring redress for unsatisfactory answers. If we can return to Graham Allen's point, it is of course changing the culture of Ministers. Having been one, I make no claim to sainthood, but it may well have been in relation to one's own view of the back bencher involved, whatever their politics. One knew perfectly well, where you were trying to help somebody who had a serious point as against scoring a political point against somebody else, perhaps regarded less highly. The ideas that have been put are interesting ones. I seem to recall, though I suspect with the rulings on points of order during Question Time it is now more difficult, there was a device some years ago with which people could formally say, "In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I will raise the point on the adjournment". It has now almost fallen into disuse as a tactic. I would at least float for the Committee as possibly a working experiment that, if a Member was seeking redress from an unsatisfactory ministerial reply, they could contact the chairman of the appropriate select committee and say, "I have had an exchange with "X", which was most unsatisfactory and these are the reasons" and maybe the select committee could resolve there and then to have a short inquiry in which it could invite the Member to give evidence and the minister to respond on the specific question involved. It need not take more than half an hour, but I do not think many Ministers would try it on after that.
  (Mr Allen) In my youth, I even said to Mrs Thatcher in the middle of Prime Minister's question time that the answer she had given was so unsatisfactory that I would try to seek to raise it on the adjournment. That requires the Speaker effectively to put the minister or even the Prime Minister in detention. The speaker has the ability to pick one adjournment debate each week, mythology has it, and perhaps he could put an errant minister or even the Prime Minister on the stand for half an hour at maybe half past two, at the end of a long filibuster from Mr Forth. I suspect that would be a very salutary lesson for the minister concerned.


  27. Are you suggesting that that power be given to Madam or Mr Speaker?
  (Mr Allen) I think it is already there. The speaker could judiciously use that power and let everybody know that the reason Minister X is doing this adjournment debate is because of the wholly inadequate nature of the answer that was given at question time on a previous occasion.

  28. If you have chapter and verse on the Prime Minister replying to an adjournment debate, all the Members of this Committee would be interested to hear from you.
  (Mr Allen) I would have done it a lot more if that were the case.

Ian Lucas

  29. I raised the issue of select committees in questions because my perception, as an entirely new Member, is that procedures here are very compartmentalised. They are very distinct from one another. It is very difficult, particularly when you are not on an individual select committee where there is an area you are particularly interested in, to somehow buy into the committee and the process and try to encourage development of an issue. That is very difficult to do in questions as well at the moment. There did not seem to be any great enthusiasm for trying to bring questions and select committees together.
  (Ms King) There is a great enthusiasm for finding a new way of questioning. At the moment, questioning is not really questioning; it is statementing. The Member puts one statement and the Minister puts another statement and never the twain shall meet. I would welcome looking at any idea and Graham's idea of a conversation time. I hope it is not entirely fantasy land and that this Committee may have it within its powers to insist that the House does look seriously at how we use other methods of questioning. Allowing Members to buy into select committee work is very important because that disconnects so many Members from subjects that they do have an expertise in but are not able to engage it.
  (Mr Boswell) Sometimes we need to step back from the process and acknowledge how odd we must look to the general public, because, for example, we have a series of conflicting statements which can be caricatured from the front bench as, "You did not do it"; "Oh yes, I did" type of thing and do not appear to be adult discussions. In the nature of the case, obviously we are Opposition or government politicians and we do take political views. It would be wrong if we did not. Equally, one of the things our constituents want to look at is areas where we can establish common ground, where that is appropriate, and any way where we can have a proper dialogue about the issues involved. If we cannot agree, at least we can begin to draw out those discussions. All this is about trying to find better ways in which we can no longer drive the whole system by the rules of order having to latch questions about something else on to words in an oral question of which written notice has been given two weeks before and trying to enable people to talk rather more like the real world. It is not an easy matter but given goodwill and given the chance to look at various experiments to see which are the best or which at least have some merit we ought to be able to do it because it is in the interests of the Executive to do this as well. I might say that, might I not? I am no longer a Minister; I do not have to say it, but I think ministers will get a better grip on their department if they are aware that they will not completely be able to flick away lines of questioning without further scrutiny.

  30. Just moving on slightly, can any of you supply me with a reason why oral questions should not be tabled in advance of the deadline, whatever it is, for a response to questions?
  (Ms King) Absolutely not, I am delighted you have raised that.

  Ian Lucas: It is absolutely bizarre to me that I cannot do that in advance.


  31. Oona King, you are bursting.
  (Ms King) I am bursting because this issue has driven me absolutely insane and I cannot understand the logic behind it. Given the logic of your good selves on this Committee, I shall expect that arcane rule to be dispensed with forthwith, once your report is published perhaps.
  (Andrew Bennett) It used to be possible because there used to be this fiction of a letter box at the Table Office into which you put them and it was only delivered when it was in order. I do not quite understand why you as a Procedure Committee stopped that.

  32. I am not sure that the Procedure Committee stopped it. It has been stopped. This inquiry, I hope Mr Bennett, will sort that out, amongst many other things, for the benefit of Members of the House.
  (Mr Allen) There is a way round this. It is a very complicated, highly scientific way, they used to call it pigeon holes, and all you do is put it into the relevant pigeon hole whenever you walk into the Table Office and when the Clerks get to that particular pigeon hole they draw those questions out. It is very simple and it takes a carpenter.

  33. Meg Munn has just asked the question, Mr Allen, how could this be done by e-mail?
  (Mr Allen) E-mails can be printed off and go straight into the pigeon holes.

  Ian Lucas: While we are in an atmosphere of consensus, does anyone not support the tabling of written questions during the summer recess?


  34. For September. I am on the Modernisation Committee and the Leader of the House in his consultative paper has suggested that questions could and should be tabled in September.
  (Mr Allen) Again I would offer the caveat of four a day because otherwise busy researchers who are not on holiday will be pumping out hundreds of questions during their spare vacation weeks, which is an abuse of the system.

Mr Luke

  35. I think Mr Allen has made that point several times now and perhaps referencing Mr Baker. In an earlier reply you made the case about the virility symbol of the written question and you made the point of rationing the number of written questions people can put.
  (Andrew Bennett) Yes.
  (Norman Baker) Can I respond to that as my name has been mentioned in that regard. I feel there are a number of weapons which the Government has at its disposal, whatever Government it happens to be. The number of levers it can pull is substantial in number and this Government is particularly good at pulling them and pulling them as far as they can go. The number of weapons which Parliament has to deal with that at the present time is limited in number and written questions is one of only a few weapons which there are. I am not against in principle a system which limits written questions, but I would be very loth to see one of the few weapons we have got at the moment limited without seeing limitation of the powers of the Executive before the written questions are limited. That is the only caveat. It is very easy to say let us limit written questions but if we do not see some limitation of the Government's powers on the other side we end up castrating the power of Parliament further.


  36. I do not want to do that and I do not want to castrate the Committee in taking evidence this afternoon. We have gone on for an hour, it has been very productive, very constructive, and very helpful. Clearly people do not want to stay all night. Perhaps if colleagues can put questions succinctly and our witnesses can answer them succinctly, we can go on for another 20 minutes or so. Graham?
  (Mr Allen) Very briefly to pick up Mr Luke's question and really to respond to Mr Baker, rather than have a thousand tiny pebbles I would rather have four rapiers, but it does really depend absolutely upon the Speaker making sure that these are rapiers and not these rubber swords that you get off the fairs when you play those fairground games. Again it comes back to the Speaker speaking for us and enforcing the will of Parliament. I think these weapons would be even greater than the ones that Mr Baker uses currently.

  Chairman: The Speaker has very heavy responsibilities. I wanted the job myself; I did not get it. I greatly respect the job that the Speaker does. We have to be careful not to foist too many additional difficult political duties on the Speaker because otherwise it is possible that his political impartiality may well be put in some difficulty. I do not want this Committee to do that. I think you are quite right, the Speaker is here to represent the interests of the whole House. David Hamilton?

David Hamilton

  37. That was a point I was going to come back on. On several occasions you have mentioned the role of the Speaker and how the Speaker can protect in many cases the House. However—and it is quite a pertinent topic at the present time—if the two main parties line up for different reasons against the Speaker, that can create a longer-term problem and that is something which when you speak about these things, I begin to wonder to myself as an impartial and relatively new MP coming here what real power does the Speaker have? Surely one of the issues that he or she must have zealous regard to is how many times they make an intervention because if you do it too often you blunt the blade of the rapier you were talking about.
  (Mr Allen) My response to that would be that the Speaker must be totally impartial between parties in this House but can be and must be (and historically has been) very partial in favour of this House against the Executive. I do not wish our current Speaker or future Speakers to lose their heads. It is a serious point that many people who have sat in that chair have literally lost their lives defending the rights of this House against the Executive. I do not wish Speaker Martin to do that. Nonetheless, as I think might have been indicated, almost accidentally, last Wednesday, the Speaker can get into a position where he says, "I am sorry but the House does not like either of you doing this, that is not what this House is about."

  38. There is a danger.
  (Mr Allen) He is our Speaker; he speaks for us.


  39. I can bring this part of our discussion and questioning to an end because, if I am correct, and our Clerk will advise me, this Committee has indicated that at some stage it wishes to undertake an inquiry into the role, duties, functions, and responsibilities of the Speaker of the House.
  (Andrew Bennett) For balance, I think Graham has referred to the ones who have lost their lives. You could make a longer list of those who have chickened out. I think probably the Speaker needs an advisory group to do some of the sanctioning, if you are going do it, rather than the Speaker himself.

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