Examination of Witnesses (Questions 53
TUESDAY 5 MARCH 2002
DALYELL MP, MRS
MP, MR MARK
PRISK MP, LAWRIE
QUINN MP AND
53. Can I welcome our colleagues who are witnesses
today as part of our inquiry into the whole matter of Parliamentary
Questions? I welcome the Father of the House, Tam Dalyell, Mrs
Gwyneth Dunwoody, another very senior Labour Member of Parliament
and also chairman of a select committee, Lawrie Quinn, Mark Prisk
and John Taylor. I hope that you will assist us to the very best
of your ability with our inquiry into this very important, topical
matter of Parliamentary Questions. I intend to put the first question
from the Chair and I address it to all witnesses. I will start
with the Father of the House. Could you say a few words each about
how you use the current question system here in the House of Commons?
What do you find valuable and what works less well? Do you think
the question system needs major change or just some fine tuning?
(Mr Dalyell) There is one major change
that should be made to closed Prime Minister's Questions and it
is a reversion. That is that the open question to the Prime Minister
leads to the demeaning of Parliament and a yah-boo situation which
creates a completely wrong impression of the House of Commons.
I would go back to the precise question so that it can be followed
up. If the leader of the Opposition wants to take time, as he
is entitled to do, he should put down a private Member's question,
as Hugh Gaitskill did, at the end of Prime Minister's Questions.
(Mrs Dunwoody) I would not disagree with that, although
I do remember the time when Prime Ministers used that ploy in
order to move on any delicate question because they were able
to say, "That is a matter for the minister concerned"
and they then referred it on. I accept what Tam says but the trouble
is that now Prime Minister's Questions have become so debased
in the sense that they no longer refer to specific subjects or
even to the day to day matter of political debate that I think
it will be very difficult to find a system that gives you enough
meat in Prime Minister's Questions without making them so precise
that they can be referred to another department.
(Mr Dalyell) There is something very fundamental here.
It gives the Prime Minister a wonderful opportunity to meddle
in every government department because, of course, a Prime Minister
can say, "Some awkward MP might ask me this, that or the
other. I must have a full briefing from the department."
That means that the department and the Cabinet Minister involved
are belittled in relation to Downing Street. As one who believes
in Cabinet government and not Prime Ministerial government, I
think this system is very damaging.
54. Do you think that the bear pit, the political
point scoring, enhances the image of the House, Gwyneth?
(Mrs Dunwoody) As you know, there are always going
to be some very vigorous exchanges and it would not be the House
of Commons if there were not. There is only one thing worse than
the bear pit and that is the death of the mortuary. Frankly, I
think Prime Minister's Questions now seem to have lost their way
a little. The Prime Minister, for example, poses questions to
the leader of the Opposition which I find mildly odd and Members
of Parliament just use it not to get answers either from the Prime
Minister or the Cabinet's policies. They seem to regard it as
a means of propaganda for a particular political viewpoint. We
are all governed by our own political parties but it should be
something more targeted, more intelligent, and it certainly should
be more illustrative than it is at the present time. I wanted
to answer the question which you put to me. I believe that questions
in the House of Commons are one of the most important facilities
and certainly one of the most important rights that we have. The
use of written questions can be not only fundamental but it can
transform a particular subject because constant and judicious
questioning of a minister can produce enough information that
the individual Member can build a case that gives much more of
an insight into what is happening. That takes work, homework and
constant application. Oral questions are different. Oral questions
are normally the opportunity for a bravura performance from whoever
happens to have the luck to come out in the ballot but they are
nevertheless extremely important and I think the House of Commons
does best when it tailors its questions to the subject matter.
That may seem such an obvious statement as to be embarrassingly
plain, but the reality is that we have gone away from that slightly.
Now, in the sessions of oral questions, there are far more party
political points rather than ministerial points. Ministers are
there to answer questions about their responsibility. Members
of Parliament are there to question Ministers about what is going
on. The question system properly used is one of the most important
pieces of policy making that members have but it requires a two
way involvement and that means that Members must not take from
either their front bench or from the whips a prepared question
of astonishing inanity. They must use what few grey cells they
have been given to formulate a question that relates to something
that is of concern to their constituency or something that is
of concern to them in the work of the department. They must follow
that up. I have at various points been able, as a front bencher
and as a back bencher, to obtain really important information.
If there is one aspect of the change that I think is very bad,
it seems to me in recent years, departments have been much more
anxious to avoid answering questions. As a Minister, I made it
very plain to the Civil Service I would never answer a question
with the one word "no". I would avoid trying to give
an answer which implied that it was only by putting the information
in the library that I could answer the Member of Parliament. I
think those are both bad developments.
55. Do you think that the Member with the question
on the order paper that comes out of the ballot and is reached
should have the opportunity of a second supplementary, whether
at the end of an exchange or immediately after their first supplementary?
(Mrs Dunwoody) I think that would establish a very
interesting precedent. We would probably only ever get to question
three. No. You have to ask a short, sharp supplementary and what
we perhaps ought to do is organise
56. If the minister does not answer the question
but says something else avoiding the question, is there a reason
then to say that the Speaker might use his or her discretion to
allow a second supplementary?
(Mrs Dunwoody) It is very tempting and all of us who
think we know all the answers would love to be able to do that,
but the reality is if you ask a targeted question that produces
a non answer and the 650 other Members sitting there do not have
the wit to pick up the subject matter, then possibly we are all
in the wrong place.
(Lawrie Quinn) In terms of my use of questions, I
would tend to use them almost as a last line of resort in terms
of a line of correspondence or lobbying or trying to talk to members
of the Executive in the tea room about a particular issue. Having
had the experience unfortunately, like a lot of Members, of foot
and mouth within my constituency, I have built up quite a backlog
of correspondence with DEFRA, formerly MAFF. That would be the
type of line of questioning I would go for. Equally, where there
is a specialist interest within my constituency, I look at Sir
Robert Smith and immediately know that he would be sympathetic
to the line of questioning that I try to pursue in terms of the
fishing industry because quite often it is the case that the fishing
industry does not get time on the floor of the House to debate
these very important matters. I take a fairly parochial line in
terms of where I would lead my questions. You asked us if we could
comment on the worst aspects of the system. I think the whole
sense of chance and the fact that you are in a ballot and you
can wait sometimes for weeks before your name pops out of the
hat in terms of giving you an opportunity to ask a question. The
other thing that really frustrates me is when I have been to the
Table Office, tabled a question, it has been accepted for a particular
department and then I find it gets redirected somehow, mysteriously,
to a different department when I am the person who is trying to
frame the question to a particular branch of the Executive and
somehow someone else is deciding that it is the wrong question
asked to the wrong minister. Presumably, that should be the property
of myself in terms of the Member asking the question. I would
hope out of today's exercise and the deliberations of the Committee
that we could look to using other techniques and methods to improve
the opportunities for scrutiny of the Executive because I feel
sometimes, having entered in 1997, that the system is very slow.
It is sometimes not accountable and in terms of audit trails,
if questions are "lost", for example, before I came
here I was looking at a press release from the Department of Health,
issued today, on this very subject, "Departmental Investigation
into Delays in Handling Outstanding Parliamentary Questions".
I think it would be quite useful to the Committee to take a look
at this and investigate further the loss of a considerable number
of questions because of a clerical mistake or someone being ill.
The fact that the system has taken so long to throw up the issue
of questions being lost does not do Parliament any credit. I would
have thought we should have had an auditable system so that questions
could be kept track of so that it is not really left to the particular
member to try to continually return and harry the department or
the Table Office to produce the answer, whatever it might be.
I feel quite frustrated about this and I think there is some merit
in looking at the electronic possibilities of tabling and handling
questions and generally processing questions within Parliament.
57. If you could let us have that information,
we would be very grateful.
(Mr Prisk) Could I preface my remarks by supporting
what has been said earlier about Prime Minister's Questions? It
has become something that is more to do with generating heat than
light now. It is in danger of becoming part of the entertainment
industry and not about providing information. As the newest Member
in this particular gathering, I see that as being something that
undermines the very nature of what we are here to do. In terms
of what I use questions for, oral questions are about making a
point as much as finding out informationpartly, the nature
of the system, but that is something that needs to be borne in
mind. In terms of written questions, I use them personally to
pursue areas of interest to myself. For example, I take a close
interest in how government understands, and very often does not
understand, what happens to small businesses, the burden of regulation
and so on, as well as the practical implications of new measures
and how they work for the self-employed. Therefore, I tend to
pursue that, probably to the tedium and disappointment of Ministers,
but I think it is a very important point. The point Mrs Dunwoody
made, that one can get under the skin of issues and pursue and
build up a case, is very important. I would certainly reiterate
that. In terms of what would I change, I think the quality and
the speed with which answers are provided by Ministers is at best
acceptable; at worst a joke. Some of the named day questions have
become beyond the pale. I will give a brief example. I submitted
a named day question for 19 October. Fifteen weeks later I received
an answer from the Cabinet Office.
58. Can I ask whether there was very good reason
for naming the day? Did you do it because you wanted the reply
on that day or was it just because you said, "I will have
a named day question on this occasion"? Was it done for a
specific, urgent purpose or was it an abuse, as I might put it,
of the named day procedure?
(Mr Prisk) No. I only use named day when I really
need the information on that day. You are right. It should not
be abused. If one could have a system whereby one caps the number
of named day questions in return for making sure that Ministers
do answer, I do not see why some form of sanction cannot be brought
to bear for repeat offenders.
(Mr Taylor) Picking up the thread left there by my
colleague, I no longer use the named day technique. It is seldom
necessary; I seldom have that degree of urgency, though I share
what colleagues have said that some questions are lamentably slow
coming through. Starting from the assumption that the minister
might be cooperative, my experience is that if the named day is
a very tight one you will get a vaguer answer or even a holding
answer so I do not use the technique. I let the reply come through.
I often let the clerks in the Table Office pencil in the date
for me. I must address your questions, Mr Winterton. I am possibly,
with a small `c' the most conservative member of this panel which
has the privilege of being before you this afternoon, because
I am not really in favour of any major change. I would like to
see the system work better, but I am not sure that there is much
in the structure, the rules or the given body of information in
Erskine May that I would change. What I am most unhappy
about is the sheer tedium of oral questions these days. I am sure
it has deteriorated in the 19 years that I have been in this House.
It seems increasingly that we do not get beyond question ten.
I am quite sure that as a younger man I can remember us in an
hour getting to question 20 and even beyond. Not only are the
questions long but the Ministers' replies are long and this is
a besetting sin. It shows a lack of discipline and a lack of commitment
on the part of the Member who is framing the question, who really
should have thought about the question, how to get it tight and
concise. A minister, if he knows his subject, will answer promptly
and succinctly, exhibiting a willingness to be exposed to more
questions later on. We do not get far down the order paper. I
have a happier view of written questions. I have become more of
a fan of written questions, not least in addressing constituency
problems, and I will often have a discussion with a constituent
who has raised a problem with me as to whether that constituent
would like me to write to the minister on the constituent's behalf
or whether the constituent would favour my putting down a written
question for the constituent. We then have a gentle conversation
on the telephone as to the constituent asking me which I think
is more effective. Given my experience of having to wait for ministerial
letters from time to time, the written question is the better
method compared with the letter to the minister, unless you have
a lot of background correspondence that you wish to invite the
department to read, in which case it has to be a letter. There
is a great deal of variation in the amount of time taken by Ministers
to reply. I had a very prompt one not very long ago from Clare
Short, to give her her due. If this Committee wanted to compile
evidence as to some really late replies, I and many other people
could let you have it. Once upon a time, I was a junior minister
to the Lord Chancellor and that was a very interesting experience
for me because, in my very much more junior way, I was exposed
for 15 minutes, all on my own, in the House of Commons at the
despatch box answering questions. Admittedly, it was only in the
field of one department; it was not like the Prime Minister having
to answer questions for 15 minutes, but it was an identical length
of time and I too was on my own. There was nothing easier to answer
from the government despatch box than a really long question.
You have all the time in the world to think about it and my opposite
number, who I will not name, often used to fire at me a question
with eight bits in it. I could think about it whilst he was working
his way towards a conclusion, choose the three I wanted and deal
with them with as much elegance and panache as I could. His opportunity
had gone. He could not return to the other five, even if I had
remembered what they were. Short questions can be hair raising
at the despatch box. The Father of the House is very good at this.
The sort of question that was really difficult at the Lord Chancellor's
Department was, "Why have you cut legal aid?" That is
tough. You have to keep yourself together and focused to deal
with a question like that. If it goes on, "And another thing
and whilst he is about it what about so and so?" that is
easy. It is no test of a minister at all. In conclusion, I find
the Table Office extremely professional, very helpful and very
courteous. I cannot speak highly enough of the Table Office. Furthermore,
they possess a sense of humour. It makes going to the Table Office
a very agreeable experience and furthermore let me show you how
I am the reactionary on this panel. I believe that Members of
Parliament should go to the Table Office by themselves with their
own questions and lodge those questions having discussed them
with the clerk. I do not wish to see research assistants tabling
questions. It should be the Member and the Table Office and that
should be a privy relationship.
59. Electronic tabling of Questions and Motions?
(Mr Taylor) No. I would make an exception for a faxed
question covered by one or two telephone calls. Suppose I had
to go back to my constituency and a very important question arose
concerning the future of Land Rover in Solihull which you know
would be important to me. If I wanted to write out a Parliamentary
Question in my office in Solihull, ring the Table Office and say,
"This is John Taylor; any identity you want I can give you.
I want to table a Question which I would like putting down before
close of business of the day. I am going to put it in the fax
machine now. It bears my signature", I would send it and
I would possibly ring again and say, "Have you received it?
Is it in order? Does it need a bit of tweaking?" I would
allow an exception for that but I am not ready to e-mail the Table
Office. I think it will come but I think we are going to have
to get around electronic signatures first and I am not sure whether
we have all quite got there yet.
(Mrs Dunwoody) I am second to none in my admiration
for the Table Office and the only time that I ever respond is
when they correct my English.