Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
TUESDAY 5 MARCH 2002
DALYELL MP, MRS
MP, MR MARK
PRISK MP, LAWRIE
QUINN MP AND
60. I wanted to pursue the point about a fax
rather than an e-mail. People could pre-sign a fax or whatever.
In terms of the actual thing itself, I do not personally see a
difference between an e-mail and a fax. I see an e-mail as being
more efficient than a fax because it does not involve paper but
subject to there being a way of verifying it would you withdraw
your objection to the e-mail?
(Mr Taylor) Ms Munn is right and I am eccentric. The
reason I favour faxes is you fire a piece of paper into the other
place. In case I am at the risk of being seen as an entertainer,
I have a marked different reaction from local newspapers if I
send them a press release by fax where it is there in the tray
and somebody picks it up and has a look at it, compared with an
e-mail where I am absolutely dependent on someone going to the
computer, going to their in-box, seeing me there, getting it up
and then the printer working. There are more steps involved in
my recipient getting my text by e-mail than there are in my recipient
getting my text by fax. I had a word with Canon the other day
and I said, "Do you think e-mail will kill fax because I
do not. I think fax is here to stay." They said, "We
are selling more fax machines than we ever have done." Faxes
are here and e-mail is not going to supplant them.
61. Given that even for an experienced Member
tabling a question can amount to a significant dialogue between
the Member and the clerks to get the question in order, how do
you anticipate that dialogue can be handled by either faxing questions
or through e-mail without adding a significant workload to the
clerks in the Table Office?
(Mr Taylor) I agree.
(Lawrie Quinn) You probably remember that quite a
few times I have been behind you in the queue and that is one
of the irritants. We find out that the person ahead of us in the
queue will find out the minutiae of their particular problem.
I agree with other colleagues. If they are happy with that system
for them, that is fine, but there are Members who perhaps have
other things to do, rather than queuing up in the Table Office.
I accept that there is a very professional response but you literally
are queuing up. I find it rather strange that e-mail and electronic
communication which is the basis of the success of the City of
London at the moment, particularly with encryption, that this
important part of our national economy is run on e-mails and electronic
communication but the possibility of somehow a physical piece
of paper going into a machine, for that information to be converted
electronically, sent down the lineand you can send faxes
from a desktop so what is the difference between an e-mail? In
answer to your question, obviously if there is a follow-on issue,
I would expect the clerks at a later time to contact the Member
and have that discussion over the telephone or perhaps ask them
to go in if it was needed but I would think on rare occasions.
(Mrs Dunwoody) The hazard about that is that the time
taken for a telephone call is going to be much longer. There is
going to be much more pressure on the clerks in the office. The
physical act of having to walk in with a bit of paper is a great
discipline on some Members who would quite happily turn over to
any kind of a researcher the responsibility of putting in 40 or
50 written questions. I am sorry to say I suspect occasionally
it happens now. I am happy to have Mr Taylor say he is the most
conservative member of this panel because I have to admit that,
as far as I am concerned, e-mail is the thinking man's graffiti.
I do not think I have ever received such illiterate, undisciplined
or unstructured English as one receives through the e-mail, which
appears to bear a strong resemblance to a rather drunken James
Joyce on a bad day. I think we have two problems. One is recognition.
There is no evidence at all that we have effective means of sorting
out who is sending e-mail. We really do not, in my view. There
are various ways that it can be done but I would need to be convinced.
Secondly, there is discipline in Members having to table their
own questions. Frankly, there is also an advantage to the Member
because one of the functions that the clerks fulfil with enormous
diplomacy is the ability to deal with the question that has just
been put by Mr Quinn. If you are physically in the office and
you have framed the question badly and you have put it down to
the wrong minister, they will gently persuade you that you would
get a much better reply if you sent it to this particular department
because that is what you really want to know. They will not put
it to you in quite those terms but over the years the clerks'
department has saved more Members of Parliament from making fools
of themselves than almost any other organisation in the world.
It is something we should not lose too lightly.
(Mr Taylor) I wanted to say how much I agree with
Gwyneth Dunwoody about the correction process. The Member in the
Table Office with our very helpful clerks, discussing with them
why a question is not orderly because it seeks an opinion or whateverI
like to join in. Once I have understood what is defective about
my question, I participate with the clerk in trying to get it
right. I learn something from that. When I walk out of the room,
he has then got an orderly question. He is not trying to e-mail
me back somewhere, find out where I am and try and explain over
the phone what is wrong with the question. Lest any of my colleagues
think that I am living in the stone age, not only can I sent faxes
by computer; I have the software on my computer that enables me
to send faxes and I choose to send faxes in the name of consistency,
for the reason I gave before. Even though I could send an e-mail,
I send a fax because it produces a piece of paper in the in-tray
of the recipient.
Sir Robert Smith
62. Not if they have not got a computer with
fax software on it.
(Mr Taylor) A computer with fax software, engaging
a fax machine as the recipient.
63. If the recipient plugs their computer in,
the data just goes into their computer. It does not come out on
a piece of paper, so you have to make sure.
(Mr Taylor) I do make sure.
64. You could have that conversation with the
Table Office if you had webcam, wherever you happened to be. I
think the case for the electronic tabling has been made and we
have to find a way to make it secure. Can I ask you about written
questions because I think this is the biggest problem. What I
call serial questionersand it is not Members, I suggest;
it is researcherswho have presigned questions and they
are coming in, in a great big stream, very often for the most
spurious of reasons. For example, they used in media to try and
demonstrate an MP's workload, which is pointless, to me. The media
fall for it and they print all of this. I think we need to find
a way to prevent that. I wonder if any of the Members have a suggestion
that would help to do that?
(Mrs Dunwoody) The connection between the Member and
the question, either a physical one or if you use your webcast,
if that is the way you are going to do it, would force Members
of Parliament to be involved in their own questions which may
be quite a unique experience for some of them. I think you have
to be very careful not to exclude people who want to put down
blocks of questions altogether because I have in my time, particularly
in something like transport, put down maybe 20 or 30 questions
which got me the answers I needed because Ministers were rather
busy committing the sin of omission and when they answer two or
three questions it is easier to commit the sin of omission than
if you give them 20 questions on the same subject. I do not want
to block off that detailed approach, but the reality is that the
advent of the researcher/case worker/bag carrier has meant that
there are people who will put in vast amounts of prepared questions
which are either given to them by a lobby group or by someone
who has a particular interest and it then becomes painfully obvious
to their colleagues on what basis they are placing these questions
on the order paper but it does not get us very much further forward.
The difficulty that your Committee, with respect, will face will
be trying to find a mechanism that will ensure that the Member
is responsible for the question, that will ensure that the Member
knows that these questions are being put down in their namebecause,
believe it or not, there have been instances when presigned forms
have been used for questions that were not cleared by the Member
concernedand they will also know that when they put down
a series of questions they will get an answer. I would underline
one other thing: it is very important, where Ministers say, "This
information is present in the library", that we should then
find some mechanism of printing whatever is in the library in
Hansard because people who talk in the most appalling cliche
about the Westminster Village in a sense are contributing to this
idea that only we read Hansard; only we have the right
to have the information; whereas one of the very important parts
of questions and answers in this place is that everyone who wants
to follow a particular subject can do so by getting into the Parliamentary
web system and finding the information they need. That will not
happen if Ministers increasingly use what are distancing mechanisms
like, "I have put that information in the library. It is
paper number so-and-so", because they know although the Member
will go and get it out, nine times out of ten, they still have
not got the same public dissemination because there is no guarantee
at all that individual members of the press are going to be interested
in the minutiae of a particular problem.
65. Does the Father of the House have a reply
to Rosemary McKenna's question?
(Mr Dalyell) The Father of the House is out of the
stone age and has no opinion on this. I do not have e-mail and
I recall that my friend and colleague, Rudy Vis, was away for
eight days and came back to 576 e-mails. How do you cope? How
do you distinguish the wheat from the chaff?
66. We were hoping that you might help the Committee.
(Mr Dalyell) I do not have fax either. I defend myself
by saying that my number is in the local telephone book. A lot
of people ring me up and very few constituents waste my time.
(Mr Taylor) If we may use this shorthand, which is
very convenient, of serial questions, sometimes one Member will
have three or four pages of questions which I am sure is an abuse
and I am not happy about it. It is a besetting sin of this place
but it is much harder to know what to do about it. I agree it
is a problem; I agree it is an abuse and it is probably serving
somebody's external interest, which I do not think is what we
are here for. The easy reflex is to say limit the numbers. I do
not think that would work because if it was a serious case of
an external exploitation of this system the man with the overflow,
once he has reached his limit, will go and find a colleague and
say, "You put the other 37 down for me" and so on. I
do not need to complete that part of my answer beyond saying that
I am not relaxed about it. I am unhappy about it, but I am not
clear on what to do about it.
(Mr Dalyell) Could I revert, grasshopper like, to
a question that you yourself posed which got rather lost? It was
the question whether the Speaker should be entitled to call a
person a second or third time. I go back to a very clever, Conservative
lawyer who died in office. His name was Sir Harry Hylton-Foster.
He was a very fast minded lawyer. On one occasion he allowed me
three successive questions but the following week the question
was answered and he passed on to the next one because he judged
that I had had an answer. In those days, a lot of questions were
on the order paper and very often the person who put them down
did not ask a supplementary question because it was thought that
he had got a full answer. There was something in the atmosphere
at that time. People who asked a supplementary question for the
sheer sake of it had the annoyance of their colleagues.
(Mr Prisk) I am a digital graffiti artist. I use e-mail
regularly. I am well aware of its weaknesses. Mrs Dunwoody is
absolutely right. We are sloppy. It is easy shorthand, but it
is what most people, most of my constituents certainly, find helpful.
I do not believe in allowing constituents to jump ahead of those
who write but that is a separate issue. In terms of questions,
I feel that I have significant reservations about trying to limit
individual Members, not least because I think the real issue here
is getting Ministers to answer questions, not the method of transmission
or anything else of the questions that are put in. To my mind,
that is the real issue in terms of questions and procedures. If
you wanted to do it, the only way I could imagine is some form
of credit or allowance over a year so that people have to think
how they use that allowance over the year because it will run
out within a certain period. I have enormous reservations about
it, because I think the system would be relatively easy to bypass
and because the critical issue here is not how we deal with the
procedures; it is how awful, frankly, the answers are.
67. Moving to topicality and timing, I want
to ask two questions about this and this arises out of evidence
we have had from other MPs who came to a previous session. The
questionnaires asked you whether you would consider a shorter
timescale rather than two weeks. Some people said yes; some people
said no. That is the first point. I am talking about for oral
questions. The second point was that some previous witnesses expressed
a great deal of frustration that you only have that day to table
for a particular department and if you are not there you cannot
go and do it. Given that they might deal with it on a particular
day, would you support a system which allowed you to table ahead
of that date but then it only went into the ballot on the actual
date in order to get round that?
(Lawrie Quinn) If you look at my submission, I agree
with both of those modernising tendencies. With the modern world,
Mr Prisk has mentioned that many constituents now are resorting
to e-mail. There are modern communications out there. There is
a topicality. There is a currency in terms of framing questions.
This idea that you only have a certain number of hours and the
door is closed on youthere must be a facility there to
stack up questions in advance. My view would be that the efficiency
and effectiveness of putting down questions as you think of them
and those being stored in an e-mail type of situation so that
the Table Office could download them on the appropriate day I
would have thought would have lent itself to the type of approach
that was in the questionnaire.
(Mrs Dunwoody) What you might find is that there is
a better way round this, if you were to extend the question time.
Governments will not like this because you will be eating into
the time for their legislation, but if you were each day to allow,
say, a 15 minute period for topical questions which would be very
clearly delineated, the worry I have is that if people are allowed
to put in their questions way ahead of the tabling time you could
finish up with such a bulk of questions that frankly some Members
would never, ever be selected. It is bad enough now. There are
always those who have unworthy thoughts about the methods of selection,
68. How do you delineate the topicality and
who gets preference?
(Mrs Dunwoody) It is like an elephant. You cannot
describe it, but you know it when you see it. You must be reliant
inevitably upon the judgment of the clerks, but you could do this
by having 15 minutes at the end of a question period and also
putting down a cut-off point so that anything put down after ten
o'clock in the morning would not be regarded as a topical question.
69. Would you agree with a procedure whereby
people would go into a ballot for topical, open questions and
a second ballot for oral?
(Mrs Dunwoody) Yes. I am not suggesting a change.
The hazard of responding always to topical questions is that,
if you are not careful, you miss the detailed questions of individual
ministries. It is very important to maintain this rotating questioning
of individual Ministers. To force a minister to come to the box
and answer questions, I was always told by my colleagues, was
like taking a viva once every six weeks. I did not quite look
at it like that but perhaps because I am tougher than others.
It is very important that you do not lose the three-quarters of
an hour of question time, or whatever it is, but you could easily,
it seems to me, encapsulate another 15 minutesnot if you
are able to call two or three supplementaries because it might
be a rather exclusive exchange on that basis, but if you had a
bit of brutal chairmanship and perhaps even 20 minutes you could
then make it very clear whether the House was responding to what
was a genuine problem on an immediate basis, rather than simply
a fashionable problem.
70. You do not think the private notice question
is the way to deal with this?
(Mrs Dunwoody) As you know from your experience, PNQs
which are not at the moment being sufficiently used by the Opposition
parties are entirely reliant upon the Speaker deciding whether
or not there is sufficient time and are rarely these days, much
to my dismay, granted to back benchers.
(Mr Dalyell) At a recent seminar last week attended
by Jack Weatherill and Betty Boothroyd, on the question of PNQs,
I said, "Jack, you were bad." I turned to Betty and
I said, "You were even worse." In a sense, they took
it because I think in retrospect they realised that they ought
to have used the private notice question procedure much more liberally.
That answers, to a certain extent, David's point. Could I say
something in relation to what Meg Munn said? The difficulty is
that if you have urgent answers to questions the people in the
Civil Service, in the department, may not have been able to be
contacted. All my questions, other than for some special reason,
are put down for at least a fortnight and I would give the Civil
Service a month because those who are expert in the particular
area of the question may be on holiday or busy and you will get
much better answers from the Civil Service if you give them time
so that the department can be contacted.
71. Is not the danger of always giving substantial
notice to the Executive that we create a situation where everyone
outside the House is discussing a very topical issue but the House
itself, for reasons that escape the general public, seems to be
avoiding precisely the issue that everyone else is considering?
(Mr Dalyell) Yes. There is a danger in that.
72. Do you think that that can be dealt with
by the private notice question to a far greater extent than it
(Mr Dalyell) Yes, but in general he has a good point.
(Mr Taylor) The 14 days timescale is absurd, not least
for the reasons just given. A much shorter timescale should operate.
I am still unhappy about the idea that we bombard the Table Office
with e-mails because, in my experience, at least 50 per cent of
questions to the Table Office by Members require rectification
so as to be orderly. If the Table Office has to print its e-mails,
try and find Members and explain to them what is wrong with the
question and remedy it, no end of work will be involved. The great
thing about tabling a question is rather like sex, it must be
done in person.
73. I wanted to briefly address the summer recess
period. A number of Members have complained that they are not
able to submit questions during the summer recess period and that
all the material stacks up to when we return after the recess.
That gives departments an inordinate amount of time to deal with
any queries. Could we as a Committee have your comments on how
you would like to see a reform of question procedures during the
(Mrs Dunwoody) You could easily agree to a system
whereby people were able to table written questions which were
not expected to be answered when we returned. You could also agree
a period of time in which they should be properly answered but
they would tend to be answered by letter. You would still be faced
with the problem of publication of the information concerned.
It would probably mean that when the House returned you would
have two or three bound volumes of written answers. I think it
would allow Members to take up particular issues. It is far too
long a period of time for Members to wait until they return after
the recess. What you would have to do would be to put a certain
number of disciplines on it. If they were going to be questions,
they would have to be written questions to be answered within
a fortnight by letter, that information to be made public by the
department so that they were not exclusive to the Member concerned.
74. There is no reason why Hansard should
not be printed during the recess.
(Mrs Dunwoody) I am not prejudging what would happen
to the House of Commons Commission if you suggested even more
expenditure to them. That is a problem for you. It is perfectly
true that there are various ways in which they could be made public
and I hope they will do so.
75. I feel very strongly that Members of Parliament
should be able to ask questions in the summer recess which, as
Mrs Dunwoody said, is far too long. What really rang a bell with
me was Mr Quinn's point that there were real problems for some.
When a crisis hits your constituencyfoot and mouth is an
instance in mind and in hisyou must be able to ask questions
and get a reply within a reasonable time. I wrote to DEFRA time
and again and I did not get replies for months. It was only when
I got back to school, as it were, in the autumn that I was able
to raise questions and get some sense on the numerous real difficulties
my constituents were experiencing.
(Mr Prisk) As a new MemberI am probably the
most junior Member on this particular panelI find it bizarre
that we cannot ask questions during the recess. Given that the
government appears to be very keen to give us more and more recess,
it seems to me important that we should not only be able to table
questions but that answers must be timed. I would go back to answering
Mr Wright's question by saying that I think we must be able to
ask questions. There should be a reasonable time limit. There
could perhaps be in recess a possible cap on the total number
because, for most people, it is the ability to pick up on a key
issue related to your constituents' interests and pursue it rigorously,
whether or not the House is sitting.
76. Would you support a period when questions
cannot be tabled? It might perhaps relate to three or four weeks
or two or three weeks in August when a lot of people are on holiday.
Do you think it would be sensible to have a period when you were
not able to table Questions? At the moment, we are trying to bring
in a system which is more agreeable and acceptable to Members,
but quite clearly it would be inappropriate to expect the total
Civil Service to be there, fully manned, for the whole period
of the year.
(Mr Prisk) Certainly I can understand that point.
I would not wish to stop Members being able to submit questions.
The question is how long do we give people to give an answer?
Therefore, perhaps what one might do is make the arrangements
so that there is a reasonable recognition that if you submit a
question three days before the bank holiday, you are not going
to get an answer for perhaps more than a fortnight.
Chairman: You are very demanding.
77. I want to go back to topical questions that
are raised. Do you envisage those would be open questions or prescribed
in the sense that Private Notice Questions are?
(Mrs Dunwoody) I would say that you will need to make
them fairly prescribed, not as prescribed as a PNQ because that
is time limited as well, that is even more precise. I think if
you are to have a short period of questions in which people could
put what is a really very live issue, then you would get the kind
of response that you are seeking. Also I think, frankly, that
the general public might be able to judge more accurately whether
the response was a genuine one or an artificial one and I do not
think that is a bad thing.
(Mr Dalyell) I am totally against out of season questions.
To John Burnett and to David Wright, I would say why do you not
in a crisis situation try a letter to the Minister and not only
a letter to the Minister but there is that Red Book that gives
you the number of the Minister's private secretary. If you have
an urgent constituency situation, for God's sake approach the
private secretary, do the letter and, incidentally, possibly make
the letter to the Minister handwritten because it is quite important
and to get the attention of many civil servants, not all, a handwritten
letter creates the impression in their minds that "the bugger's
written it himself".
78. Could I come back to that.
(Mrs Dunwoody) It may also confuse them because they
cannot read it.
79. I am happy to show you, Tam Dalyell, a letter
I wrote on some very urgent matters to the Secretary of State
at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I wrote
that letter probably at the beginning of August, it was crucial
to hundreds if not thousands
(Mr Dalyell) Did you ring up the private secretary?