Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. We rang, we got no reply and the replies were only forthcoming when Parliament reconvened and I was able to table questions in this House and that is what is wrong. I am afraid it is no response to the real difficulty many Members suffer, and their constituents more importantly suffer, that they can write a letter. These letters will be ignored.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) Chairman, there are Ministers on duty all through the year. I was always dog's body. When everybody was home having Christmas it was always me signing answers to questions and I was always told this was because I lived too close to the Department. Frankly, there are Ministers there the whole time, it should not be beyond their ability to sign an answer.

  81. They do not.
  (Lawrie Quinn) In terms of the points made by the Members of your Committee, Mr Burnett and Mr Wright, I think the public out there, certainly the public that I see, if someone comes to see me at the end of July at a surgery and there is a particular issue that I am not going to be able to glean a response to by whatever mechanism—and as I said earlier in my opening remarks I use the questioning process to really follow through where letter writing or approaches do not work in terms of getting through to the Executive—my view is really we are here to work for the public and the wider community and if they cannot understand what we are doing—This prospect that there is a season—I am sorry to disagree with Tam Dalyell—is very antiquated, it is very Victorian and frankly we have got a 24/7 society out there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that is the way society is working. There is an expectation out there, amongst the public, amongst the people who come to see me that we should be trying to work for them and I think those are the points that both questioners were alluding to. I would support them fundamentally and I really hope your inquiry will try to address that fundamental need to be contemporary, to be responsive and to be seen to be scrutinising the Executive in these very key areas which are, at a time of crisis in particular, like foot and mouth, absolutely crucial to many of the constituents that we are all here to serve.

  Chairman: From the Chair I can give Mr Quinn an assurance that we are looking at this very matter. I am sure he is aware that currently, and over very many years, questions have not been tabled from the day in which Parliament rises for the summer recess until it comes back after the summer recess. That has often been for a period of ten or 11 weeks. What we are seeking to do is to improve on that situation and I am not trying to indicate what our recommendation will be but it is likely that unless Parliament sits in September, and that is a possibility from next year, there will be a fallow period in August, but if Parliament continues with its present calendar from thereon, from the beginning of September until the House comes back traditionally in the middle of October questions could be tabled so we are trying to have a much shorter period during which questions are not tabled. I hope that is a reassurance to our witnesses that this is one of the issues to which we are turning our attention in a major way.

Sir Robert Smith

  82. To more experienced witnesses, my perception of PNQs, my mental perception, was that they were meant to be slightly more sharper than statements. The experience lately seems to be that they are almost more long winded than a statement. I wondered from their vast experience did PNQs seem to be a more focused time than a statement?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) PNQs were always very tightly limited. They were turned down if they were not very tightly drawn. You are entirely dependent on the Speaker of the day whether they are prepared to call anyone other than frontbenchers, this is the difficulty. Perhaps both my male colleagues disagree with me, I think PNQs are an alternative simply because if you had a PNQ every day people would soon begin to suspect this was an abuse of the system, and it was not capable of dealing with what was really an urgent situation, which is what PNQs are meant for. On the other hand, a topical debate twice a week or three times a week, it would be entirely up to Members how often they did it, for a limited amount of time it seems to me would not only give all backbench Members the chance to get in, because they would have the same restrictions they have now only targeted at a particular time of day, you would get a better cross section also. One PNQ a day would soon get you into considerable trouble with other Members of Parliament.

Mr Swayne

  83. On Mr Burnett's question of the constituency Member with a crisis during the recess. Is there some scope for some sort of discretionary vetting system in the way that we have PNQs for saying that was a legitimate issue on which a question might be tabled during the recess requiring an answer falling short, obviously, of the need to recall Parliament?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) This is a personal point of view but I have been here a long time and I would counsel against anything which restricted the rights of backbench Members of Parliament. Backbench Members of Parliament occasionally abuse the privileges they have got here, occasionally do appear to be bending the system in a way which is unjustified, but if you seek to limit the rights of Members of Parliament, whether they are Ministers or backbench Members, you get yourself into a very dangerous situation because there will arise a set of circumstances where it is absolutely essential that the Member puts over a particular point of view. I think—far be it for me to suggest to the Committee that you have got to be very disciplined and very narrow—you have to look for a balance between what is workable, what is acceptable, what would give an opportunity to backbench Members to get in but is not going to be easily open to abuse. I was brought up by a man who said when the Labour Party was being particularly fractious and anti-social you let them raise as many points of order as they liked because at a certain moment the whole of the conference would begin to roar them down because their irritation point would have been reached. I think Members of Parliament are the same. If you get people who abuse the system that you produce then they will rapidly become extremely unpopular and the rest of the Members will make their views known.


  84. Father of the House?
  (Mr Dalyell) Could I answer Desmond Swayne in personal terms. I represented for a quarter of a century the largest concentration of machine tools under one roof in Europe, namely the British Leyland plant at Bathgate, and there were a succession of troubles. I never had any difficulty in getting an audience with the most senior Ministers, Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, when it was necessary. Very few Ministers will turn a Member of Parliament down with an urgent problem. I have never been turned down.

Sir Robert Smith

  85. There was just one thing before getting to the questions the Committee want answered. I just wondered how many of the Members were aware already in the Other Place that electronic tabling of questions was allowed?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) Frankly, if we followed a lot of the dictats of the Other Place we might in some instances be better off. If we had the same quality of scrutiny of EC legislation that they have in the Other Place then we would really be taking the matter seriously, but I am afraid that is not the case. It is sensible to realise—my mother was 25 years in the Other Place—that the people there are different in kind, they are not responsible to individual constituencies and they are many fewer in number. It is no use simply saying that what they do we can follow. Sometimes what they do is not only useful but we can learn from it. At other times it is sensible to acknowledge that 650 ambitious, anti-social, articulate, pushy Members of Parliament are not going to be the same as a group of rather relaxed and cheerful people who have been selected sometimes for their amiability and sometimes for their—

Mr Burnett

  86. Amenability.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) Self-discipline.

Sir Robert Smith

  87. It brings me back to the starting point that John Taylor raised, which in a sense was he could not see changes that we should be making but he could see problems that we should be addressing and came back to the breakdown of self-discipline both by Ministers and by Members using the House, but once self-discipline has broken down how do you bring it back?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) Publicity. Any politician who consistently ignores publicity, whether it is bad or only partially bad publicity, usually comes to a bad end. Both Tam and I, and I am sure some of our other colleagues, could give you instances where people have over a period of time exploited, and I use the word deliberately, the procedures of the House for their own very narrow self-interest. I have to say it is very satisfying to see many of them come to a very bad end.
  (Mr Taylor) I think Sir Robert and I have a meeting of minds over this, that it is actually much easier to define the ill than prescribe for its remedy, which is quite difficult. In addition to the case where I might paraphrase Gwyneth, except that is a rather foolish thing to do, alongside publicity I would emphasise an element of shaming those who persistently got it wrong. There is a role in that, I have to say, for the Chair. I think if the Chair picked on one or two offenders fairly regularly, not always the same ones, and made it perfectly clear that a higher standard of concentration of question and answer was expected. So shaming, urging from the Chair and, possibly dare I say, Mr Winterton, by example. A peer group will generally follow its exemplars and if there are those who are held out to be able to produce, on the one hand, very nearly the model question, on the other hand, for a Minister, very nearly the model answer, I think there is a role for shaming, stricture from the Chair and example.


  88. You are referring both, I presume, to the backbencher and to Ministers as well?
  (Mr Taylor) It has to be both, Chairman.
  (Mr Prisk) In a funny way we are looking at the wrong end of the tube here in the sense that we are all concerned with how do we ensure the quality of questions and yet it is actually the Executive that is the principal culprit in this particular affair. What we have got to do is to make sure that as part of our procedures in questions there is a form of enforceability as to the quality and the speed of the answers. I entirely agree with what Gwyneth said earlier in terms of using publicity, I think that is absolutely right, we should use that, but I also do not see why as part of questioning procedure we do not have clear procedures, we do not have clear codes of conduct. I am well aware that some Ministers may or may not choose to follow it, that is another issue, but I think unless there is a clear line, unless there is an ability to actually enforce the quality of answers that come back, we will go on getting more and more peculiar questions, we will go on getting more and more staged points rather than real oral questions, because in a sense we, as parliamentarians, are responding to the inadequacies of the Executive, we are behaving in response to that. In a sense, one of the things that concerns me is that we should focus as much on what is coming from the other side, as it were, from the Executive, in terms of what we do because I think that a lot of the decline in quality, and I say this as a new Member so more senior colleagues can correct me if they wish, resides primarily because we know we are either going to be ignored or we are going to be tiptoed around or shuffled off into a corner and, therefore, we tend to try and go for the easy win, the short press heading. It is getting the two sides right that matters.

Sir Robert Smith

  89. We touched on the helpfulness of the Table Office. Do you think the rules governing the content of questions are widely understood and accepted within the House?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) By those Members of Parliament who can read, yes. One of the depressing things about Members of Parliament is that they do not actually read their own Standing Orders. The numbers of people who never read the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, who never bother to work out the disciplines that are necessary for putting down questions, who then become resentful if they are told "your questions are not in order" and complain bitterly if for one reason or another they are not able to raise what they want to raise at that particular moment, are absolutely legion. I think, frankly, look for the mote in your own eye. I am not speaking excluding myself because I think that the Table Office performs a fantastically good job in educating Members of Parliament in skills that frankly they ought to have acquired from the first day that they arrived here. I had a wonderful mentor called Charles Panell who was rarely quoted making speeches but was fantastically good on procedure and used to follow me around saying "`ere, duck, get up and say this" and I would then sit down and say "Charlie, why did I say that?" Not every Member of Parliament has the advantage of that kind of protection. In fact, Members if they were forced to comply with the rules and if someone stood in the Table office other than the clerks and simply said to them somewhat brutally "go away and rewrite that and read the rules before you do it", if they did that for the first six weeks of any new Parliament I rather suspect that we would get much better quality questions. I also suspect, of course, that there is no-one who has sufficient brass neck to be able to do that.


  90. The Charles Panell to which you referred, Mrs Dunwoody, is that the Charles Panell MP, Minister of Public Buildings and Works?
  (Mrs Dunwoody) That was Charlie Panell, dearly loved, who knew this place back to front.

  91. I knew him. Lawrie?
  (Lawrie Quinn) When I arrived in Parliament I did not have the benefit of the seminars or some of the training opportunities that I think the 2001 intake benefited from. I just wondered whether the Committee had actually looked at the content of the briefings that they got in terms of assistance. I did have the benefit of Gwyneth for the first initial weeks when she literally did direct me in terms of process and procedure and it was very helpful. I do agree that colleagues sometimes, some of them even more senior than myself, end up asking questions on why particular things are occurring. I am not suggesting that we need to have the equivalent of a Cycling Proficiency Test or anything like that but I think before you can do anything in life, and I am a chartered engineer, you need to understand the basic rules otherwise you are heading for a mighty fall.

  92. The House of course does now provide new Members with, I think it is, a lecture or seminar.
  (Lawrie Quinn) Yes.

  93. I would draw colleagues' attention also to this very excellent leaflet which is published by the House, Business of the House, Questions and Early Day Motions, dealing with all questions as to how you should table them.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) With respect, Chairman, if you think that is sufficient I suggest you go and station yourself in the Table Office for the first three weeks of any new Parliament.

  Chairman: I am very grateful to Mrs Dunwoody for that advice. I do think this is an extremely good guide but is it in fact an Erskine May, of precedents, the answer is no.

  Ms Munn: Just on that, because although we did have a lot of seminars, there is an awful lot packed into that early session and I think there is perhaps an argument for on an annual basis those seminars being run and Members not being made to feel that if you have been here some time that there is any shame in going to them. I have learned more about questions and questioning from being part of this inquiry than I did from going to a seminar and being able to talk to people and understand the background and have the clerks and the like here. That was much more helpful, six, seven, eight months in than it was six, seven or eight weeks in when you are still trying to feel your way around the place.

  Chairman: From the Chair, like Mrs Dunwoody, I am prepared to admit I have still things to learn. If I can say that from the Chair I am sure it relates to all Members.

Sir Robert Smith

  94. This relates to Mrs Dunwoody's point although it is not just to the Standing Orders, it is to the whole operation of the place. Some people might say "Why is my office like this" well, you probably voted for it in the previous Parliament. One final thing, in Mr Quinn's written submission you wanted a less rigid approach on behalf of Whitehall. Did you have any specific changes to the rules in mind?
  (Lawrie Quinn) No, I think I referred to it before where I think parliamentary sections in departments, I think they are the ones which shuffle off the direction that questions go in. For example, I have tabled questions to the Cabinet Office before and they have gone through the Table Office. When they have gone to the Cabinet Office, it is actually the parliamentary section in the Cabinet Office which says "That is not my question". It is always after the fact that I have found on a number of occasions I have arrived on a particular day, my question is on the Order Paper and a few hours before I am supposed to be going in asking that oral question I find it has been shuffled off for a written answer to a different department. That has happened several times to me, that is the rigidity of the approach that I am referring to. I do not think the problems lie in the Table Office, I think it is how the Executive use the system to their own benefit. Me, I am looking for a bit of transparency in terms of how these procedures work and a lack of rigidity in terms of perhaps feeling excluded from what is happening. I mentioned earlier about the need to try to keep an audit trail of what is happening to questions. Now I do not see that available to us at the moment in terms of where the question is or has it been lost, as has happened in the case of the Department of Health that I mentioned before.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Could I pass to John Burnett because I do not want us to run out of steam and I do not want to run out of Members of the Committee and drop below a quorum.

Mr Burnett

  95. May I take up some points with the Father of the House about Prime Minister's Questions. Am I right in saying, Mr Dalyell, that you are not seeking to curtail the ambit of questions that Members can ask the Prime Minister and that he is obliged to reply to provided that the questions are closed?
  (Mr Dalyell) No. I am afraid that I would limit the ambit. I would limit the ambit to Macmillan, my first Prime Minister, who transferred anything that was not on macro economic policy, important matters of defence and foreign affairs and, of course, above all, security.

  96. What is your reason for that?
  (Mr Dalyell) Because I am a believer in Cabinet Government and not in Prime Ministerial Government and Government from Downing Street.

  97. We have Prime Ministerial Government, it is de facto there and may I put this to you, Mr Dalyell, we want to have replies on matters the ultimate responsibility for which rest with the Prime Minister. I do understand your point about closed questions and I do understand also the general point that witnesses have made that we need to have a far shorter period in which to lodge our questions. I would very much like to hear the views of other Members of the panel on the point that I have just raised.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) I remember the time of which Tam is speaking when Prime Ministers were much more prepared to answer very specific policy questions in a way that does not happen now but the difficulty is that we do have a Prime Minister's department now.

  98. Exactly.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) It does have in Number 10 Downing Street a series of policy units who are outwith the normal departments.

  99. Absolutely.
  (Mrs Dunwoody) I have to say that I think if the Prime Minister is going to answer questions then he must be prepared nowadays to answer for those units which are constantly double guessing departments right the way across Whitehall. I believe there have been some major changes in the time that I have been in this House and not necessarily for the better.

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