Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
TUESDAY 5 MARCH 2002
DALYELL MP, MRS
MP, MR MARK
PRISK MP, LAWRIE
QUINN MP AND
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 mechanismand 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 Executivemy view is really we are here to
work for the public and the wider community and if they cannot
understand what we are doingThis prospect that there is
a seasonI am sorry to disagree with Tam Dalyellis
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
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.
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 thinkfar be it for me to suggest to the Committee that
you have got to be very disciplined and very narrowyou
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 realisemy mother was 25 years in the Other
Placethat 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
(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
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
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.
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
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
(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
(Mrs Dunwoody) It does have in Number 10 Downing Street
a series of policy units who are outwith the normal departments.
(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.