Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
TUESDAY 5 MARCH 2002
DALYELL MP, MRS
MP, MR MARK
PRISK MP, LAWRIE
QUINN MP AND
100. Are you referring to that?
(Mrs Dunwoody) I think that has something to do with
it, yes, Chairman.
101. Do you agree with the Father of the House
on the closed questions?
(Mrs Dunwoody) I think if you want the Prime Minister
to answer very specific questions that is the only way to do it
but then you have to have, also, an unwritten agreement that the
Prime Minister will not choose to transfer everything that mentions
any kind of policy because that has happened in the past. We moved
towards the present system under Harold Wilson because previous
Prime Ministers whenever there was anything in the question that
could be said to be the responsibility of a particular department
simply transferred the question. I think we really should have
specific questions. I think the Prime Minister should answer because
nowadays Number 10 has a completely different attitude, both towards
Cabinet Government and very specifically towards policy making,
which is what we are talking about and what we ought to be questioning
him on. I think if you could do that you would have to have the
agreement of the Executive to play by that set of rules because,
frankly, there is no point if we are playing cricket and they
are playing rugby.
102. Do you think the current form of Prime
Minister's Questions is inadequate, abused, inadequate?
(Mrs Dunwoody) We need something between the open
question that we have got at the present time and the question
that has sufficient real content to it to make sure the Prime
Minister is guided into a particular area of policy without giving
him an excuse to shuffle it off on to someone else.
(Mr Dalyell) There is another dimension to this. Blair,
when did he last make a proper speech to the House of Commons?
For heaven's sake, Harold Wilson every three weeks would make
a 40 minute speech and take interruptions. This was actually quite
an effective form of scrutiny, and Ted Heath the same. Now it
began with Mrs Thatcher and Prime Ministers now do not make proper
speeches to the House of Commons. Of course, if you make a 45
minute speech then you are open to the kind of scrutiny that is
not possible at the moment.
103. So how would you deal with the Parliamentary
Question, open as against closed or closed as against open? Mrs
Dunwoody has indicated that a halfway house might be achieved,
do you agree?
(Mr Dalyell) No, I would go back wholly to the closed
question. The open question is an abomination, full stop.
104. Are you saying, therefore, that the Prime
Minister should not deal with any matter that a constituent MP
would wish to raise on the health service or on education?
(Mr Dalyell) Yes. That would be a matter for the Secretary
of State for Education.
(Mrs Dunwoody) There you have lost me.
105. Could I hear the views of the other Members?
I am very keen to hear them and I would ask them to take on the
point I was getting to as well which my Chairman has just said,
the halfway house, what I would call, picking up Gwyneth Dunwoody's
expression, a specific question, the halfway house?
(Mr Prisk) I would actually go for a halfway house
in the sense that I think we should go in for a ballot but we
should be able to put in the problem with drugs or what is happening
in the Health Service or whatever and the topic is the Health
Service. There would be two questions then that any individual
Member would be able to submit. I would take that approach. However,
I would wish to reinforce Prime Minister's Questions with seeing
the Prime Minister come before a Committee, we would have to decide
which one was the right one and so on, of the House generally.
I would love to go back to the days of Cabinet Government, and
I entirely understand what Mr Dalyell is saying. I share the feeling
that we are essentially developing a presidency with all the ills
that will create. The reality is that a Parliament must match
the shape and form of whatever the Government is. If it is the
Government's choosing to have more Ministers in the Cabinet Office
than there are in the Ministry of Defence, which is the case at
the moment, then I think we have to respond to that because in
order to be in order we need to make sure in questioning and in
holding Ministers to account that we are able to do that. Therefore,
I think we have got to respond to the shape the Government chooses.
(Mr Taylor) I would like to think that conceptually
there is a halfway house. I cannot prescribe it or give you a
formula now but I do not go all the way with the Father of the
House in as much as he suggested that if the question was about
education then it would be transferred sideways. I think it depends
on the nature of the question about education. Quite clearly "why
is the Government closing five primary schools in Warwickshire"
is not a matter for the Prime Minister, but conceivably, and I
am having to roll my own as I go along here, "does his Government
intend to introduce a new structure for the supervision of universities
in this country?", it might well be that a Prime Minister
would wish to comment on that. Harold Wilson, after all, claimed
that his greatest achievement was the introduction of the Open
University, and that is quite a handsome thing to be able to say
by the way. Clearly at that stage Harold Wilson regarded the Open
University as something within his purview as a Prime Minister,
but closing primary schools in Warwickshire emphatically would
not be. If you ask where the dividing line is I draw down on something
that Gwyneth said earlier this afternoon. In a sense you may not
need a clear line on the ground on the basis that you can recognise
it when you see it. You can recognise whether it is strategic
or tactical. I think if we could work a convention with the agreement
of the Prime Minister, and that has been mentioned more than once,
that he would take a range ofwe are getting towards a term
of art herespecific questions as distinct from open or
closed ones. We may have invented a phrase, or maybe this Committee
invented it already. I think there is a halfway house conceptually.
I cannot design it for you but I would be happier with that than
today's wall to wall regime of open questions.
(Lawrie Quinn) The difficulty I have got with that
type of approach is the fact it closes it off for other people
in the Chamber perhaps to come in and enter into the debate if
it is quite specific. I have seen the mistake made many times
where there has been a closed question and someone has stood up
because they have got into the particular pattern of questioning.
I actually feel that when you are in a debating forum there should
be a possibility of everybody being able to participate in that
106. This is the Prime Minister's Questions?
(Lawrie Quinn) The Prime Minister's Questions, which
is generally what we are talking about.
107. If it was strategic specific as against
individual specific, would that be a
(Lawrie Quinn) That would be easier. I wanted to make
the point that the areas of questioning that I have actually found
most useful personally, and I know Mr Winterton has chaired some
of the European Scrutiny Committees that I have sat on and perhaps
Mrs Dunwoody has as well, are question time when you come back
and you can follow a line of questioning. I find that very, very
useful. It is far more forensic. It is maybe a cross between what
a Select Committee would be doing and the type of work that can
be done on the floor of the House. I am in a difficulty as to
how you would be able to construct that in a relatively short
time frame. Perhaps what I am suggesting is maybe we should see
more Secretaries of State, the Prime Minister, key members of
the Executive, coming through and sitting in front of the type
of forum that we see in terms of some of these European Scrutiny
Committees, which I think could be improved, but it is certainly
more useful to me as a Member of Parliament to come back forensically
and really nail the Minister because they have not got time to
get the response from the
108. That is why I said earlier would it be
at the discretion of Madam Speaker or Mr Speaker if the Speaker
could call the questioner a second time? I am not saying it would
go on indefinitely but, as Mr Dalyell has said, that has happened
in the past, the Speaker has asked a backbench questioner to put
a second or a third question. That might then force the Minister,
the Prime Minister, to deal with the very question which is the
basis of that specific question on the Order Paper.
(Lawrie Quinn) The only difficulty I have got with
that is the Chairman cannot put themselves into the mind of the
questioner. The questioner might be satisfied that the line of
questioning has come to an end or might need to think about it
a bit more to develop the next question. All I am about is trying
to give that opportunity for the questioning to take place.
109. To sum this up, before you finish, it could
be that the Speaker would not necessarily call that questioner
for a second supplementary until the exchange had come to an end
but the person who put the original question and had a supplementary
might have the last word with the Minister before the House moved
on to another question.
(Lawrie Quinn) That approach appeals to me.
(Mr Taylor) I can see the virtue in this line of recommendation
but I would caution you that there is a serious problem which
is that it effectively invests in the Chair, the Speaker, a subjective
decision as to the adequacy of an answer and I am not sure that
the Chair would be willing to have that burden placed upon him
(Lawrie Quinn) Agreed.
(Mr Taylor) In short, I like the idea but I can see
a problem. One man's adequate answer is another man's inadequate
Sir Robert Smith: What Mr Quinn has raised brings
back self-discipline and a bit of what Gwyneth was saying about
what is in the Other Place. These European Committees do exist
and from our joint experiences of being on them they put the Minister
far more on the spot than any other forum, yet most Members of
this House choose not to use them. Therefore, do the Members of
this House want something different from what is available? We
can see how useful they are but we have not got that across to
Chairman: To help our witnesses here to deal
with the question, the problem is that is exclusive to European
issues rather than matters of a broader national type.
Sir Robert Smith
110. But there are forums, take fishing for
example, in which something affecting a lot of constituents that
is very topical is taken in the European Committee and people
on the floor of the House complain that it is there and do not
realise that they could have been there and taken part in it.
(Mrs Dunwoody) With respect, forgive me, this is partly
because Members of Parliament do not know what powers they have
got. If there has been one change in my lifetime here it is rather
sad in as much as we are getting more and more like the European
Parliament. We have two lines of tack at the moment: we demand
more and more powers and we use the ones that we have got less
and less. If we could get through to Members of Parliament that
there is a really truly original document called Standing Orders
which might cast a little light upon what they are able to do,
this might transform a great many. I am very disappointed that
the power that the European Scrutiny Committees possess to force
a Minister to answer on a limited subject for 60 minutes, a power
which is open to any Member of Parliament, is not used more often.
Indeed, recently I took part on a Committee on the European Arrest
Warrant because I had seen it on the Order Paper, because I felt
very strongly about it, and I arrived and took part in the Committee.
I have to say I was not greeted with entire unalloyed joy either
by the Minister or the person in the Chair but that is the burden
of my life with which I have to contend. It is a power that we
ought to use more often.
111. I am hoping to finish within about five
minutes because I know another colleague has got to go and I think
it is discourteous to our witnesses if there are more witnesses
than there are Members of the Committee.
(Mrs Dunwoody) We might take the decisions too, Chairman.
Chairman: We will have John and then I want
to finish off with one from Desmond.
Mr Swayne: No, thank you.
Chairman: He is very happy with the responses
we have had from our witnesses. John?
Mr Burnett: Perhaps it is a bit late in the
day to raise these points but one or two of the things which really
infuriate me is when Ministers hide behind expressions like "commercial
confidentiality" and the sub judice rule. Now going
on to commercial confidentiality, do you as witnesses agree, for
example, with me that once contracts have been exchanged there
is no reason whysay with a shipbuilding contractthe
full details of a contract of that nature cannot be put in the
112. Could be a straight forward answer yes
(Mrs Dunwoody) Yes.
(Mr Dalyell) No, because of legal proceedings. I think
you get into a legal quagmire on this.
114. That is not a good enough answer, with
(Lawrie Quinn) What I would say is there are ways
and means and having worked in the construction industry previously,
and been involved in tender processes, there are ways and means
of presenting the information in such a way that you would not
breach that confidential aspect and leave yourself open. With
that said, I think you can provide that information.
115. It should be provided?
(Lawrie Quinn) It should be provided but in a safe
way so you are not leaving yourself open to a future action against
(Mr Taylor) Chairman, I think Mr Burnett is right
in his suspicion that the machine hides behind commercial confidentiality
from time to time, not consistently and on a gross scale but from
time to time it is convenient. The sub judice rule I think
is better known and better understood and I think that is not
abused. I do not thinkI may be wrongthat the machine
of Government hides behind sub judice, I do think it does
from time to time behind commercial confidentiality.
(Mr Prisk) I share Mr Quinn's reaction. I think it
should be open in an appropriate form.
116. Tam, do you want to come back on this?
(Mr Dalyell) I have a current problem with sub
judice and it is in relation to Lockerbie. Now there is an
enormous amount of press comment, any question on Lockerbie has
been vigorously ruled out of order to such an extent that even
there was an argument about whether the Table Office should take
off a question that was at number 13 to the Prime Minister, when
he would reply to Mr Martin Cadman because he was a Lockerbie
relative. They actually wanted to take it off and gave me the
benefit of the doubt. This is a very difficult question on sub
judice because the press flout sub judice and Parliament
117. One other point, quangos, getting at quangos.
Should every quango have a responsible Minister?
(Lawrie Quinn) Yes.
(Mrs Dunwoody) They have. It is up to Select Committees
who are responsible for particular departments. Really it is entirely
a matter for the Chairmen of Select Committees. They should insist
that quangos are brought before the relevant Select Committee.
There is nothing to stop them doing that now, sensible Select
Committees already do it and you ought to get some interesting
118. What about Parliamentary Questions relating
to aspects of the District Auditor?
(Mrs Dunwoody) If a Minister has responsibility for
a department and a one step agency or what you call a quango,
however you define that, a Minister should answer on whatever
happens in that department. If there are difficulties, as there
were recently with our Committee when we discovered something
in relation to the Highways Agency where we had to question Ministers
for a considerable length of time before we got straight forward
answers, then that is up to the Committee to respond to that challenge
and make sure they use the existing machinery.
(Mr Dalyell) My wife, I had better confess, is a quango
Chairman. This is actually now in relation to the Scottish Parliament.
Quangos often, I will not say always, rather like people taking
an interest in their work because if an interest is taken they
are more likely to get money out of the departments.
Chairman: Can I just say, again, because of
the evidence that has been given, particularly by Mrs Dunwoody,
the Liaison Committee of this House and the Procedure Committee
of this House has taken a very active interest in this area and
the Modernisation Committee, particularly laying down core objectives
and responsibilities and the quangos to which John Burnett has
referred feature very much in the responsibilities of individual
Select Committees. So I hope that is noted by Members of this
Committee, let alone our witnesses. Unless Desmond Swayne would
like to come in?
Mr Swayne: No.
120. Can I thank all our witnesses not only
for their stamina and for their patience but I believe that you
have all added tremendously to the information and evidence that
we are taking. Can I thank the Father of the House, Tam Dalyell,
Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr Lawrie Quinn, Mr Mark Prisk and Mr John
Taylor for their fortitude and the excellent information they
have given to us this afternoon. We are very grateful.
(Mrs Dunwoody) Thanks to the Chair.