Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
TUESDAY 19 MARCH 2002
140. I have to say in response to that last
answer that that is an extremely important point. It came up in
the previous evidence we have had that there is a big issue here
and it is one which the major political parties have now taken
on board. An answer you gave to my previous question indicates
quite clearly, as I am beginning to think, that the supplementary
question is more important than the original question. Trying
to second-guess what the supplementary question is I think is
a waste of time because sophisticated MPsand there might
be some aboutmight be able to ask a question and second-guess
the minister anyway. You then get this sort of chequers game where
you are trying to double-guess each other. That being the case,
what would be the implications to the Civil Service of the principle
of open questions being extended to Prime Minister's question
time were to be put across departments?
(Mr Mackenzie) I think that the nature of departmental
questions is different from Prime Minister's Questions. The nature
and depth of answer that you get in departmental question time
is significantly different from Prime Ministerial Question Time.
Without wishing to impinge on areas which are for Members, the
purpose to which Members put Prime Minister's Questions is different
from the one which they use for departmental questions. Departmental
question time is easier for the department because of the focus
of issues to produce useful answers for and more researched and
more detailed answers to take account of the Member's interests.
If you were to move to a Prime Minister's Question Time model
for individual departments you might find that the minister was
given almost a standing briefing and the quality and depth of
research which focuses on individual questions would be lost,
because in order to cover the complete range of open questions
the resources would have to go into covering the range of questions
rather than the depth which you would probably get in more detail
David Hamilton: You have already accepted by
your previous answers that in many cases it is the supplementary
which is the real question. The experience I have had is that
it is always the supplementary that is the real question and therefore
the question that is being raised in the first part is not that
relevant to what the supplementary is going to be anyway. Would
you not think in this day and age that if the minister does not
know the answer it might be quite nice now and again if he could
say, "I do not know the answer to that but I will answer
it in writing".
Chairman: Mr Mackenziedifficult one,
but I am sure you can bat it.
141. He is Scottish. He does not understand
(Mr Mackenzie) At the risk of scoring a cheap point,
we lasted longer in the last World Cup than the English did. The
supplementary questions are the important part very often of what
Members think. However, because of the more focused nature of
a departmental issue it is not so much that it is easy but there
is also the fact that you have got the hook of the original question
and there are parliamentary rules. If you ask about staffing in
health as far as I know the rules will prevent the Member from
then going on to ask why they have used a particular finance structure
for building the hospital, because you are actually looking at
the staffing. It is general but it is more focused. If you ask
the Prime Minister whether he is going to be visiting his constituency
at a particular time then you can ask about anything. We represent
civil servants and it is our interest to look after their position.
I would not want to be a civil servant responsible for the policy
area in which a minister had to stand up in oral questions and
admit that he or she was not briefed on that particular question.
The duty of civil servants to ministers is that we have to prepare
for them to deal with parliamentary questions. For a minister
to stand up and say, "I do not know the answer" is commendable
honesty but there is a department behind that minister which is
briefing him and in doing my professional job I have to make sure
that if there is likely to be a question on a particular topic
the minister is briefed on it.
142. How would you view a Member of Parliamentit
could be myself, even under a Labour Governmentsaying to
the minister, "This is a supplementary that I am going to
ask", because he or she as a Member is actually looking for
information to advance a case or a cause and perhaps not always
seeking to score political points? Do you think it would be helpful
for Members of Parliament to contact the minister's office through
his or her PPS to indicate that the basic question is on the Order
Paper but this is the supplementary? Do you think that would be
helpful to the civil servant and to the effectiveness of parliamentary
(Mr Mackenzie) Yes, immensely, because what you then
get is the resources put towards the question you want. In fact,
if you want a particularly detailed answer you can get a particularly
detailed answer because the resources allocated come from one
policy area. It might be a range but they will be far more focused
resources and they can concentrate on answering the question they
know you are going to ask.
143. I saw Jonathan and Charles nodding. Is
this their view? I am interested as to how the Civil Service would
view that rather constructive use of parliamentary questions.
(Mr Cochrane) It strikes me as an eminently sensible
way of doing it. Going back to the original point, was it not
once said that there was someone in the 18th century who did know
the sum of human knowledge at that time, but I think we have to
accept that now nobody can, not even the most astute minister
or Opposition spokesperson. The concept of somehow the minister
by some miraculous process knowing everything there is to know
is a rather outmoded thing. We are the fourth or fifth biggest
economy in the world. Anything that aids that process is welcome
if it is about making information available and certainly would
greatly help our people because it is an opaque skill trying to
guess supplementaries and I do not think it really helps anyone,
so yes, if we can get some more transparency into it, it would
be very helpful.
Sir Robert Smith
144. The Chairman has half asked my question.
This just happened recently in a question I asked where the department
phoned up and said, "Is it about a specific constituency
issue or is it a general policy thing, because if it is constituency
it might be helpful to know more." I just wondered who initiates
that suggestion of phoning up the Member?
(Mr Mackenzie) It would usually be the policy person
looking after the issue. Again it is down to professional assessment.
If the Member is the sort of person who raises constituency issues
and where there might be an element in which the engagement would
produce an answer, then it is a sensible thing to do and it could
easily be initiated by the officials. It is usually initiated
by the person by the person answering the question because it
helps them most.
145. Lord Norton has suggested a fixed cap on
the number of oral questions that can be reached in any session
in order to improve the quality of the scrutiny of a particular
issue. Would such an arrangement allow for much better briefing
(Mr Mackenzie) Yes, for a similar reason, that you
are limiting the number of issues and therefore you are going
to be able to give greater depth to individual issues rather than
trying to cover a panoply.
146. Can we now move on to written questions?
We have already heard the suggestion that there is a certain amount
of machismo in the significant increase in written questions that
have been put down. Are there any other reasons that you are aware
of or believe might be a factor behind the increase other than
(Mr Mackenzie) The one which was mentioned previously
about researchers and people working for Members of Parliament.
The larger the staff of any individual MP the more likely they
are to be able to put resources to raising PQs. Again I would
use the same point. If the work were done to find out what was
in the public domain then those questions might be written ones.
147. There is a significant disincentive to
that sort of arrangement by having to present yourself at the
Table Office with the questions in hand. When you have been behind
someone in the queue who has a great sheet of questions with which
they are clearly not entirely familiar, something is going on;
it is obvious. If, however, those questions are going to be tabled
electronically, I suggest that one of those disincentives disappears.
Do you have a view on the electronic tabling of questions and
this question of might it actually lead to an even greater surge
in the numbers being tabled?
(Mr Cochrane) There are a lot of lazy organisations
out there. They are, I suspect, the bane of a number of constituency
MPs' lives and, bluntly, the bane of the system because it is
clogging up. Turning to the electronic point, I am slightly nervous
about that being seen as a panacea to it in that you only need
to look at some civil servants' e-mail lists and they are absolutely
amazing. Civil servants go out to meetings, return to their office
and there are two or three hundred e-mails there. I am reminded,
if I may reminisce slightly, of a few years ago when fax machines
first came in. When you got a fax you practically stood up and
announced it publicly; it was a bit of an ego trip. If you get
a fax now you think what a quaint organisation it was who sent
it to you. The same thing has started happening with e-mails.
There was a time when your machine flashed up and said that you
had got an e-mail and you went public. Now the tendency is not
to switch the wretched thing on because you are going to be inundated.
We have to be a wee bit careful about thinking that electronic
is modern and fast.
148. But are you aware, Mr Cochrane, how many
Members of Parliament support this move to electronic tabling?
Would that also cause you concern?
(Mr Cochrane) I am just exercising a slight note of
caution to say it might not be the panacea that some Members might
think it is.
(Mr Mackenzie) I think that electronic tabling might
have advantages for departments. If they all come in in the same
format and templates and everything else are generated from the
centre, it is far easier for departments rather than trying to
go into different computer systems and everything else, and certainly
the Scottish Parliament uses that system and it is a parliamentary
template; we cannot play around with it to our heart's content.
As administrators we just have to fire back into the boxes which
are given. For consistency that is fairly sensible. A note here
is that e-mail may produce a larger volume of parliamentary questions
which would obviously have an impact and pressures on staff, but
I think it would also have an impact and pressures on staff of
the House. This example has already been made in one of your previous
sessions, when I think they were talking about orals. If you have
100 e-mailed questions the Table Office is not going to have the
facility or the time to be able to discuss with Members the pros
and cons of whether that question was proper and how it might
be rephrased. To be honest, if 95 per cent of them were improper
and they were only a minute before the deadline then they are
not going to be tabled, so that sort of mechanism would certainly
reduce the pressure on people answering them. There are issues
there for the House resources and the staff in the House on the
peaks of demand round about deadlines for tabling. We do not know,
to be honest. Electronic tabling happens in Scotland and Wales.
Scotland got the parliamentary process and a Parliament of its
own effectively to one government department at the same time,
so I cannot tell you what the impact is. I would expect a growth
in parliamentary questions once electronic tabling was introduced.
I am working on the assumption that it will be. I cannot tell
you how big it is. The bigger it is, the more pressure there is
149. Does the increase in questions lead directly
to a deterioration in the quality of answers?
(Mr Mackenzie) It probably will do because of the
range of resources which need to be sourced. That will be particularly
where the volume of questions goes up in peaks on particular areas
of interest. If it is spread evenly throughout government there
is an element in which a general pooling of resources might help,
but if it is in peaks on particular issues, particularly where
you have got something which might not be immediately topical,
coming back to the oral questions, it may not be possible. If
you are looking at written ones it might not be immediately topical
but it might be a major issue which is going to last. You suddenly
get a deluge of interest and everybody can e-mail you electronically
and submit questions. Then you might find a significant impact
and that will reduce the quality of the answers because they are
going to use very similar lines to answer all the questions.
(Mr Baume) Some departments obviously get rather more
PQs than others and resource themselves to that. Just behind all
of that, whether we go down the road of much more electronic tabling
of questions or not, is back to the issue you were alluding to,
Chairman, which is why people are asking PQs. Is that the right
mechanism to get the information that is sought? There are tremendous
resources in the House through the library and the networks that
pay for themselves to tap into. It may be that part of the dialogue
that has to take place within this context is talking to individual
departments almost department by department about where their
information is best sourced from. Is it through web sites? Is
it through information that can be found almost as a matter of
course in the House of Commons library or in the Lords? The department
is helping the House and therefore helping Members to try and
find the best route for getting the information that is required
and, of course, as well as all that the issue aboutand
I do not mean this in any negative sense because MPs are in politicsthe
extent to which particular questions are about politics and political
issues that the Member wishes to press a minister on, and the
extent to which it is simply an attempt to find some information
that may be of interest to a particular constituency or to do
with matters within the constituency. There is a difference (and
I use this very loosely) between politics and seeking information
per se, so maybe there is room for more dialogue between
the House and departments about what is the best way of finding
out particular types of information. I should say that one element,
although it will take time to come through, is of course the whole
question of the freedom of information legislation, although we
are two and a half to three years off all of that coming through,
and the impact in due course that that will have, because I think
there is an extent to which PQs can be used as a way of getting
faster access to information that otherwise would not generally
be released publicly under the current openness regime.
150. But would you not also accept that of course
if you ask a parliamentary question it then forms part of Hansard
the following day? I know some Members going back many years who
have tabled a dozen or more written questions and have then presented
them to their local media as if there is an exchange on the floor
of the House between the Member for A and the minister, and it
looks as if the Member for A has been an extremely active individual.
Is there any other way, do you think, as civil servants of Members
of Parliament getting media coverage, which is important to Members
of Parliament, whatever you might think about it, where they do
not use parliamentary questions? Should it be that matters taken
up with ministers might ultimately be attached as a supplementary
to Hansard if they take it up in another way officially through
the department rather than through a parliamentary question? Do
you feel there is any way of doing this?
(Mr Cochrane) I think we are probably straying some
way from parliamentary questions. One increasingly finds, when
one reads local newspapers, and I am thinking particularly of
those which are pushed free through one's front door, that their
coverage of parliamentary affairs is fairly skimpy anyway, and
I suspect that the subtleties of the parliamentary question system
are one thing that escapes them and I suspect that many of them
do not know the difference between an oral question, a written
question and a letter you had from the minister. There is an increasing
trend, certainly where I live, for local papers to allow Members
of Parliament columns effectively to write what they wish. They
seem to be quite popular and probably a more user-friendly thing
than churning out verbatim questions.
Sir Robert Smith
151. I should like to follow up the dangers
of electronic questioning. The other place, the House of Lords,
also allows electronic tabling. Are they perceived to have more
self-discipline than this end of the building?
(Mr Mackenzie) I have not asked the members in those
terms. I have not heard of any problems caused by the House of
Lords electronic tabling or House of Lords questions. There was
no concern about volume or immediacy or timescales, so I think
from the point of view of our members, as far as we have heard
that would be seen as a successful usage of the process.
David Hamilton: Electronic tabling is the road
we are moving down and therefore it has got to be very important
but you need to get a template and a proper framework. I think
it is very important to look at that as a way forward because
if we do not I take the point that you make, that there is an
area where you go to where they can advise you, "Sorry; that
question has been answered before; you can go there and find that
out", and there is a learning curve in that process. I do
believe at some point or other we are going to have to go along
with that. The other question, Chairman, is on your point, and
that is that every MP has their own way of making things known.
Our local paper will pick a real topic of interest. They do not
know whether that is an oral question or a written question. It
is when you put that written question in and you raise X amount
of questions, and you go back, and some parties try to take advantage
of the fact that some people can get in. That is an issue that
comes up. I have to say, Chairman, that with 650 Members of Parliament
it is rather more difficult for some of us to be able to get up
to speak than it is for others, and therefore there is an imbalance
and an issue there.
152. All members of political parties experience
that from time to time. I was here when Mrs Thatcher had a majority
of 143 and for a humble back bencher like myself to get called,
either for question time or for debates, was very infrequent.
Well, from my point of view it was infrequent.
(Mr Mackenzie) On the general point of picking up
the idea of the process and getting the process right, I wonder
whether the Committee is in contact with the Procedure Committee
in the Scottish Parliament because they work closely with
153. We have had a memorandum from the Scottish
(Mr Mackenzie) The Scottish Executive has regular
meetings with the Scottish Parliament Procedure Committee in order
to look at how these issues are being used. It is these sorts
of procedural questions and process questions which Mr Hamilton
raised as part of the learning curve. Obviously, the Scottish
Parliament is on a learning curve. They do have electronic tabling
and they are learning the process and the Scottish Executive is
engaged with the Scottish Parliament in bilaterals in order to
help make sure that both get as much as possible out of the relationship
and that the relationship is efficient. That comes back to the
question you asked earlier about the department and the contacts
between the department and the House. I think it is that sort
of mechanism which might help. There might be lessons to learn
there, although I cannot speak for the Parliament.
154. We will touch on that again with a question
or two that Mr Joyce wants to put. Can I ask a very simple question?
Do you believe that the name day question is being abused? At
the moment there is the opportunity for a Member to table a question
for answer on a named day. This clearly is relevant when information
is required urgently by a Member, for whatever reason. Do you
believe that that system of parliamentary questions at the moment
is being abused and may well be causing problems with blockages
for the Civil Service?
(Mr Mackenzie) I think it was the Leader of the House's
comment that there are an awful lot of questions for which the
urgency is not immediately apparent. I would not want to comment
on how Members were using the questions, but I think that that
is a view shared by our members, that an awful lot of name day
questions do not seem, at least to the person preparing the answer,
to have any urgency beyond the normal.
155. And that is a view shared by your colleagues?
(Mr Cochrane) Yes.
156. I will move on to parliamentary recesses.
We cannot table questions of course during the recess so there
might be logistical or other implications if we could for the
whole or part of the recess.
(Mr Mackenzie) I think the impact on both sides of
our membership, in departments and in the House, would be dependent
on the volume. For both departments and the staff of the House
leave patterns are very often dictated by recess in that key officials
will get their holiday in the summer. I know the recess is reasonably
long but there have been recommendations to shorten it. I am not
saying that certainly in departments people would find themselves
with no holiday period but there are patterns of leave taking
and of attendance which fit in with the recess. It is more sensitive
in the House. This is an area in which I am not experienced, but
during the House recess the staff is very much reduced because
they take their leave during that period. If you were going to
have tabling of questions during recess that is probably the most
sensitive mechanism there because there are small numbers of staff.
You would have to staff the House in order to deal with all of
them. If there were significant numbers, it would be proportionate
to the numbers but all the questions would have to go through
the one point in the House and your staffing balance is such that,
although I have no doubt that they would cope admirably and very
professionally, that is something which the Committee would have
to give consideration to. It has a resource impact on the staff
of the House. In the departments it is a matter for ministers.
157. I find that in the very short period of
time I have been here during holidays, particularly the summer
holiday, the amount of letters I get from constituents drops off.
I suspect it is because they go off on holiday as well and have
other things to think about. It might be that if there was a limited
facility for asking questions during recess as opposed to in the
normal way that could be accommodated.
(Mr Mackenzie) I have not got figures but I would
be interested to see Members' patterns of seeking information
given that you do not have the mechanism of a PQ but you can still
write a letter to a minister. I would be interested to see whether
Members have different patterns when they can answer the PQ because
if they are getting out good answers in their correspondence then
perhaps more of the PQs in session time would be
(Mr Cochrane) It does go back to this question of
everybody being aware of the full range of sources of information.
I am sure that PCS members, particularly those in the junior grades,
would like me to make it clear that any myth that might exist
about the entire Civil Service going off to Tuscany or wherever
during the summer holidays is not the case. Many of the people
who are doing the sharp end work of answering the questions are
very often in very low grades in the Civil Service and are people
for whom prospect of long summer holidays in Tuscany is somewhat
remote. I think Lorimer is right: the recess question is very
much linked to resources in the House. The Civil Service can handle
it but for the House it is very difficult.
158. If we are specific, Mr Cochrane, based
on the current calendar of parliamentary activity, if this Committee
and the House subsequently took a decision that Members could
table questions from the beginning of September but there would
be a fallow period during August, do you think that would be acceptable
to the Civil Service? Would it cause personnel difficulties? I
put that as a specific idea but, as you know, it is possible that
the parliamentary calendar from next year may well change.
(Mr Cochrane) I think for the vast majority of the
Civil Service, bearing in mind that we have a Civil Service of
485,000 (500,000 at the moment), August is business as normal,
and also bearing in mind that the answers to questions very often
move a long way from Whitehall. If you are asking, say, a constituency
question about the activities in the Jobcentre Plus in Harlow
in Essex, that would be staffed just the same in August as it
is in any other month of the year. I do not think that is a problem.
159. The reason I put a specific period is that
there is a fallow period in local government when there are no
committee meetings. Certainly I think August is that month in
England; I cannot speak for Scotland or Wales. I was wondering
whether you feel that Members of Parliament should be able to
table questions during part of the recess. It is wrong that we
cannot table a question for the best part of 12 weeks and therefore
if there was merely a fallow period in August do you think that
would cause no particular difficulty for your members and for
the Civil Service and departments of state as a whole?
(Mr Baume) There is a point at which all of this is
in the round and, just taking one step back, we have alluded to
the use of electronic tabling in Scotland and Wales and I know
it is developing in the context of the Northern Ireland Assembly,
and part of the reason for that was that, as new institutions,
a great deal of energy was put into providing electronic access
for Assembly Members, for Members of the Scottish Parliament.
I have to confess that I have slightly lost track of progress
within the Westminster Parliament but it is still quite a way
behind the last time I asked. An intensive programme of giving
coherent electronic access to MPs and their staff would be a very
positive thing and then it goes back to what is the best and easiest
way of people finding information. Within "Whitehall",
as Charles says, it is in a sense 485,000 civil servants, most
of whom never go anywhere near a permanent secretary, never mind
a minister. That said, most of this work is still focused within
a relatively small group of people in government departments.
The idea that there was a quiet period in my time in the Civil
Service has gone. There is not now a really quiet political period.
That said, if you were looking for the one month of the year in
Londonand it is of course different in Scotland with the
holiday pattern, and in WalesAugust is the quiet time.
I cannot remember whether it was last year or the year before,
but Parliament did not go into recess until late in July and then
of course anyway ministers and most MPs are starting to return
because of party conferences starting in mid September and of
course, from a union point of view, there is the TUC Conference
and certainly when Labour is in government Members are at the
TUC Conference. I think August is the quiet month. I think there
would be a perception (but obviously it is a matter for the House)
that if we were getting deluged with questions during the middle
of August it might start putting a lot of pressure on which, as
has already been said, the Civil Service would gear itself to
coping with and, just as civil servants in what was then the Scottish
Office and then the Scottish Executive got to grips with dealing
with questions almost every week of the year. I think however
that there would be a hope that Parliament would not be asking
questions in August. Of course often you are down to a duty minister,
those sorts of issues, but the Civil Service and central government
would cope with that. On the other hand, if the House could hold
back from asking for 52 weeks of the year and perhaps limit it
to at least a break in the summer that would be welcomed in the
Civil Service. That is a very tactful way of putting it. I do
not perceive that it would cause major problems if parliamentary
questions started in early September rather than in early October
but it does go back to the point that Lorimer was making a few
minutes ago about the House itself being equipped and staffed
in the right way to deal with the additional pressures that it
would cause within this building.