Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 170)

TUESDAY 19 MARCH 2002

MR JONATHAN BAUME, MR LORIMER MACKENZIE AND MR CHARLES COCHRANE

Rosemary McKenna

  160. This has been a very interesting session and I have really enjoyed it. We have explored a lot of areas that we had concerns about. I am delighted about what you said about the Scottish Parliament because it was designed as an open and inclusive parliament and obviously that is clearly happening.
  (Mr Baume) I think there is a lot that could be learned from the experiments and experiences of Scotland.

  161. You would not set up a modern parliament and start with, "This is a model". Our aim is to improve the system for the Members and to ensure that the questions are effective and produce the kind of information we want, but to try and stop what could be an abuse of electronic tabling. That is our principal concern. I think you have answered all our concerns in that. One of the things that I would like to know is this. You indicate in the paper that you submitted that there is a system for emergency questions in the Scottish Parliament, that there is a system for emergency questions where the presiding officer decides on the morning if it is suitable. Is that the same as our PNQ questions and how often are they selected for debate?
  (Mr Mackenzie) I think that question may have been raised in the Chief Executive of Parliament's paper rather than ours. Ours was a very much skimpier affair. I honestly cannot give you the answer. I can go away and ask Parliament but you might be better off asking through the Parliament because I honestly do not know. I checked with members up north. I have not heard of any problems being caused by emergency questions, which suggests that the volume is not significant, and that it is understood when the question arises why there is the urgency, because I have not had anybody saying that there are problems, that too many are getting through, that it is being abused.

  Rosemary McKenna: It would be interesting to have that answer, would it not, because it is most unusual down here?

Chairman

  162. I was going to ask Charles Cochrane whether he had any comment to make on the use of the private notice question which is used to highlight a particular emergency or difficult situation or an issue of paramount importance that has arisen and the Member has to apply to the Speaker's Office for a private notice question. Do you have any experience or knowledge of this and, if so, how would you respond to Rosemary McKenna?
  (Mr Cochrane) I am tempted to say I require notice of that question! It is not something I am briefed to answer now but it is something that I would be happy to put a note in on if you would find that helpful.

  163. Only because to my mind I personally, as a parliamentarian of a few years' standing, believe that the private notice question is under-used and is a very effective way of the House and individual Members raising issues of national and international importance and of constituency importance as a matter of urgency.
  (Mr Cochrane) The point I would make is that the perception many of our members have of course is that the parliamentary questions that they see and they have to try and answer do not fall in that category. That may sum up a lot of this discussion, that if we could focus it down on to the questions that really matter then everyone agrees, "Let us put our resources into doing that". Perhaps there has been a feeling at the moment that it is all spread a bit thin in too many areas.

  Sir Robert Smith: So how do you do that?

Chairman

  164. Sir Robert, you have anticipated my last question to our witnesses today on behalf of the Committee. What advice would you give to this Committee as to how it can make parliamentary questions more appropriate, more relevant, more topical, more current and more effective because this is what we are seeking to do: act on behalf of Parliament in obtaining information and holding the government of the day, whatever party it may comprise, to account? Is there any advice? Normally we come to you frequently but indirectly for advice, and so do ministers. How could you give this Committee advice on that particular question?
  (Mr Mackenzie) You have encapsulated much of what I understand is the remit of the Committee itself so I do not think I can actually answer all of that. What you listed there was a series of criteria which you might want to see in an effective system of parliamentary questions and procedure. The criteria I do not think are particularly difficult to draw up given the sort of resources which would be available, to the department or Leader of the House, the resources would go to supporting the people involved. But the question would be the mechanism which the House itself has and whether it has mechanisms to impose that discipline in its looser term on the Members, and that is not a matter for us. I think the sift mechanism is for the House. The criteria I do not think are the question.

  165. Charles Cochrane, because I am going to give Jonathan Baume the last word on this.
  (Mr Cochrane) Maybe we are a bit clichéd but the Civil Service will always strive to deliver what is asked of it. The discussion today and the work we have put in over the past few days has been a real learning curve for us about this and I am grateful for that, but it does strike me that many of the answers to the questions you pose lie in the House, not the training of MPs; it would be wrong of me to suggest that, but the experience and training and skills of the people who work in the House and the people who work for you and the understanding of how things work of the people from outside who come to you. We have talked several times about accessing information and so forth, how well the IT systems that are currently available to you work to allow you to use things like the web as a means of access. I am terribly conscious that when I am trying to access it at home by dialling into the wretched thing it is incredibly frustrating. When you are trying to do it somewhere else—is it broadband? I am speaking from a very non-tech point of view here—it becomes a much more valuable tool. These are things like that are very relevant to this discussion and how easy it is for people to access information.

  166. If I may say so to you as witnesses today, the House does appreciate the importance of both education and training and of course at the beginning of every Parliament quite a lot of effort is put by the staff and officials of the House into ensuring that Members of Parliament are appraised of the facilities and everything else. Jonathan Baume, as General Secretary of your Union, how would you like to polish off the evidence that you and your colleagues have given to us today?
  (Mr Baume) I hope that it has been helpful to the Committee. To pick up your last point, Chairman, I was talking to a senior MP very recently. We were talking about training—training for the Civil Service, training for ministers, training for MPs, and we were agreeing amongst ourselves that in almost every other field we encourage people at very senior levels to renew their skills, to be trained, to think about have they got the right skills for the job they are trying to do at that time rather than the job they may have been doing several years ago. We were both bemoaning the fact in a positive sense that there is not enough training for MPs, not enough training for ministers. Part of this is about what you have just said, that we ought to ensure that MPs have the personal skills to access information etc. I should also add that I happen to be personally a believer in much more resource being available to individual MPs, including individual offices to MPs, and staffs looking across at positive features of the US model where the equivalent of a Member of Parliament would expect to have a well resourced personal office. We are a long way from that.

  167. Do you not think that would just generate more questions?
  (Mr Baume) It might well but I think it would enhance the ability of MPs to get to grips with all of the many jobs that they have to do. We are a long way from that, frankly, in the current model. Nevertheless, there is clearly a welcome mood in the House to enhance and update the way the House works. The handling of this aspect of the work of the House falls within that. It is clearly the role of the Civil Service to support ministers and the government in providing that information. We have clearly tried to illustrate what some of the problems are from the point of view of the Civil Service, but there is no doubt that the Civil Service will continue to do everything it can to provide the information that MPs are seeking. In the end, as Charles has said, the discipline lies within the House to focus more effectively on what information it is trying to seek, why it is trying to seek that and what is the best route for getting that. It has seen parliamentary questions as being one important aspect (but only one aspect) of a wider framework within which information can be garnered. All of the Civil Service unions have supported campaigns over many years for freedom of information and more openness in government, and over a period of time hopefully there is going to be a greater openness and a greater access that will in effect obviate the need for some of the types of PQs that we currently see. The answer is with the House in terms of the criteria that are there around what is a legitimate parliamentary question, as both of my colleagues have said, and really maybe greater dialogue between MPs and civil servants. There are clearly always going to be certain constraints on that, for perfectly proper reasons, about what an individual civil servant can do, vis-a-vis a request from an MP. All civil servants will be quite happy to provide the factual information. There is a lot that Parliament can learn in at least examining what has happened in Scotland and Wales, where new mechanisms and new ways of working have been tried. I think to an extent they are still developing but I think some quite positive lessons are already starting to emerge from that. One of those is greater interaction directly between civil servants and MPs, just to get factual information; it is certainly not the job of a civil servant to tell an MP what advice he or she may have given to a minister, but in terms of getting that access to information without having to go through very cumbersome procedures that generate more work than may be necessary but, to come back to the point, part of it is down to the discipline and self-discipline of MPs themselves in deciding what makes sense, what is the priority for them, and then the House itself putting certain constraints, including the numbers of questions that might appear on any day, on all of those kinds of mechanisms, to get a more streamlined process. It is right that the questions are asked, it is right that government is open and is providing those, within the context of greater openness, but if we are not careful we will simply create more and more paper trails for the rest of it that do not add very much to the quality of the work in this House. It is a slightly long-winded answer but I hope that that is helpful.

  168. I thank you for making reference to what Eric Joyce referred to and what was the evidence given to us by one of our witnesses at an earlier sitting of this Committee, Andrew Bennett, when they both suggested that there should be additional contact between Members and civil servants responsible for particular policy areas. Of course this can only be facilitated in a way, can it not, by ministers in allowing that contact to take place? You yourself, I gather from what you say, would welcome that.
  (Mr Baume) Yes.
  (Mr Mackenzie) It is beginning to work in Scotland. The Scottish Executive directory is available to MSPs and they can ask and go direct. If they want to find out about the subject area for which I am responsible they can find me in the directory and they can ask. The guidance is that I should provide factual information only. Anything on policy would be referred via the minister. It is however not in great use at the moment but there has been no corresponding decline in the number of PQs asked as a result of that, nor is there indication that the quality has improved as a result, so there may not be a trade-off in PQs.
  (Mr Baume) Clearly what we are not talking about is MPs ringing very junior members of staff but within the level, for example, of the senior Civil Service, which is about 3,300 people, there are ways of doing this electronically which goes back to the debate we have just been having, that there are ways of facilitating this, templates that can be used, procedures that everybody feels very comfortable with. It is happening in Scotland and Wales and none of us are getting signals from members in Scotland and Wales that this is problematic.

Sir Robert Smith

  169. I just want to touch on the procedure of how you achieve that. Some ministers are much more relaxed than others, especially if it is a technical issue, about saying, "I am not available but go and speak to my civil servants in setting up a meeting". If the phone keeps ringing I think it is a good thing, but is there a back-up in the scope of the department if someone suddenly finds that their phone is never off the hook, that they can get some protection by changing their number or something?
  (Mr Mackenzie) There would be procedures if a particular Member was abusing the position. I think that would be a resource question for the department. If it was unreasonable steps might be taken to try and reduce the load, through whatever network. If it was a reasonable volume of work then one would look at the resources. If everybody's phone is ringing off the hook because researchers are phoning us all the time, then presumably there may be a limit to the resources that can be put to the problem and only limited versions of the directory might end up available.

  170. It is more cultural self-control.
  (Mr Baume) It is something that would clearly need to be discussed with the Government. I do not want to over-emphasise this approach but it is part of allowing more flexibility in terms of ways of getting access to information.

  David Hamilton: I have really enjoyed some of the comments that have been made because I was a Member for a time of the Scottish Parliament and I have been looking to see how it is progressing. I think it was Rosemary who said that if you started again you would not start from that position; you would start with something new. There are two things, Chairman, that might be helpful. One is that I have come to the view that we both have different agendas. As politicians we have to have accountability to the public out there by whom we have been elected and therefore people expect you to meet ministers, raise questions and so forth. That accountability the Civil Service does not have. There is always the position that an MP will ask questions which might be relevant and there is a balance in that which we need. Would it not be interesting to look at several cases, even in this Parliament, at the number of questions that came via civil servants and then analyse how many could have been answered by going through the library or through research? That may be something which may be quite helpful to us, to look pragmatically at this. The second thing is that at some point or other with regard to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, somewhere or other there will be a point where we will have to measure how effective your organisation has been. At that time that may be a good point to connect again with the Scottish Parliament. There are a number of Scottish MPs here and it would not be a bad thing if, for example, when they were up in the Scottish Parliament they could see how it is working as far as that is concerned. That from our point of view would be something that I think would be very helpful, if we knew that.

  Chairman: As Mr Hamilton has said, I think this has been a very rewarding, very positive and very interesting meeting. Can I thank Jonathan Baume, Mr Lorimer Mackenzie and Mr Charles Cochrane, representing their particular staff unions, on behalf of the Committee for the tremendous help which they have given to us this afternoon. I came here not knowing exactly what to expect, but I have to say I have been not only very pleasantly surprised but beyond that by the evidence that we have had and the frankness with which you have expressed your views on behalf of the 485,000 people that you represent and who work for government and therefore the people of this country. Can I thank you all very much indeed for the help you have given to the Committee.





 
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