Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160
TUESDAY 19 MARCH 2002
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
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?
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 elseis
it broadband? I am speaking from a very non-tech point of view
hereit 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 trainingtraining
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
(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
(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
(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.