Examination of Witness (Questions 180-199)
PROFESSOR THE LORD NORTON OF LOUTH
TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2002
180. I am very interested in the point that you can remember only three occasions when a Prime Minister has been caught out at the despatch box. I well remember when this Committee last considered Prime Minister's Questions which was 1986 when we suggested changes. In effect the Government then came in and moved it to the one session on a Wednesday. A lot of the evidence we took from former Prime Ministers talked about the length of time taken out of the Prime Minister's week in preparing and researching for questions. It seems strange that you put the other slant on what they were complaining about. If a Prime Minister can get the upper hand at Question Time,they are hardly likely to want to go away from the open questions even though everybody complains about it.
(Lord Norton) Some Prime Ministers do recognise the value of taking the closed questions. The other point I was going to make was not looking at it from the point of view of Members in the House, but looking at it from the point of view of Ministers. There is an advantage if it is a closed question in that they are briefed on topics, so it is a way of drawing their attention to something before they come to the despatch box. If they then just come and are engaging in the partisan encounter in the chamber, there might be some advantage, at least if you managed to score a point and things like that, but looking at it from the point of view of the Minister, I am not sure it is necessarily that rewarding. If you are actually on top of your subject and you understand it, then you ought to welcome the opportunity to justify what you are doing to deal with it in a serious way. It is exactly the same with Select Committees. There are Ministers who do not like them because they feel threatened, they feel challenged, but there are Ministers who actually like Select Committees and certainly welcomed them when they were set up because it was an opportunity for them to be questioned and to justify what they were doing. Ministers who are confident in the policies they are pursuing and are on top of them actually welcomed the opportunity to justify them and to explain what they were doing. I would see it in a very constructive way if one were moving down that route and from a Minister's point of view there may be some value in it and a really good Minister might actually learn something.
181. Are you saying that you believe that at the moment parliamentary questions are abused, they become a sort of bear pit for scoring political points? I know from reading much of the material you have produced that you are concerned about the image of Parliament, that you think what goes on in the chamber in Question Time is in the main too negative, you would like to see it more positive and that questions should be tabled for the purpose of advancing a cause or ascertaining information. Is that a correct assumption?
(Lord Norton) More or less. I see it as putting questions to Government to force them to justify what Government are doing in a particular area, but basically yes, I concur with your drift that Question Time is extremely valuable. It could be strengthened in a way that would benefit Members, that would help the Government and certainly would be to the benefit of the House in terms of how it is perceived outside, both by the public but also by attentive public, that is those groups who are actually following what is going on and are affected by it.
182. I take your point about the imbalance away from a back-bench preserve to a front-bench prerogative and the way that Select Committees work where if a Minister slips a question there is an opportunity for other members of that committee to come back and bring him back on the beam. Do you think it would be feasible to give the Speaker the power, if a back-bencher's question were not answered the first time by a Minister, to give the back-bencher a second question to get closer or try to get the information he is wanting from the Minister, given that is the prime purpose of Question Time?
(Lord Norton) I agree with the gist of what you are getting at. There is one way of doing it which is in my memorandum which avoids the Speaker having to exercise his discretion and that is to allow the person with the question not only to have the first supplementary but to have the last supplementary. The value of doing that would address your point: if it has not been answered the questioner can come back to it, but it avoids putting the Speaker in the situation of having to wonder whether it had really been answered and whether he should give the Member a second bite at the cherry. If you work in the second bite of the cherry as a matter of practice, then it does not put the Speaker in a potentially difficult situation, but it does address the problem you have identified.
183. You have called for training for Members and their staff as well in dealing with questions. Why do you think Members are currently ignorant of the system and how far would formal training remedy this when you are presumably not calling for mandatory training but for a voluntary system?
(Lord Norton) Indeed; yes. The reason I think there should be training is not only to make Members more aware of the actual process, in other words "here is the Table Office, here is how you go about it"; that is one area where one gets fairly well informed initially. The point I am making in the memorandum is precisely training not just as formal training. I refer to it slightly more as having a normative element, in other words not just explaining to Members how to do it but the reason for doing it, trying to educate Members almost into the value of the process but also trying to educate Members into what happens if you abuse the process, if you use it to put down lots of questions for the purpose of drawing attention to yourself and so on, in other words alert Members to the consequences of their actions, put it in a wider context because Members will either be influenced by Whips or other Members or simply driven by self interest: it is my interest, I want to table lots of questions, I want to draw attention to myself.
184. No amount of education will prevent some Members doing exactly what you describe.
(Lord Norton) Absolutely, and you cannot necessarily bring in mechanisms which would prevent that.
(Lord Norton) That is a possibility but from a training aspect it is actually educating Members about what the process is about, what the purpose of Question Time is and educating Members as to the consequences.
186. May I go back to quotas, because I would strongly reject any quota or any inhibition on any Member of the House. You said "possibly". Do you really mean that?
(Lord Norton) I had raised the issue of possibly limiting but the presumption I wrote into the memorandum was that one should try to avoid that if at all possible because it does fetter Members. I want to leave Members as unfettered as possible. A quid pro quo for that is that you have to try to generate a culture, educate Members, so that they are not actually going to abuse their potential to table as many questions as they want. If there are lots of Members who keep tabling questions and it dilutes the value of the process, then you might need to think about quotas. I would rather not do that. I would rather like to leave it so that Members have the opportunity there as a weapon if they need it to facilitate the campaign. Questions are most effective when they are used sparingly rather than when they are over-used. I want to educate Members in terms of the consequences for the House if they pursue their narrow self-interest and for the relationship of the House to Government if so many questions are tabled that they become effectively meaningless. That is what I was getting at by the formal training I was talking about, to try to inculcate a certain culture within it.
187. There may be a serial questioner on this Committee but if a serial questioner were on this Committee he or she would probably assert to you that they might draw on 100 and strike gold on one.
(Lord Norton) Indeed.
188. It is all worth while because they do that. What do you have to say to that?
(Lord Norton) I would say that the one is probably swamped by the 99 in terms of the effect the whole system is having. This is one of the problems and this is implicit in some of the things you are looking at, that the present system does perhaps induce Members to be lazy, certainly in terms of taking written questions. They are getting answers which are already on the public record and could be got quite easily. There is that diluting process and this again comes back to my point about educating Members only to table questions when they actually want answers. That would have greater effect. There is that diluting process because Members are not sufficiently discriminating themselves in tabling questions.
189. What is "abuse"? I think John Burnett has raised a very important point. You must not and Parliament should not fetter its own Members in seeking to obtain information to advance a cause which is really what they are elected for.
(Lord Norton) Indeed.
190. Putting a specific question to you in respect of numbers, if my memory serves me correctly, last week on Wednesday and Thursday one single Member tabled 700 questions for written answer. May I put you in an invidious position? Do you think, as somebody who knows a lot about Parliament, that that is an abuse of the question procedure?
(Lord Norton) I would have to read the 700 questions to give you a definitive answer. On the face of it, I would have thought it would be undesirable to table that number of questions.
191. On the basis that everyone did the same.
(Lord Norton) Not just on the basis of everyone doing the samecertainly if everyone did the same the system would collapsebut simply in terms of 700 questions. My view is that the more you table the less effect each one has and you are diluting the process. What I certainly do is very rarely table questions but when I do it is something I want to pursue, it is something in my area, and I put down one question. If the answer is unsatisfactory, I can pursue it but my view is that the more you table, the less impact each one has. I would have thought as well that there was a certain danger in having a reputation as a serial questioner and that it actually counted against you.
192. We have questioned serial questioners and the issue in the end is whether they in fact wrote the questions themselves and to what intent. In your memorandum you do put the case for limiting the number of written questions to be tabled.
(Lord Norton) What I was trying to convey was that I should like to avoid that if possible and that is why I prefer going down the training route. If Members themselves engage in some degree of self-regulation, self-constraint then you do not need to impose that limit. It is in Members' own interests to go for quality rather than quantity. If you have a reputation as someone who only tables a question every so often on a topic you know something about, a serious question, you are taken seriously. If you table lots of questions and get a reputation as a serial questioner, particularly if they are on every topic under the sun, I suspect you are not going to have that impact with the departments that you would like to have.
Chairman: Is it not seen as a virility question? I have put that question to other witnesses who have come before us. Not only is it a virility symbol for individual Members, I feel also that it may be a virility symbol for political parties that they are tabling more questions than any other party. Is this your understanding? Is this worthwhile?
Mr Illsley: I can give an example of being in a whip's office when the Chief Whip actually told each of the regional whips to encourage their Members to table more questions because he wanted to improve the profile of numbers of questions tabled. One of our back-benchers tabled 2,000 in one day.
Mr Luke: Some parties do publish these to the press in different parts of the country as a virility symbol.
193. Coming from a local government background, I have to say I was horrified on arriving here at the amount of waste that goes on and inefficiency and the like. I certainly feel that people when tabling questions do not look to see whether that question has ever been tabled before and do not look to see whether the information is available. Given the intranet which we now have, I cannot see why that goes on if it really is about obtaining information. That is what I do if I want information: I look to see whether it is already there. Should Ministers be saying, "I'm not going to answer that. It's already there"?
(Lord Norton) On the first point about the virility symbol, it is seen by many as a virility symbol and used as such. Against that one does have to bear in mind that as with virility generally some people might also think that a consequence is social irresponsibility. You get that with Question Time. It is a double-edged weapon and that came across in some of the evidence you have had so far. On the one hand Members may be saying they have tabled X number of questions and they write to the local press and the local press say the local Member has tabled X questions and he or she is very good. Then somebody asks how much it costs to ask a parliamentary question and then it becomes that this Member is being irresponsible by tabling so many questions. It works both ways. I come back to my broader question of not just educating Members but educating those out there that tabling questions is not a sign of virility; it may be just that you have a very active researcher and that it is not necessarily very productive in terms of squeezing information out of Ministers. There is a wider educative process that distinguishes between quality and quantity. One question might have tremendous impact, 50 questions might have no impact at all, yet if you are doing it solely in quantitative terms it might be completely misleading.
194. I think Meg has a very good point. An abrupt answer from a Minister to a question which is either irrelevant or has been answered is probably one of the best ways of dealing with it, but I should be very anxious not to inhibit or fetter Members in any way. I had a dreadful vision that you would get a serial questioner to do the training.
(Lord Norton) You have touched on an important question: who does the training? One needs a mix of people in terms of staff but also those outside to talk about the system as well as the longer serving Members who actually understand the process and how to get the most out of the process, understanding the system and how to press the right buttons, which does not necessarily mean just pressing all the buttons indiscriminately without thinking about it.
195. Available to Members would be a course of some sort, probably with a former Minister, maybe a senior civil servant where they could go and spend a bit of time learning about it.
(Lord Norton) Yes, exactly and those who have served in the House to explain how to make use of questions and how to look up the information. Still, being in academia, if I want information then I usually know where it is and go and get it and I would not be tabling a parliamentary question. This is one of the problems. Quite often Ministers are being asked for information they have given before but Members do not know or perhaps do not care whether that information has been made available previously or is that readily accessible. I can see a strong argument for Ministers sayingand they sometimes dothat this information is already in the public domain and available at X. I know some Members do not like that, because they do want the information, but you can have a situation where a Minister says it is already publicly available, here it is, but it has already been published in X or Y and you could have found this out for yourself.
196. Perhaps there should be some training for Ministers on how to answer questions.
(Lord Norton) Yes. I am a strong believer in training not only for Members when they come in but Ministers as well.
197. In the same way that since devolution Ministers have been required to say it is a devolved matter they are speaking about, perhaps Ministers should say this information is already in the public domain and they do not wish to answer the question.
(Lord Norton) The training takes us slightly wider than the question per se but certainly I do believe in training for Ministers and some is now provided for junior Ministers at the Centre for Management and Policy Studies. I do believe that senior Ministers as well could do with training. The problem is that Ministers come in and they have to re-invent the wheel because they are not given any training in how to run their department. They go on observation or just play it by ear.
198. Surely it is not the Minister who is writing the answers to the questions, it is the civil servants.
(Lord Norton) If they are not trained, that is correct. I think Ministers ought to be trained to take greater interest in the answers they are given. This comes back to my point about Ministers re-inventing the wheel. If you look at answers, including written answers, you can see some Ministers who do take an interest in the answers and add their own bit as well; value added comes from the Minister. Others clearly just pass on what has been provided by officials. It varies enormously depending on individuals. They come in, they get a senior office, the Prime Minister asks them to do X and they say yes, they get a department and they are in. They usually do not even discuss with the Prime Minister what they are meant to do. I have done some research on the role of senior Ministers and I did interview quite a lot of former Cabinet Ministers. My last question in a semi-structured series was: if you were giving advice to a new Minister what would it be? At that point I got a stream of "This is what they ought to do, which clearly was what I should have done when I was in office, but did not and realised towards the end this is what I should have done and this is the advice I would give to anybody coming in". They all had their own way of doing it. There is a case for disseminating best practice advice in all respects and that would include how to answer questions as well, if it meant Ministers were actually injecting more of themselves into the action, in other words taking an interest in the actual answers rather than relying on officials.
199. In order to get some statistics onto the record, of the 634 written parliamentary questions which appeared on the notices of motion for Thursday 11 April, 314 were tabled by one Member, which was 49.5 per cent of the questions. In fact, additional information for the Committee, he actually brought into the Table Office approximately 640 questions on Thursday of last week, on top of 423 on Wednesday, the remainder of which were either carded or merged, that is consolidated into one question. I am just interested in what your observation would be on that. I am not trying to lead you in any way.
(Lord Norton) For the reasons I gave earlier I would not regard it as helpful for a Member to do that. Coming back to an earlier point, I am reluctant to provide a clear limit on it. I think they have to be educated on this. If one were to look at serial questionersand I would have to go away and do a study to see whether I might be justified in arguing thismy impression from looking at past serial questioners is that serial questioners burn themselves out. I would have to check that. It may be that you get a serial questioner and after two or three sessions they burn themselves out. I would have to do a study to see whether that was the case.
Mr Burnett: There is no sign of that in respect of one or two of our colleagues.