Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 233-239)




  233. Leader of the House, can I very warmly welcome you here to this afternoon's meeting of the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure. We are very grateful to you for the memorandum which you have submitted, at our request, on the important subject of Parliamentary questions. We believe that this is a very, very critical and important inquiry that we are undertaking, and as I think you will be aware from a meeting we had this morning it goes, I think, in tandem very much with the important work which you are leading and which is currently being undertaken by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House. All Members of the Committee present will be asking questions, and may I begin with the first one which is fairly general. What, as Leader of the House, and from your experience of many years as a Member of Parliament, are the strengths and weaknesses of the current system of Parliamentary questions? What part does a reform of the questions procedure play in the wider process of modernising Parliament, in which you are currently so much involved? Which of the proposals set out in your memorandum, which we have all received and read, do you regard as the most important?

  (Mr Cook) Thank you very much, Chairman. Can I just first say that I am very keen that our two Committees should work closely together. It would not be helpful to what I think is our joint interests in taking forward improvement and modernisation of questions if the Modernisation and Procedure Committees were not to co-operate very closely. I warmly welcome the Inquiry the Committee is carrying out and I hope we can secure a timetable in which the Modernisation Committee in its report to the House can draw on and buttress the recommendations that you may come to in the course of your study. On the question of the strengths and weaknesses of question time, question time is, of course, at the heart of our process of scrutiny of government ministers. As you will be aware, I repeatedly assert the principle that good scrutiny makes for good government. That is my watchword and I want scrutiny to work well. One can then, of course, ask questions as to whether or not the way in which we use question time is really securing the best, most effective, scrutiny that it could. I will here, if I may, respond to the second element of your question, which was what are the most important elements in my memorandum towards modernisation. I would, if I may, identify two very important strategic objectives, which I hope will be shared by your Committee. The first is we really have to do something about the length of notice for oral question time. It was only when we began the study in the Modernisation Committee that I discovered for the first time that the tabling period of two weeks which we have at present is, actually, not the minimum it is the maximum. It is the first day on which you can actually put down questions for oral questions. Of course, since everybody does it that day it has also become the minimum. However, the minimum Standing Order provides for oral questions to be tabled a couple of days in advance of their answer, not that there would be any point whatsoever in attempting to do that. I think we have got somehow to achieve standing orders that reflect the spirit in which these standing orders were originally written. If you look back over the last few months there are some spectacular cases where the length of notice for oral questions has vitiated the topicality of question time. If I just take the Foreign Office questions, which I am particularly familiar with because of my previous role, when we came back in January there was not a single question on India, Pakistan and Kashmir, despite the fact that that was the lead front page story on foreign affairs. The next month there was not a single question on Gibraltar, although there was enormous interest in the negotiations with Spain—so much so that the Foreign Secretary did a PNQ at the end of question time because there was no question about it. Last week we did not have a single question in the Foreign Office question time on the Middle East, either the intifada or on the peace process. There was a question on Iraq which people used to get round to the Middle East but there was nothing on the Middle East. This gulf between the subject matter of question time and what is of interest to our constituents outside arose because all these questions were tabled a minimum of two weeks in advance and where there was a recess (in the case of Christmas and the New Year) tabled over a full month in advance. I do not think Parliament is going to restore itself as a central point of national debate unless we are talking about what the world outside is talking about, and we have to dramatically shorten that period of notice for question time. The other point I would stress is that I really do think we have to move with the times and allow new technology into the process in which we prepare, table and output our questions. Interestingly, there is quite a large lobby for this among the Whitehall departments whose Parliamentary Clerks are responsible for chasing up questions once they arrive at their department. At the present time we can, effectively, lose 24 hours between the question being tabled by the Member and actually surfacing with them. Even a few hours makes a big difference if you have only got three or four days in which to answer a question. Tabling the question by e-mail and putting the Table Office on e-mail would greatly speed up the process in which the question can move between the Table Office and the government departments, and gives a better chance to give a fair answer in fair time to Members' questions. It would also greatly increase the convenience and, therefore, the effectiveness of Members of Parliament. There is really no reason why a Member has to be in the House to table a question. Why should a Member who is absent on Parliamentary business be prevented from tabling a question? I would only end in a spirit of clarity, that when all is said and done the House of Lords now tables questions by e-mail; why on earth can we not do so in the House of Commons?

  Chairman: Maybe we have something to learn from the other place. Just so that you are aware, Mr Cook, we do have Professor Hinds here who is advising this Committee on technology and electronic communication. So we do have an expert here who clearly has heard what you have said. I now pass the questioning to John Burnett

Mr Burnett

  234. What do you think, therefore, would be the minimum feasible time for notice for an oral question? Would, say, two days' notice allow sufficient time for ministers and officials to be properly briefed? In that connection, I would like to know (not ever having been a minister) especially when you are a new minister—and you yourself became Secretary of State very shortly after the 1997 election—how much input time was devoted to preparing for questions? What sort of time was devoted by your officials preparing you not just for the question but the supplementaries as well?
  (Mr Cook) The answer to the first question is quite a lot of time, but then one should add the rider, as is the nature of political life—and I think we are all familiar with this, although ministers are not—quite a lot of time at the last possible moment.

  235. What is "quite a lot of time"?
  (Mr Cook) I would give the morning over to question time.

  236. The whole morning?
  (Mr Cook) I would try to keep my diary clear for the morning question time so I could focus. In the nature of the Foreign Secretary's job, keeping a diary clear is an impossible task because something happens somewhere in the world and you have to find time out to deal with it. But you would start with a clean sheet so you could focus on question time in the afternoon. In terms of tabling, that of course is consistent with a pretty short period of notice. I do have, of course, when I sit down to do that (as the present Foreign Secretary will have), extraordinarily detailed papers that have been diligently prepared by officials. The answer to your second question is a lot of effort goes in by departments preparing for question time, possibly sometimes on angles that might never come up. However, if you are the official responsible you want to cover all angles. I think, therefore, I would have to say to the Committee that there is a trade-off between shortening the period of notice and, as I recommend in my submission, the number of questions for which there is an available quota each time. When you pick it up you get a great big loose-leaf folder and that goes, in the same detail and the same voluminous background, up to question 40. I feel for the poor official who has slaved for days to produce their answer to question 39 in the full and demoralising knowledge that it will never, ever be reached. I think if we are going to ask officials to do the preparation at a much shorter period we have to radically alter the number of questions we are asking them to prepare for. I have effectively suggested we halve the numbers and I do not think I am being unrealistic in what I propose there.

  237. And minimum period of notice?
  (Mr Cook) I have not got any hard and fast prejudice on this matter and possibly not all my colleagues would concur, but I would personally think two days is not unreasonable, but I add the rider it has to be two working days. That I think will be reasonable.


  238. Before I call in Mr Iain Luke, could you indicate whether you believe that it is in any way abusing Parliamentary questions if a Member of your own party, or even myself as a Member of the opposition, would perhaps get in touch with your office and say to your Private Secretary "The purpose of my question is this. This is what I am trying to find out"? Do you think that that is an abuse of questions or do you think, actually, it is the best use of questions?
  (Mr Cook) I would not regard it as an abuse at all. In fact, if the Member has a particular angle that they want covered it is entirely rational for the Member to let the minister know what is the particular point he is trying to elicit so that the minister can focus on that point. Members are entitled to the best possible answer and if they give ministers warning of the particular angle they are looking for, that increases the chances that they will get answers to the point that concerns them.

Mr Luke

  239. We have talked about this in previous sessions with other people on the actual number of questions. We were looking at (and you mentioned halving the actual questions), including perhaps ten questions per session of question time giving more focus and, perhaps, even a categorisation of the actual questions to be asked, given the actual issues of the day, so that we have much more focus on question times and get more detailed answers back.
  (Mr Cook) I think that is a very interesting question. At paragraph 29 of my paper I suggest the new quota that we should have for oral question time. For instance, I suggest that we slash the number of questions that are tabled now from 40 to 20. I have never known anyone to reach question 30 and very rarely go anywhere near question 25. In modern times we have never, to my knowledge, reached question 20, although I think there was one case with the Ministry of Defence recently where three were linked and three were withdrawn.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 26 June 2002