Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 260-275)




  260. Minister, this is a very progressive Committee and I give notice that we are likely to be visiting Scotland to see precisely how the Scottish Parliament is dealing with this matter. Can I, before I ask Meg to come on in this very matter, ask you a specific question relating to some views you expressed a moment or two ago? You said that you would give Members a "generous quota" for the Named Day Question.
  (Mr Cook) I said "even a generous quota", I am not lobbying for a generous quota.

  261. What I am trying to find out from you, Mr Cook, is what, in your view, is a generous quota?
  (Mr Cook) If you take the totality of questions asked, speaking from memory the current number of Named Day Questions is 48 per cent of the total. That is within a rapidly rising total. I, personally, would have thought, as a rule of thumb—and I am not going to pretend that this has any particular scientific basis—if one-tenth of the questions tabled were urgent it is just about plausible—urgency, here, being defined by you and me to have it before a public meeting or event, or the public's need to know within a specified period before another external public event takes place. I would have thought, in those circumstances, 10 per cent of the total is quite high.

  262. Can you put a figure on the 10 per cent of that total?
  (Mr Cook) It will be difficult. It would require a little bit of short arithmetic, but if we take the current session—and this is only up to the end of January, from June 2001 to January 2002—we had 41,000 questions tabled. That is a daily rate double the previous three or four sessions. It really is cumulating. Ten per cent of that would be about 4,000. So you are still left with quite a large number of questions available for priority use.

  263. You would not say that the members should have 100 questions for this purpose in the course of a parliamentary session?
  (Mr Cook) 100 would be very generous indeed, because that would aggregate at 60,000 questions, which would exceed our present total. If every Member was tabling, say, ten parliamentary questions in the course of a session, you are still going to end up with 6,500 questions.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Rosemary McKenna

  264. I wanted to pursue a related issue in relation to electronic tabling. One of the things we have heard from Members who feel that there are problems with the current system is the problem of actually having to table on a specific day or a specific issue. Say you were out of the country, you had gone on a visit and you had seen something on which you think, "Well that's an important issue and I want to raise that as a Foreign Office question", you cannot do that. Would you support the ability electronically to table from elsewhere and table from, say, a period up to the day? As you said at the outset, at the moment that is the first day you can table on for oral questions, whereas effectively it becomes the day. Instead, you could have them electronically from, say, a week before or something, and they would be sitting there and dealt with on a specific day. Would you support that as a process?
  (Mr Cook) I think that if we are going to have electronic tabling of written questions, there is no logical reasoning for resisting electronic tabling of oral questions. I think that you need to have a particular point on the day when the shuffle takes place to decide who is in the top 10, or the top 20, or whatever figure you recommend, but I can see no reason why that should not be done electronically.

Mr Burnett

  265. It can be incredibly frustrating for Members and the public that during the long summer recess questions cannot be tabled. In your memorandum you do not support the idea that questions should be tabled during the summer recess. However, would a change to the rules to allow tabling in the recess other than in August really impose a great burden on the government machine? I would add that most Members do believe that the summer recess is too long. I appreciate also that Ministers, officials and the staff of the House need summer holidays as well. So do you favour dealing with this—which is a real problem—by curtailing the summer recess and allowing questions, say, after the recess, during the party-political conference season?
  (Mr Cook) First of all, I totally agree with your comment on the long recess. I have always found it a little bit difficult to describe the summer recess, because for those of us in Scotland it is autumn almost anyway. That is why I have put forward proposals that we should rise a bit earlier in July and compensate for that by coming back in September.

  266. In early September?
  (Mr Cook) Yes. The big criticism of the House's long recess occurs in September when the rest of the world is back from holiday, when all the press lobby has filled up, when they are under pressure from their editors to write copy, they have no copy, in the sense that the House did not sit yesterday, so they write copy saying that the Parliament is not sitting and it is a disgrace. So I think there would be a lot of sense in us being back then, and I think it is very important in terms of the proper scrutiny by Parliament and Government that we should not be absent for so long. I think there is an issue that questions are not allowed between the end of July and the beginning of October. That cannot be satisfactory. If we secure that change—which I hope to have in place for next year—then of course questions could be tabled as soon as the House returns in September. You have therefore diminished the period by half during which questions cannot be tabled. Personally, I am in favour of us accepting written questions during the subsequent conference recess which we have identified, rising again in September for the conference season. All Ministers are around for the conference season, nobody is using that time as a holiday period. It would be perfectly reasonable for questions to be tabled then. As you say, Ministers and their staff, and indeed our Parliamentary Clerks, are also entitled to their holiday. I think that during the bona fide holiday period of the end of July/August period I personally would not wish us to get into the question of accepting questions.

  267. This is a difficult point, because some of us have had experience in the month of August of a really severe crisis in our constituencies. Often Ministers are quite quick and swift in dealing with correspondence, but there is no substitute for getting the Minister's concentration than tabling a written question, especially with a named day. Should there be some ability, do you think, in matters of a really serious crisis for people in one's constituency, or national crisis, that certain questions be allowed in the holiday period of August?
  (Mr Cook) No, I think you either allow them or you do not, otherwise you are back to the discretion of the Clerks—will they or will they not accept that this question fits these particular circumstances. There is also a wider point here that every department has a duty Minister during the holiday period, and that duty Minister will field all enquiries that come up at a ministerial level and in correspondence too. In a large department like DEFRA, or DTLR or the Home Office that particular duty Minister may not of course be familiar with the particular area of the questioning or of the issue being raised, and therefore I think it would be unreasonable to have a situation in which a duty Minister not familiar with the issue was replying to a parliamentary question. That is why I think it would be wise for Parliament, as well as for Government, if we were to confine the tabling and answering of official parliamentary questions to that time, so that the responsible Minister is there to deal with them.


  268. Could I just put a supplementary to what John Burnett has asked. While I feel you are very confident, and rightly so too, that you will get your changes through in respect of the summer parliamentary recess, if you do not, would you be prepared to support the tabling of questions for written answer and for named day written answer during the month of September? I fully support the fact that when we rise, whenever it might be, at the end of July and through August there should be a period of silence and non-tabling of questions, but would you yourself support the tabling of questions in September, if the changes to which you have referred as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee were not implemented?
  (Mr Cook) I have no plan B at the moment, so I am going for broke, as it were. I would not want to speculate on what we do in the event of a rebuff, but plainly I would not close my mind to the kind of response that you describe. Can I just make one additional point? Whilst I have been quite robust in saying that during that summer recess, July and August, we should not accept questions, I do think, as I mentioned in my memorandum, we could be answering questions, and I do find it unsatisfactory that on the last day of sitting you bring up Hansard and every second question is answered with "I will write to the hon. Member." Rather than have this dealt with by letter, which is necessarily a private exchange, I see no reason at all why we should not, for a fortnight in the summer recess, have a special edition of Hansard in which we print the answers to the written questions that we could not get out before the House rose.

  Chairman: I thank you for your modest concession.

Mr Luke

  269. You spoke earlier about the issue of closed and open questions to the Prime Minister. During the previous session we were asked to discuss the issue of backbenchers. What happened was that one of the issues was that there was a feeling that obviously the system had been abused, and that the closed system was put down for specifically getting the answer that people wanted back at that time. So there was an issue of looking at how the House had built on the use of Westminster Hall debates to extend discussion on specific areas that departments want to talk over. One of the issues we talked about with Mr Graham Allen at one stage was the issue of using Westminster Hall and specifically allowing a session with departmental Ministers with a portfolio on a specific issue which was causing concern, to allow a session where Members could come along with open questions, in the interest of extending backbench scrutiny of specific issues. I do not know how you would feel about that?
  (Mr Cook) I would need to consult with my colleagues who are more likely to be exposed to this novel procedure than myself. My specific interest is the narrow one of the parliamentary process and management. I retain, I think, my broad prejudice in favour of questioning taking place on a clear, specific, preannounced scene. I would have a worry, Mr Luke, that if we went down that road people would sharpen their pencils and suck the end of them until they came up with a clever-dick question of the kind we currently see in the Chamber. I do not actually think that that either enhances the process or the parliamentary reputation.

  270. Obviously we have to look at your own session on Thursday, because you do take open questions, do you not?
  (Mr Cook) Yes.

  271. At the end of the day we realise that a problem may occur, and this could be an issue of topicality, a specific issue that was relevant at the time, so obviously fixing a slot for the Minister would be a difficult process, but is there something that maybe could be done?
  (Mr Cook) Yes, but Thursday has always been good, clean fun. I enjoy it, I think my audience enjoys it. A little bit of the stress is taken out of it, though, by the fact that I am not the responsible Minister for the questions I am being asked. There is therefore tolerance and good nature in these exchanges. With a Minister they would be rather sharper, if they were actually dealing with the Minister responsible for the area of questioning. I think also one of the great values of the Thursday Business Statement is that it provides a notice-board on which Members can pin up issues of concern to their constituents, which is a very important parliamentary function. Some of those issues raised may be the talking point of their constituency, and it is entirely legitimate that there should be an opportunity in Parliament when they can be raised.

  Chairman: Making an observation from the Chair, before I ask Desmond Swayne to ask the last questions, there are many of us in the House who think that Business Questions on the Thursday are the most relevant and important question time of the week, mainly because the Speaker seeks to call many, if not all, Members who are rising on the Thursday, and it does give Members an opportunity which very often they do not get at any other question time during the week. So from the Chair may I say how much Business Questions are appreciated. I think really that was one of the purposes of what Ian Luke was saying: that we would like, in a way, more opportunities for this sort of occasion. I merely leave that with you as a point.

Mr Swayne

  272. Lord Norton suggested that we could learn from the experience of the House of Lords with their unstarred questions. My understanding is that that is virtually what we do with the Adjournment Debates for which Members ballot. Do you see any advantages in moving to something rather more similar to what the House of Lords have in their unstarred questions?
  (Mr Cook) I think your view of the unstarred questions and our Adjournment Debates is pretty close. The proposal being put to me is that we should look at unstarred question which provides for mini-debates rather than simply the sort of very brief Thursday question time we have; and also the fact that a couple of times a week they have a topical question added to that, which enables them to be relevant to the issue of the day or the issue of yesterday. Indeed, I went to the House of Lords earlier this week to observe them doing unstarred questions. I certainly think that we should be willing to learn lessons from other legislatures, and before we roam the world looking for those lessons, we should wander down the corridor and see what lessons there are in our own building. But the culture in the House of Lords is so very different. I therefore think we have to have a degree of commonsense about the extent to which we simply pluck a procedure from the House of Lords and import it into the much more heated culture of the Commons Chamber. Indeed, I could see the exchanges I listened to—the very sober, very serious and unheated exchanges in the Lords—having a totally different character in the Chamber where people do interrupt and jeer, for example, in a way that they do not do in the House of Lords. Can I just go back for one second to the question of the informal changes. As I said, I think serious question time is much better done on a clear, designated question that specifies the topic. I can see much merit in more informal exchanges between Ministers and Members of Parliament. Indeed, maybe we can achieve some procedural changes that help to provide for a more mature and more serious culture in the Commons. It would be possible to have those exchanges on a cross-party basis, not just on a single-party basis. But that is not necessarily the process of Parliament. The process of Parliament is always going to have a degree of formality, and quite properly so. Maybe outwith the confines of the formal sittings in Parliament or Westminster Hall there could be more opportunities for informal exchanges, but I think that is a separate process from how we tackle reform of scrutiny directly.


  273. Following up Desmond Swayne's question with a brief question to you which I hope you will be able to answer, do you feel that an opportunity for Opposition parties, particularly obviously HM Opposition, but not excluding minority Opposition parties, putting what one would describe—and you used the word yourself—as a "topical" question to the Government on a regular basis for a specific period of time, might well, as it were, balance the huge advantage that the Executive currently has in respect of its position and, for instance, the making of statements?
  (Mr Cook) I would not want to concede that the making of a statement was necessarily an advantage to the Executive. I think it is also important to Parliament, and an important element of scrutiny, which is why Opposition are vigorously demanding more statements not fewer. I would want to reflect on the possibility of a topical question of the kind to which you referred. In my mind, it is a matter which I would hope to discuss with colleagues. Indeed, I would welcome the Procedure Committee discussing it as part of its inquiry. One point I would make is that, and we discussed this earlier, how do we make Oral Question Time more topical? I think it is important and essential that we do that. Of course, what is a topical issue at the moment may not happen to be within the subject area of the department which has oral questions, and therefore perhaps one needs to think creatively and innovatively as to whether there are ways in which issues which do not belong to that department can be raised at question time.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Mr Swayne

  274. How would you react to the suggestion that the Opposition might be given a guaranteed number of Private Notice Questions, and perhaps for that sacrifice some of the Opposition days that they currently have?
  (Mr Cook) The trade-off might be tempting. I think I would want to have carefully thought over any such proposals. If it were put in as a trade-off, I am sure I would be willing to sit down and contemplate it. Of course, there are rules for Private Notice Questions which have to be satisfied in terms of their urgency and their basic importance, and therefore it does not lend itself in its present format to an arithmetical quota in advance. I think also one is bound to say that there may also be a trade-off. If we do go down the road of topical questions, what then is the point of the present PNQ system? There may be an issue to be addressed there as well. All of these things I think have to be taken in the round. I am very conscious that there is a danger, when we approach modernisation, that we take issues one at a time, without looking at the cumulative effect, which is why I welcomed the way in which you referred to potential trade-offs that may be there. Of course, in fairness to the nation out there, they do require a government that functions and does its business. That does mean that Ministers have to be able to spend some time at their desk getting on with business. That is very much in the interests of Parliament as well as of the citizens. We therefore want to make sure that whatever changes we make entirely enable Parliament to function and enable Ministers to get on with that.


  275. Minister, can I thank you very much indeed for the forthright and very positive way in which you have dealt with all the questions. Can I thank my colleagues for the contributions which they have made, but particularly, Mr Cook, can I thank you for coming and spending an hour and ten minutes with us, which I think has been very worth while and, I can say from the Chair, I believe has been positively helpful in the important inquiry which we are undertaking. We are very grateful to you. Thank you.
  (Mr Cook) Thank you very much, Chairman. If I can help in any written form to follow up any points, I would be very pleased to do so.

  Chairman: Thank you for the offer. Thank you very much.

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