Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 276-279)




  276. Can I welcome our witnesses to this meeting of the Procedure Committee, particularly Helen Irwin, whom I know very well, the Principal Clerk, Roger Phillips, the Deputy Principal Clerk, and again I think most of us know him well as we have come across him and all the help and advice that he can give in the Table Office, and also Janet Hunter, who is based in the Upper Table Office and, am I right to say to colleagues on the Committee, an expert on statistics?
  (Ms Hunter) Not quite an expert but I produced the statistics that the Committee should have.

  277. Then you are an expert on statistics. You know the purpose of our inquiry. This Committee and the House consider it to be a very important inquiry. I hope in a way it will be a watershed for change where parliamentary questions are concerned. There have been considerable expressions of concern about the current question process and we are therefore looking at it to see how it can best be changed. I therefore start with the first question following on from what I have just said because there is a very strong desire in the House for more topical questioning. It has been suggested that the minimum period of notice for oral questions should be considerably reduced from the present rule. What would be the practical implications both for Members, from your point of view, and for the Table Office and its staff of reducing the notice period to five or three or two sitting days? Which of these periods would in your view be most advantageous and what would be the effect on the timing of the cut-off and the shuffle?
  (Ms Irwin) The beauty of the present system is that Members know with great clarity what day they are tabling for, except round about the times of recess when the system is adjusted, so that on a Monday Members are tabling questions for Monday week. If one reduced the notice day period to five days that would remain the case, that on Monday Members would be tabling for the subsequent Monday. That makes the whole system straightforward and easy to understand. Reducing to two days is broadly the present minimum notice period and also the minimum notice period for named-day questions. The problem with that is that it produces an irregular pattern. Under the Standing Order notice of a question must appear on the notice paper at least two days in advance of the day the question is to be answered. That means that you table a named-day question on a Monday for a Thursday, Tuesday for Friday, Wednesday for Monday, Thursday for Tuesday and Friday for Wednesday. The last point immediately makes it clear that this might cause some problems if that period of notice was adopted because for Members to have to table their questions to the Prime Minister on a Friday for the subsequent Wednesday would probably not meet the needs of the House. Generally the system would be a bit difficult to work out. Members would have to come and check at the Office, albeit that the annunciator gives some information to Members. Three days would not make much difference. One would have the same sorts of uncertainties and unpredictabilities. We in the Table Office can operate any system. It is simply a question of a rota and if there is a rule we will adjust all the notices around the place and things will not be difficult. If one comes back to the notice period, say, for Prime Minister's Questions as an example, and if one takes it that tabling on a Friday for the subsequent Wednesday would be inconvenient, the question then is, would tabling on Monday for answer on a Wednesday be too short notice? Again, for PMs that might not be a problem but for, let us say, International Development, which also answers on a Wednesday, where Members table substantive questions, some of which might need quite a lot of work doing, the question is, would tabling on Monday give a department sufficient notice? That leads me into thinking about not so much the notice period itself but the notice for departments and the civil servants who have to do the briefing work. At the moment, as you know, the shuffle is at 6.30. It was originally at four for many years and after the last big Procedure Committee investigation it moved to five. You recommended not very long ago that it move to 6.30 and the Speaker authorised that as an experiment. To do the shuffle, and Janet will correct me if I am wrong, means about an hour's work for a complicated day, a bit less for a straightforward day where there is only one department. We would not be in a position to advise departments about the Questions tabled which had been successful in the shuffle until the middle of the evening if the shuffle is at 6.30. That, I think, might not be very convenient for departments because I imagine the civil servants doing the drafting might be sitting around in their offices waiting for us. I would envisage, if we had a very short period of notice, that instead of, as at present, giving departments the questions simply when they appear on the blue notices next morning, we would in the Office type up a list and get it faxed or e-mailed to the department so that they had a little bit more notice than the printing process allows. In order to give them any fair period of notice one might have to think, if one went to a minimum of two days, or even three, of bringing the time of the shuffle earlier. If the shuffle is earlier that might not be convenient for Members. The reason the time of the shuffle was extended to five and then 6.30 was to meet the convenience of Members who might not be in the House earlier. One then has to think, is there perhaps a more radical, slightly different approach to this? One which I think the Scots follow, and I know the Committee has visited Scotland, is that Members may table questions on a day earlier than the day on which the shuffle takes place.

  278. You are almost anticipating the question I was about to ask you because at present the maximum amount of notice for tabling orals is in practice the same as the minimum, ie, ten parliamentary sitting days. The idea of decoupling the two and allowing a maximum period of four weeks to some people seems attractive. What is your view of this proposal and how much of an extra burden would this place on your office, albeit the longer before the day that the question is answered that you table it, clearly the less topical it may become, but if it is a question which is merely seeking information, then quite clearly Government departments are going to be able to have details of the question very much in advance which is rather different and more beneficial in fact than the current situation. How does that fit in with the answer that you have just given?
  (Ms Irwin) Two things. I was not intending to suggest, when I suggested Members give notice on days earlier than the shuffle, that those notices would necessarily be printed earlier and transmitted to departments earlier because, as you know, we only pull out of the shuffle the top successful questions at the end of a random ballot. Departments would gain nothing and would acquire an awful lot of questions that were never going to be used if we were to send them questions submitted to the office in advance of the day of the shuffle. I think that would probably be counter-productive.

  279. Albeit it would be merely returning, would it not, to the situation which used to apply when every question that was tabled was printed, and if it did not get an oral answer with a supplementary it would be answered as a written question?
  (Ms Irwin) Yes, that is quite correct, Mr Chairman. I think probably all Members will have noticed that there is really quite a big difference between the types of questions Members table for oral answer and questions they table for written answer, and although—and I think I said this in my paper to you—the same rules apply to questions, in reality a lot of the questions that are put down for oral answer are a peg on which to hang subsequent supplementaries. I would doubt whether many Members actually wanted answers in writing to them. I think one of the motives behind the change some years ago to stop printing all the questions and only print the top ones in the shuffle was in order to reduce wasted effort all round in giving Members answers to questions they did not particularly want the answers to and, by so doing, occasioning a lot of extra work in departments. It might be counter-productive. I think the Leader of the House, when he gave evidence to you, suggested a sort of quid pro quo for reducing the notice period for questions, which was that there might be even fewer questions pulled out of the shuffle because it is unusual for question number 30 to be reached, so why have the civil servants going to a lot of effort to answer a question which is not going to be reached?

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