Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)

MS HELEN IRWIN, MR ROGER PHILLIPS AND MS JANET HUNTER

TUESDAY 21 MAY 2002

  320. A person comes into the Vote Office on the day because he has got a card to tell him he has to come in because of a contest. He or she is then informed that the question has already been asked the previous day. He or she then accepts that. How much extra work would it be if you then said, "Why would you want that information?" For example, send a card to me saying, "Why do you want that information on a set day? Why do you need to have it then?", because that would reduce the named-day questions if you tell Members, "You do not really need a date for this", and then the Member would have to come back.
  (Mr Phillips) If you are asking me whether we could apply a rule asking Members to justify why they should have a Named Day Question, clearly Clerks cannot apply subjective rules. There would have to be a set of objective criteria against which, just out of simple justice, we could point to the Member and say, "Well excuse me, Mr Hamilton, but this is your quota, you're one over", or "Excuse me, but there isn't an upcoming debate which this refers to", or whatever the rule is that the House seeks to impose.

  321. Then in that case would it not be appropriate that when the question goes in there is also a section there which indicates that it has to be on a named day, if it is on a named day?
  (Ms Irwin) We could invent some such set of criteria. I think they would need to be blessed by the Committee and the House before they could be applied. I suspect that even if there were a set of criteria—for example, a debate coming up—there would be circumstances in which Members disagreed with the Office's interpretation of those criteria, and one might end up with a lot of appeals for Mr Speaker against refusals by the Office, which I think would be an uncomfortable outcome of a recommendation for quotas. I think the Committee has to decide how big or how small a quota to recommend. This really is much more a matter for Members than for us, but we could certainly operate a system of quotas.

Chairman

  322. So what you are saying is that a quota system could be administered?
  (Ms Irwin) Yes. Could I just say that it possibly would be best if it were self-policing—in other words, if it were a daily quota so that Members did not have to wait while their record was checked. If we had a daily quota, Members would very quickly get into a habit of policing it. Of course, some Members might then put all their questions down for the named day, so the number of Named Day Questions might go up, but they might be spread.

  323. Is it your belief or understanding that if there were a quota on Named Day Questions it might improve the answers that Members get from the departments?
  (Ms Irwin) I think it would be a reasonable expectation that there would be a reduction in the number of holding answers.

  Chairman: Thank you. We now move on to Eric Joyce who has a series of questions which I know he wishes to put to our witnesses.

Eric Joyce

  324. You have already answered questions about electronic tabling. Do you think it would increase the number of questions that were put down?
  (Ms Irwin) I do not know whether you need to impose some kind of limit, but my expectation is that it would increase the number. By how much depends on some of the other factors around electronic tabling of questions, principally who writes them, whether they are written by the Member or whether they are written by a researcher, or whether they are written by an outside body or organisation which sends them to a Member and asks them to table them.

  325. On verification—which is, I guess, one of the key issues of submission by e-mail—it seems to me that you can either have a fairly complex system (and I refer to the technical expertise behind me), so you can have a fairly complex system like swipe cards and so forth, or you can have a system which relies very much on the word, if you like, of the Member that it is theirs and that they know it is actually being submitted. Each has, I guess, both strengths and weaknesses. Do you have any comments on either of those systems?
  (Ms Irwin) I think you are right, those are the two poles. The House of Lords simply take an authorisation from a Peer that they may accept questions coming in by e-mail and, as far as I am aware, have not encountered any problems with it, but of course the scale of questions in the House of Lords is very, very different from this House, so they probably, frankly, recognise the style of the Peer writing the question. In Scotland they have a slightly different system, I think, in that a Member has to authorise the Office to receive questions from identified, specified e-mail addresses. One thing we have thought about was whether the parliamentary network—the PDVN—itself could be the sort of wall around the system, so that electronic questions could only be tabled from addresses on the network such as either Members' offices here or in their constituencies.

Chairman

  326. Or in their constituency or their home?
  (Ms Irwin) Yes, if they were on the network, via the present Citrix connection. The PCD are doing quite a lot of work on that, and I presume the Committee has had some material from PCD about this. It boils down to how much certainty you want to build in that the question originates with the particular Member. We all know that Members table questions, Members pre-sign question forms, and it would be invidious of me to tell you here, Mr Chairman, whose question form this is, but I have here an example—and the Office receives them by accident. Quite frequently when a pile of questions comes in from a particular Member—not one particular Member, but from Members—some of them will be blank pieces of paper with a signature on the bottom. Members trust their researchers. I know that in some cases the researcher will know more about the subject matter than the Member, and the Member is probably using their researcher's expertise to draft questions for them. I think that the point at which the Committee needs to be worried about authentication is the risk that the system might be genuinely abused. The House is clearly open to hackers trying to get in. Members are significant public figures, and someone might try to table a question for entirely mischievous reasons on a Member's behalf. As I alluded to a minute or two ago, there are many organisations who, as we know, try to get questions tabled in the House by asking Members to table them for them. There is nothing improper about that if a Member is doing it knowingly and the questions are otherwise in order. However, if an organisation with which a Member has some sort of a financial relationship—they were an adviser, for example—submitted questions directly electronically in a Member's name, there is a risk that a Member could breach the advocacy rule prohibiting the initiation of parliamentary proceedings from organisations from which they have benefited. I do not think it is an entirely far-fetched worry; I think it is one that the Committee should bear in mind.

  327. Could this be covered if e-mails or electronic questions were only able to be within the wall of the PDVN?
  (Ms Irwin) I am not a technical expert, as you know, Mr Chairman. You would need to take much better qualified technical advice than from me.

  328. I agree with you. Professor Hynds, who is advising us, I am sure is hearing what we are saying. I am concerned, like you are, that there could well be a lobbying organisation which could have got the code or number of the Member's swipe card or whatever and copied it, or in some other way they are able to identify themselves as the Member for X. They could table a whole series of questions without that Member ever knowing that the questions had been tabled in his name until he perhaps saw them on the Order Paper.
  (Ms Irwin) That is the ultimate that I am suggesting might happen. I should stress, I am not trying, Mr Chairman, in any way to suggest that we think that electronic tabling of questions should not be allowed. The Office is generally committed to using IT wherever we can.

  Chairman: I think we can tell you that it is almost inevitable.

  Mr Swayne: Steady on!

Chairman

  329. I said "it is almost inevitable". I cannot anticipate the Committee, but I fear, from the strength of opinion in the House which resulted from the survey that this Committee put out, that there is overwhelming support for the electronic tabling of questions. Whether we recommend it or not, at the end of the day the decision, as you know, Helen, rests with the House.
  (Ms Irwin) Indeed. I think the Committee has to decide whether it wants to recommend a system which is relatively straightforward and not terribly expensive, which would involve some additional work being done in the House's PDVN system and a bit of software work in our Office, or whether you want to go for something which is more secure, closer to the sort of thing the banks do with I think what are called electronic keys or swipe cards, as you mentioned, using the parliamentary pass. My understanding is that that would be significantly more expensive, but it would be significantly more secure, and I think the Committee has to decide where it wants the balance to rest.

Eric Joyce

  330. On the practicalities of dealing with questions, would it still be carded, if the question was an appropriate one, if it were done by e-mail? I think that in your submission you said that that is sometimes done and that you deal with EDMs and queries by e-mail, when required. Is that how it is going to be done?
  (Mr Phillips) We page people on requests. We do not actually e-mail them so far.
  (Ms Irwin) But we have an e-mail address and we are accustomed to having queries from a handful of Members by e-mail, though I have to say that most Members do not use that. I would envisage, if questions were received electronically—at least, I am advised by colleagues who know more about IT than I do—that we should not talk about e-mailing questions, that is not the most sensible route, but one should talk about using a web-based system where Members fill in a template. I would envisage that we would build into the system in the Table Office some means of automatically telling the Member that the question had been received, because you cannot guarantee the time an e-mail arrives, and also an e-mail card instead of a cardboard card if there was a problem with the question. I would be very reluctant, I think, to go beyond that into an e-mail exchange with the Member about the text of the question if it needed significant change. That might build in quite long delays because, as you will understand, the Clerks in the Office are always going to have to give priority to the Member who walks in, but we would send an electronic version of the present card saying, "Please ring the Office or please come in."
  (Mr Phillips) I think a different set of problems arises, Mr Joyce, between oral questions and written questions. Whenever we are discussing electronic means of communication I think we need to bear in mind that the two things are completely separate. We are a paper-based system, and I think that until several years hence we will remain so, so we would receive everything on paper, print it out, examine it in the traditional way and then contact the Member. In the case of written questions, there is not a deadline, so we can send an electronic card. When the Member telephones, we can talk about it and the business is done. Particularly if you change the deadline for oral questions to something quite close there is a problem. If we are receiving all the questions that way and the paper is printed out, clearly Members who are present take precedence. So by the time we look at the question, decide we have to card it, send the card and the Member may no longer be in his office or her office, there are problems associated with making sure it goes into the "shuffle". Therefore, I think we would issue a health warning about use of e-tabling for oral questions too close to the deadline. If Mr Hamilton's viewpoint is adopted and we are more liberal, so you can send it in a week in advance, or three days in advance or whatever, then of course that particular problem tends to be mitigated. I think that oral questions are an especially difficult category to cope with and, of course, we could not in realistic terms, as Helen has said, enter into correspondence by e-mail.
  (Ms Irwin) Perhaps I could go on, Mr Chairman, to say that you said earlier that this was potentially some sort of Pandora's Box. It is certainly true that everything is related to everything else, and I think that if the Committee were minded to recommend that oral questions could be tabled by e-mail, one would then need to revisit the question of tabling oral questions by post. You will recollect that in 1991 the Committee recommended that oral questions must be handed into the Office in person. The reason for that was to try to prevent syndication, which I think probably it is fair to say it has not done. It may be that you would want to recommend that oral questions could be delivered by post, and if there was more than one day on which oral questions could arrive in the Office then that might be quite convenient for Members too. It is not, I think, terribly practical if all oral questions have to come in on the same day and rely on the post.

  331. I have a couple more points to put to you. If there was a big upsurge in the amount of questions put down, what would the resource implications be for your Office?
  (Ms Irwin) For that reason, as I said earlier, Mr Joyce, I have asked for authority for an extra Clerk in the Lower Office this year. It is a bit more a question of wait and see, I think, for the other staff and, indeed, equipment. We would certainly need another computer with different sorts of software. I envisage that we would have a Clerk upstairs working on questions that come in electronically, at least to start with, because of the queuing in the Office, and we may have to look at the resources—numbers of staff, hours, shifts—in the Upper Office as well, depending very much on how many Members use it and the system we find most satisfactory for dealing with electronically tabled questions in the end. As Roger said, because we will have to print them out to have a formal record in case there is a query later, something to put in the Member's file at the end of the day and something to get to the printers, in the first instance we would be printing things out. There are various IT developments in the House which may mean that longer term much more will be done electronically and we shall be able to work on a question coming in on electronic form and sending it thereon to the printers and into the system. One of these developments is what we call the Vote Bundle project which is changing the way the Daily Papers or the Vote Bundle is printed, so that instead of it being originated at the press it is much more under our control. We are moving into the questions phase of that next year. Any recommendation this Committee makes will obviously be taken into account in the system we develop for that database. There is a much bigger House-wide project probable, though final authority has not been given yet, for an overarching information management system perhaps. That gives the potential to move things electronically, but when we talk about that project we are talking about a number of years. I am assuming the House will not want to wait that long for Members to table questions electronically. So at our end of it it might look a bit steam-driven, but I think it is possible to give Members an opportunity to get their questions in electronically relatively soon.

Chairman

  332. Does it impact, Janet, upon you at all?
  (Ms Hunter) It will do, yes, but just with the amount of printing out that we would have to do, though that would obviously depend on the system we had to put in place.

Eric Joyce

  333. If and when we run a pilot, do you think it would be sensible to put a limit initially on the amount of questions that can be sent via e-mail on a pre-assigned form, or simply not to have a limit and see what happens?
  (Ms Irwin) I had not thought about that. I suppose it would make it easier for us in working out how to handle them, if there were some sort of a limit. I had rather envisaged that any introduction of e-tabling might be quite gradual, because not all Members would do it at once, so in the first week it would be one or two and then it would build up. Indeed, I suspect there are quite a lot of Members in the House, possibly even the Chairman of this Committee, I might say, who might not take advantage of an opportunity to table questions in that way.
  (Mr Phillips) There is, of course, already a ration for oral questions, so this is only written questions you are talking about.

Chairman

  334. It is worth getting on record that there are, of course, quotas, as it were, or a ration of oral questions; you cannot ask any unlimited numbers of oral questions on a particular day.
  (Ms Irwin) But if the Committee were minded to recommend a pilot, it probably would be to our convenience if there were some sort of initial limit, unless that made even more work by administering the ration.

  335. Are you going to comment on that, Janet?
  (Ms Hunter) No.

  336. You are not. Discretion indeed.
  (Ms Hunter) Yes.

Eric Joyce

  337. I have one final question. There might be implications—this would effectively be pre-judging this—for EDMs and motions in the House and so forth, that if such a pilot were successful then logic would dictate that that might be a sensible way to do those other things in the future.
  (Ms Irwin) I am sure that if electronic tabling of questions starts, there will be irresistible pressure for electronic tabling of other proceedings. My colleagues in the Public Bill Office I think would be able to advise on an acceptable system with time, but it might very well be best to wait and see how questions go before other bits of new systems are developed around the place.

Chairman

  338. But we are associating very closely with questions parliamentary motions, Early Day Motions?
  (Ms Irwin) Indeed. On Early Day Motions I have just two worries, and you may or may not think they are significant. One is that a lot of Members sign the same motion more than once, so the numbers would come in over and over again. The other is that there have been instances, one quite recently, when Members' names have been attached to an Early Day Motion without their express authority, without their knowledge. There might be even greater scope for that if you could accept instructions electronically. At the moment we rely on a signature or the word of a Member in the Office.

  Eric Joyce: There is always scope for abuse with electronic systems. In some forms of abuse people are submitting questions that were not submitted by the Member and the Member had no knowledge of it, and on occasion I think this has been treated as a criminal offence. If it was done by someone in the House, I presume there would be some kind of penalty imposed by the Speaker such as—I do not know—a slap across the bottom with a slipper. If you were to submit something and the Member did not know about it, surely there could be some kind of sanction?

Chairman

  339. You are sitting next to somebody who knows a great deal about corporal punishment, your colleague Meg Munn. What I am saying is that there is already evidence, is there not, and there have been, I think, a number of occasions when Members' names have been added to Early Day Motions without their sanction, it has been raised on the floor of the House and Mr Speaker or Madam Speaker has deprecated such activity?
  (Ms Irwin) Indeed, very strongly, not many weeks ago.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. We come now to Desmond Swayne.


 
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