Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-345)



Mr Swayne

  340. What are the resource implications of tabling during the recess?
  (Ms Irwin) Are we talking about all recesses?

  341. Any recess. I think the pressure would be for the summer recess.
  (Ms Irwin) I think that in the very short recesses I question whether it would be very cost effective, because not very many questions come in, and we are already set up to deal with the questions that come in during the short recesses. For example, in the fortnight recess coming up now the Office will be dealing with questions on the Wednesday of the second week of the recess and the Friday of the second week of the recess, and they will be printed on respectively the Thursday and the Monday for the department to see them. This is written questions, of course. For the longer recess it is more difficult, and I accept that Members find that particularly in the summer recess holding oral questions up to be dealt with at the very end is not suiting the House. I would not think it would be sensible to try to keep the Office open all the time. I should have thought that if questions were accepted during a recess, it would make sense to follow something like the pattern you have in the short recess and probably open the Office on, say, a Thursday and a Friday, so on a Thursday there would be a Table Office Clerk in who would deal with the questions that had come in by post and which would be brought in or sent in electronically if we had got that far, and the next day they would be printed and we would check them and do any necessary communication with departments. You would want to talk to the Editor of Hansard, I presume, about the publication of answers and how frequently he thought it was cost effective to print Hansard. It may be that something like once a week would also make sense there.

  342. Is it feasible to expect that if a Member tabled an oral question and he subsequently wishes to withdraw it, he should withdraw it within a week of having tabled it?
  (Ms Irwin) This was in the Leader of the House's paper to you. I do not think it makes sense, frankly. We all know of occasions when Members have been delayed on trains or in other meetings and at the last minute have discovered that they cannot get to Question Time. I think it would appear rather a discourtesy to the House if they did not have the opportunity to tell the House in advance and withdraw the question. At the moment questions can be withdrawn any time up to the time they are due for answer.

  343. The memorandum appeared to indicate that Members could equally change their questions within a day of having tabled them. Let us suppose they were changed; would that be administratively feasible or acceptable, to alter the wording? I know they cannot, but let us suppose they were to be allowed to do that.
  (Mr Phillips) Oral or written?

  344. Oral, yes.
  (Ms Irwin) I think that would perhaps be slightly unfair on departments, for them to be able to change the text once they have been tabled. The only changes that are made—and I think it is what we recognise was behind the observation in the Leader of the House's memorandum about this—is that the Office corrects questions that have been incorrectly tabled, either a handwriting problem or a mistake, sometimes, very occasionally, questions attributed to the wrong Member. Clearly that is a correction we have to make, and a certain amount of editing is done just to make the questions grammatical, or if Members have put them in in a hurry the next morning sometimes they need a bit of tidying up, but we endeavour to make those corrections the day after they are tabled, and if they are made on subsequent days we telephone departments. I think it may be that there is some irritation in some departments behind that comment in the Leader's memorandum, but we do not see it as a significant problem.


  345. Thank you very much. I have a very quick question, because I know colleagues have very important engagements to go to. Is there any other matter that you would wish to comment on in the memorandum and proposals that we have received and the evidence given by the Leader of the House, or any other matter that we have not previously covered in this meeting?
  (Ms Irwin) I do not think so. I think there is perhaps only one caveat I might add about changes generally. I mentioned earlier how reliant we are on POLIS. POLIS is, if you like, the House's memory. It is very important that all questions and indeed motions and other things are retrievable by POLIS, indexable and indexed by POLIS, so that we, Members and everyone else can access them. If you are making significant changes, even in the way things are printed, they might have implications for the software for POLIS. I would counsel perhaps a modest pause after your recommendations are made before they are introduced, so that changes can be brought in.

  Chairman: Can I say, on behalf of all colleagues, that this has been a very stimulating and very useful evidence-taking session. You have certainly added to the amount of information that we have in this inquiry, and it will be very helpful in drawing up our report. Helen Irwin, Roger Phillips and Janet Hunter, can I thank you very much indeed for coming before us and giving us such useful evidence. Thank you.

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