Select Committee on Procedure Third Report


PROCEEDINGS OF THE COMMITTEE

RELATING TO THE REPORT

THURSDAY 20TH JUNE 2002

Members present:

Sir Nicholas Winterton, in the Chair


Mr John BurnettMr Iain Luke
Mr Eric IllsleyMr Desmond Swayne
Eric JoyceDavid Wright

The Committee deliberated.

Draft Report [Parliamentary Questions], proposed by the Chairman, brought up and read.

Ordered, That the draft Report be read a second time, paragraph by paragraph.

Paragraph 1 read, as follows:

The right of Members of the House of Commons to ask questions of Ministers, to seek information or to press for action, is an essential part of the process by which Parliament exercises its authority and holds the Government to account. We have carried out a review of the system of parliamentary questions (both written and oral), to assess how well it is working and how it might be improved. We conclude that new technology should be introduced, to enable the electronic tabling of questions. We make other recommendations aimed at increasing the topicality and effectiveness of questions, and at making Question Time in the Chamber a more thoughtful and less 'tribal' occasion, with brisker and more effectively focussed exchanges between Members and Ministers. We see this review as an integral part of the ongoing process of modernising Parliament.

Amendment proposed, in line 6, after the word 'of', to insert the word 'written'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne


  Noes, 4

Mr John

Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraphs 2 to 30 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 31 read, as follows:

The most frequently expressed criticism of the present system of oral questions is that it lacks topicality and relevance. This is because the deadline for tabling questions for oral answer is ten sitting days, in other words two calendar weeks. In theory, the minimum amount of notice for tabling questions for oral answer is three sitting days and the period of ten sitting days is a maximum. This reflects the original wish of the House to allow for some questions to be tabled at relatively short notice, and to allow Members a lengthy period beforehand in which they could table questions at longer notice at their convenience. However, as we have seen (in paragraphs 10 to 15 above), the increasing quantity of questions, and Members' desire to give their questions priority (because oral questions were originally taken in the order in which they were tabled) meant that the maximum notice period gradually turned into the effective deadline for tabling. This is now formally recognised by the holding of the 'shuffle', in which questions are selected for printing on a random basis, at 6.30 pm on the earliest day on which the standing orders allow notice to be given.

Amendment proposed, in line 6, to leave out from the word 'notice,' to the word 'However,' in line 8.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 2

Mr John Burnett

Mr Desmond Swayne

  Noes, 4

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraphs 32 to 38 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 39 read, as follows:

We believe that this change should be accompanied by three other modifications of the existing rules. The first is that Members should be allowed to table oral questions on any day after their last Question Time and before the minimum notice period—that is, generally, up to a period of four weeks before the day for answer. We see no reason for continuing the present, restricted arrangements whereby Members have in effect a single, narrow 'slot' of one day on which to table oral questions. The Table Office has told us that they see no difficulty in administering a system whereby questions could be tabled in advance, and then put in the shuffle on an equal basis with those tabled on the 'last day'. This will be much more convenient for Members. It will have the further benefit that Members who are abroad on parliamentary business will not miss the opportunity to table oral questions if the minimum notice period for questions falls during their absence. The Principal Clerk, Table Office, confirmed to us that if the proposal is adopted, Members would be able to amend questions tabled on earlier days until the time of the shuffle on the due day. The proposal is also likely to reduce the congestion in the Table Office at particular times of the day (see paragraph 27 above).

Amendment proposed, in line 3, leave out from the word 'questions' to the end of the paragraph and add the words 'one day before the minimum notice period'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 2

Mr John Burnett

Mr Desmond Swayne

  Noes, 4

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraphs 40 to 44 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 45 read, as follows:

We consider that these recommendations will have a major and beneficial impact in terms of making Question Time more topical and relevant. We believe that the House should be invited to decide upon two further proposals aimed at injecting greater topicality into oral questions. These are that:—

(1)  On every Tuesday and Thursday, departmental Question Time should be followed by a further session of up to 30 minutes of questioning on a single subject. The choice of initial question would be made by the Speaker on the basis of applications submitted to him before noon on the previous day. In making this choice, the Speaker would give due weighting to topicality, urgency, the public importance of the subject, suitability in terms of potential for supplementary questions, party balance, and balance between the Opposition parties and backbenchers on both sides of the House. He would aim to achieve an overall balance between these criteria over a period of time. The Speaker would have discretion, if he thought fit, occasionally to substitute two 15-minute sessions for one 30-minute session. We envisage this procedure as closely resembling the existing procedure on private notice questions; but we do not propose that private notice questions in their present form should be abolished (though in practice we think it likely that the need for them would be significantly reduced). We appreciate that our proposal would entail a significant transfer of control of time on the Floor of the House from the Government to the Opposition and backbenchers, and we therefore recommend that before the House is invited to take a decision on the proposal, discussions should take place between the usual channels with a view to establishing whether the Opposition parties would agree as a quid pro quo to a reduction in the number of Opposition days allocated per Session (currently 20).

(2)  Once a week, an hour-long session of questioning addressed to a single Minister of State, or two 30-minute sessions addressed successively to two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries, should be held in Westminster Hall (possibly on Thursday mornings). We believe this would be a useful way of exploiting the potential of Westminster Hall. Questions would relate to any aspect of the Minister's responsibilities. There would be a rota of Departments and Ministers. The notice required of questions would be the same as that required for oral questions in the Chamber, the rules governing content would be the same as those applying in relation to departmental Question Time (i.e. open questions would not be permitted), and a shuffle would be held to select questions. In order to allow for depth of questioning, no more than 20 questions could be taken in each 30-minute period.

Amendment proposed, in line 16, to leave out from the word 'abolished' to the word 'We' in line 17.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne



  Noes, 5

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Another Amendment proposed, in line 26, to leave out the words 'in Westminster Hall'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne



  Noes, 5

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Another Amendment proposed, in line 27, after the word 'mornings', to insert the words 'elsewhere than in the Chamber'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne



  Noes, 5

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraphs 46 to 59 agreed to.

Paragraph 60 read, as follows:

We very much welcome the Prime Minister's willingness to appear before the Liaison Committee, which we believe will lead to a significant increase in Government accountability to Parliament, as well as an enhanced recognition of the importance of the select committee system within Parliament. We look forward with interest to the first Prime Ministerial appearances before the Liaison Committee. It may be that in due course the principle of questioning the Prime Minister in committee could usefully be extended, with more frequent committee appearances, perhaps every six to eight weeks. Such evidence sessions might be held in Westminster Hall.

Amendment proposed, in line 8, to leave out from the word 'weeks.' to the end of the paragraph.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne



  Noes, 5

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraphs 61 to 72 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 73 read, as follows:

More than a decade on, it is clear that our predecessors' hopes have not been fulfilled. We do not believe that half of all written questions tabled can legitimately be described as being urgent, or that a third of all written questions tabled should be for the earliest named day. The proliferation of holding replies arises from this overloading of the system, and we fear that there is likely also to be an impact on the quality of answers. We therefore believe that the House should impose a daily quota per Member of five named-day questions (that is, five per day relating to all named days, not just the earliest named day). We hope that this measure, by relieving the pressure on departments, will lead to a significant reduction in the number of holding replies.

Amendment proposed, in line 6, after the word 'impose', to insert the words ', for an experimental period,'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 2

Mr John Burnett

Mr Desmond Swayne

  Noes, 4

Mr Eric Illsley

Eric Joyce

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

An Amendment made.

Paragraph, as amended, agreed to.

Paragraphs 74 to 89 read and agreed to.

Paragraph 90 read, as follows:

In the light of the evidence we have taken, we conclude that the introduction of a system of electronic tabling is highly desirable and should proceed, both because of its convenience for Members and as the first step towards a 'seamless' process whereby questions can be tabled, transmitted to Government departments, and replied to electronically. However, the concerns expressed by previous Procedure Committees about the mass-tabling of questions either on behalf of political parties or outside interests and lobbying groups remain valid. There must be concern that the introduction of electronic tabling with insufficient levels of authentication might encourage an increase in such abuse, or an increase in the total number of questions tabled of such a magnitude as to lead to an erosion of the quality of responses. What is not easily predictable in advance is the extent to which these problems will be realised in practice. We are reluctant to recommend that the House should pursue the 'strong authentication' option, with its concomitant costs, complexity and delay, in the absence of

certainty that it is actually needed. We therefore recommend that in the first instance the House should approve the introduction as soon as possible of a system of electronic tabling which is closer to the Scottish or House of Lords model (but with some added safeguards which we detail below). This should proceed on an experimental basis, with any subsequent changes to the quantity of questions and the pattern of questioning being carefully monitored by the Table Office. The House should confer on Mr Speaker by resolution a reserve power, to be exercised on the basis of advice from the Table Office, either to impose quotas on the number of questions Members may table electronically, or to halt the experiment altogether, if in Mr Speaker's opinion the number of questions increases excessively or other significant abuses are suspected. If necessary, the more expensive and complicated option of commissioning a system based on 'strong' authentication could at this point be pursued. We hope that Members will operate the new system in a responsible manner and this latter option will not prove necessary.

Amendment proposed, in line 2, after the word 'tabling', to insert the words 'for written questions'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne


  Noes, 4

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Another Amendment proposed, in line 15, after the word 'tabling', to insert the words 'for written questions'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne


  Noes, 4

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraph 91 read, as follows:

We now turn to the details of the experimental system. We recommend that it should embody the following features:—

(1)  Members who wish to use the new system should be required formally to opt into it, by supplying the Table Office with a signed authority allowing the Office to receive questions sent from specified electronic addresses.

(2)  Questions should only be accepted from addresses within the Parliamentary Data and Video Network (PDVN). This will erect a protective 'wall' around the system and provide a rather greater degree of security than that afforded to electronically tabled questions in the Scottish Parliament (where questions may be sent from any Internet e-mail account).

(3)  Questions should not be accepted via ordinary e-mail. Instead, there should be a Web-based system using a template. This will ensure that specified data (Members' names, constituencies, parties, whether the question is oral or written, the names of Ministers and departments, etc.) is captured in the correct format at the initial point of contact. We envisage the possibility that much of this data could be input by choosing options from drop-down menus. The template might automatically prompt Members with certain information: for instance, the Member could choose his or her own name from the menu and then the four-figure printing code which ensures that the name and constituency appear in the correct form would be allocated automatically (or alternatively it might be possible to bookmark the form with the right name and constituency already filled in). A further possibility is that the template might prompt the Member with deadlines for tabling in respect of particular departments, and only allow questions to be submitted if within the appropriate deadline. If it proves necessary to introduce quotas for electronic tabling, this too might be policed automatically; in other words, the system would not allow questions in the name of a Member to be submitted once that Member's quota had been reached.

Amendment proposed, in line 5, after the word 'receive', to insert the word 'written'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne


  Noes, 4

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraphs 93 and 94 agreed to.

Paragraph 95 read, as follows:

We recommend that oral as well as written questions should be submissible electronically. This raises a question about the continuance of the rule introduced in 1990, whereby oral questions must be submitted in person by a Member or by a Member on behalf of another Member. That rule was introduced in order to discourage syndication. We were told by our Table Office witnesses that, regrettably, it has not been particularly effective in dealing with this abuse. In our view it would be illogical to maintain the prohibition on submitting oral questions by post whilst allowing them to be submitted electronically. We therefore recommend that, with effect from the introduction of electronic tabling, submission of oral questions by post should be again permitted.

Amendment proposed, in line 1, after the word 'We', to insert the words 'do not'.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne


  Noes, 4

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Another Amendment proposed, in line 2, to leave out from the word 'electronically.' to the end of the paragraph.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

Question put, That the Amendment be made.

The Committee divided.

  Ayes, 1

Mr Desmond Swayne


  Noes, 4

Mr John Burnett

Mr Eric Illsley

Mr Iain Luke

David Wright

Paragraph agreed to.

Paragraphs 96 to 109 read and agreed to.

Annexes agreed to.

Resolved, That the Report, as amended, be the Third Report of the Committee to the House.

Ordered, That the Chairman do make the Report to the House.

Several Papers were ordered to be appended to the Minutes of Evidence.

Ordered, That the Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee be reported to the House.—(The Chairman.)

  [Adjourned till Tuesday 2 July at Four o'clock.


 
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Prepared 26 June 2002