Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 10

Letter from Mr Paul Tyler CBE MP to the Chairman of the Committee

  Charles Kennedy has asked me to respond on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to your letter. I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to a further consideration on the effectiveness of parliamentary questions.

  The current collection of standing orders, government codes and parliamentary practices which regulate the asking and answering of questions should in theory be sufficient to ensure proper scrutiny of the executive.

  However, in practice, the aspirations of the Code of Access to Government Information and Ministerial Code of Conduct that Governments should be as open as possible in providing information, are not being fulfilled. The practice of delaying, misleading and obstructing access to information in answer to private Members' questions is normal experience.

  It follows, therefore, that existing procedures should be tightened in relation to Ministerial accountability to Parliament, rather than excessive changes to the system are necessary.

  The following submission falls into three areas:

    1.  A suggested code of conduct for Ministers when answering questions. There should in addition be a process of appeal and sanction if the Minister is shown to have failed in his/her obligations;

    2.  Possible reforms to oral and written questions that the Liberal Democrats would like considered;

    3.  Procedural and administrative changes which could improve the general effectiveness of the process.

1.  CODE OF CONDUCT IN ANSWERING QUESTIONS

  Liberal Democrats believe in the most open and accountable processes possible to govern the procedure of Parliament. Our current system regulates the asking of questions, but not the answering of them.

  There are basic principles that underpin this scrutiny process which the Liberal Democrats believe should not only be upheld, but strengthened for the benefit of Parliamentary democracy and public accountability.

  These are:

    —  That private Members and opposition parties have the right to question the executive, and that Ministers have a duty to be as open as possible about releasing information, as set out in the code of conduct for Ministers.

    —  That this is essentially a Parliamentary process, not a party political one, and therefore Ministers have an absolute duty to answer questions as fully as possible, even if it is potentially damaging in a party political sense.

    —  That on any matter of urgent or great importance, or relevant constituency concern, Members of Parliament should be given the greatest opportunity to hear a report or answer from the Secretary of State, or Minister, as soon as possible. This should not be governed solely by the discretion of the Secretary of State. If an oral statement is not available on the relevant issue, and the Speaker has ruled the matter requires urgent attention, a Member should expect a written explanation from the Minister as soon as possible.

    —  That there should be as few as possible limits of the number and frequency of parliamentary questions Members can ask, and the emphasis should be on the obligation on Ministers to answer them.

    —  That Ministers should be accountable for their actions regarding questions. If they are not in a position to answer properly (due to public interest reasons, or due to the costs) they should be under an obligation to explain as fully as possible their reasons. They should also advise the Member how relevant information may be provided within appropriate costs, or in a manner which doesn't conflict with public interest. In short, there should be an obligation to be as helpful as possible to answer the Members' questions.

2.  ORAL/WRITTEN QUESTIONS

  There should be a greater logic in the differentiation between oral and written questions, and a protection of both as a means to scrutinise. Liberal Democrats believe that:

    —  Written questions have a primary purpose to scrutinise in-depth any detailed aspect of Government policy and actions.

    —  Oral questions should provide Members with the opportunity to question Ministers about recent developments the Department has responsibility for and urgent concerns the member may have.

Oral

  At present, the current monthly rota of departmental questions and fortnightly tabling of questions limits the effectiveness of oral questioning to produce answers that deal with the most topical concerns that department has responsibility for.

  Therefore the Liberal Democrats would like to see oral questioning to be more relevant and responsive to day-to-day issues.

  Several proposals to achieve this could be:

    —  Identical notice period for tabling oral questions as for written (departmental civil servants presumably prepare for both in a similar way).

    —  Allowing "open questions", similar to PMQs, effectively giving Members the widest possible scope to question ministers.

    —  Oral questions should never be transferred for written answer by another Department, since this precludes a supplementary, but should be placed in the normal process of selection for the next oral questions to the latter department.

    —  Ministers should be under an automatic obligation to provide a supplementary written answer if they are unable to satisfactorily answer a Member's oral question.

    —  An opportunity for Members to put on the record at the beginning of question time their request for a statement on an urgent and specific matter, which, giving the Minister and Speaker prior notice, may allow for some advance notice of when further information is likely.

Written

  At present, due to there being no restrictions on the number and frequency of written answers, this is the principal form of questioning departments. Problems occur when Ministers appear at best unhelpful, at worst evasive and inaccurate in providing information requested; transfer questions to other departments when there are departmental precedents for answering on a particular subject; giving late or delayed answers (sometimes after the rise of the House) to the point where the question has become obsolete; grouping related questions together and answering only parts of each; or at the very worst, simply not answering the question put. Liberal Democrat MPs would be happy to provide examples to illustrate these claims.

  Therefore Liberal Democrats believe there should be a fundamental reform of written questions, making them more detailed, flexibile and effective.

  Multiple questions should be permitted requiring one "multiple answer". Questions could be inter-dependent eg "Q2: if the answer to Q1 is "no" then will the minister produce...". Ministers would then be required to answer point by point. This would mean questions and answers would inevitably be longer and more detailed, however it would also allow for concise questioning on a subject, it would also prevent Ministers from circumventing difficult questions.

  Holding answers should be regulated more carefully, with Departments under an obligation to provide a date on which they anticipate being able to answer the question. Departments should not refer Members to answers given which were themselves referrals. Departments should disclose any relevant information that became available since a previous answer was given. Where information has been provided in response to questions in previous sessions, holding answers should not be provided except in exceptional circumstances.

  Answers that indicate that the information requested could only be provided at disproportionate cost should also be carefully regulated. Again, where similar information has been provided in response to questions in previous sessions, disproportionate cost answers should not be permitted. Where they are, an explanation should set out the reasons why this is so (for instance, the number of agencies that would need to be contacted).

  Questions asking for an explanation of a certain policy should be answered as the policy was at the time the question was tabled, and then giving any subsequent changes to that policy.

  Members should have a right of appeal regarding the answers they have received, to the Public Administration Committee or possibly to a special select committee which could call Ministers to explain their department's actions regarding questions. Another possibility would be have a right of appeal to the relevant departmental select committee.

  Members should be allowed to table written questions during recess, as it is obvious that Government policy making continues throughout the year. There is an important gap in scrutiny especially during the Summer recess. Even if the Recess dates are shortened or regularised, a four week "holiday" should surely be enough to prevent undue pressure on departments.

3.  ADMINISTRATION OF QUESTIONS

Electronic and facsimile tabling

  There are many ways both methods could be made secure and efficient, making it a legitimate way to table not only questions, but amendments, motions and other business. It could always be the case, for example, that Members could confirm the tabling on the telephone, perhaps citing a personal "tabling pin number".

Rulings regarding whether questions are "in order"

  The Table Office should provide the administrative means to accept questions from Members. They should not be put in a position to decide the intentions of a Minister when answering specific questions, in order to rule whether a subsequent question is in order. There should be as little procedural doubt as possible as to whether a question is in order. It is not the duty of the Table Office to be instinctively or institutionally conservative about the "appropriateness" of a question. Members should be given every benefit of the doubt and interpretation under the standing orders to question Ministers. There should be no House of Commons bias in favour of the Government as far as tabling amendments, motions or questions. The Table Office will always have the duty to reject spurious questions [eg opinion seeking fishing expeditions] but it should always err on the side of greater transparency.

"planted questions"

  Use of ordinary written or oral questions as a means for Government to communicate information via private members questions, thus controlling the release of information in procedurally hidden ways, should be discouraged. The Government should be honest and mature about the way it makes announcements, and the integrity of written questions as a means for back benchers to question the executive should be preserved. If a new format for written Government announcements is required, then the House could institute a new "Ministerial Letter to Parliament", where the subject matter does not justify a full statement and a period of response and questioning. This would dispel the illusion that the initiative comes from the Minister, not from the backbench Member.

  In the meantime there should be a clear day between the tabling of traditional "planted" questions so that they appear—separately identified—in the order paper the day before they are due, thus allowing people to make preparations for a government announcement.

13 December 2001


 
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