WEDNESDAY 24 APRIL 2002
Mr Nicholas Winterton, in the Chair
Examination of Witness
THE RT HON ROBIN COOK, a Member of the House, Leader of the House, President of the Council, examined.
(Mr Cook) Thank you very much, Chairman. Can I just first say that I am very keen that our two Committees should work closely together. It would not be helpful to what I think is our joint interests in taking forward improvement and modernisation of the questions if the Modernisation and Procedure Committee were not to co-operate very closely. I warmly welcome the Inquiry the Committee is carrying out and I hope we can secure a timetable in which the Modernisation Committee in its report to the House can draw on and buttress the recommendations that you may come to in the course of your study. On the question of the strengths and weaknesses of question time, question time is, of course, at the heart of our process of scrutiny of government ministers. As you will be aware, I repeatedly assert the principle that good scrutiny makes for good government. That is my watchword and I want scrutiny to work well. One can then, of course, ask questions as to whether or not the way in which we use question time is really securing the best, most effective, scrutiny that it could. I will here, if I may, respond to the second element of your question, which was what are the most important elements in my memorandum towards modernisation. I would, if I may, identify two very important strategic objectives, which I hope will be shared by your Committee. The first is we really have to do something about the length of notice for oral question time. It was only when we began the study in the Modernisation Committee that I discovered for the first time that the tabling period of two weeks which we have at present is, actually, not the minimum it is the maximum. It is the first day on which you can actually put down questions for oral questions. Of course, since everybody does it that day it has also become the minimum. However, the minimum Standing Order provides for oral questions to be answered to go down a couple of days in advance, not that there would be any point whatsoever in attempting to do that. I think we have got somehow to achieve standing orders that reflect the spirit in which these standing orders were originally written. If you look back over the last few months there are some spectacular cases where the length of notice for oral questions has vitiated the topicality of question time. If I just take the Foreign Office questions, which I am particularly familiar with because of my previous role, when we came back in January there was not a single question on India, Pakistan and Kashmir, despite the fact that that was the lead front page story on foreign affairs. The next month there was not a single question on Gibraltar, although there was enormous interest in the negotiations with Spain - so much so that the Foreign Secretary did a PNQ at the end of question time because there was no question about it. Last week we did not have a single question in the Foreign Office question time on the Middle East, either the intifada or on the peace process. There was a question on Iraq which people used to get round to the Middle East but there was nothing on the Middle East. This gulf between the subject matter of question time and what is of interest to our constituents outside arose because all these questions were tabled a minimum of two weeks in advance and where there was a recess (in the case of Christmas and the New Year) tabled over a full month in advance. I do not think Parliament is going to restore itself as a central point of national debate unless we are talking about what the world outside is talking about, and we have to dramatically shorten that period of notice for question time. The other point I would stress in modernisation is that I really do think we have to move with the times and allow new technology into the process in which we prepare, table and output our questions. Interestingly, there is quite a large lobby for this among the Whitehall departments whose Parliamentary clerks are responsible for chasing up questions once they arrive at their department. At the present time we can, effectively, lose 24 hours between the question being tabled by the Member and actually surfacing with them. Even a few hours makes a big difference if you have only got three or four days in which to answer a question. Tabling the question by e-mail and putting the Table Office on e-mail would greatly speed up the process in which the question can move between the Table Office and the government departments, and gives a better chance to give a fair answer in fair time to Members' questions. It would also greatly increase the convenience and, therefore, the effectiveness of Members of Parliament. There is really no reason why a Member has to be in the House to table a question. Why should a Member who is absent on Parliamentary business be prevented from tabling a question? I would only end in a spirit of clarity, that when all is said and done the House of Lords now tables questions by e-mail; why on earth can we not do so in the House of Commons?
Chairman: Maybe we have something to learn from the other place. Just so that you are aware, Mr Cook, we do have Professor Hinds here who is advising this Committee on technology and electronic communication. So we do have an expert here who clearly has heard what you have said. I now pass the questioning to John Burnett
(Mr Cook) The answer to the first question is quite a lot of time, but then one should add the rider, as is the nature of political life - and I think we are all familiar with this, although ministers are not - quite a lot of time at the last possible moment.
(Mr Cook) I would give the morning over to question time.
(Mr Cook) I would try to keep my diary clear for the morning question time so I could focus. In the nature of the Foreign Secretary's job, keeping a diary clear is an impossible task because something happens somewhere in the world and you have to find time out to deal with it. But you would start with a clean sheet so you could focus on question time in the afternoon. In terms of tabling it, that of course is consistent with a pretty short period of notice. I do have, of course, when I sit down to do that (as the present Foreign Secretary will have), extraordinarily detailed papers that have been diligently prepared by officials. The answer to your second question is a lot of effort goes in by departments preparing for question time, possibly sometimes on angles that might never come up. However, if you are the official responsible you want to cover all angles. I think, therefore, I would have to say to the Committee that there is a trade-off between shortening the period of notice and, as I recommend in my submission, the number of questions for which there is an available quota each time. When you pick it up you get a great big loose-leaf folder and that goes, in the same detail and the same voluminous background, up to question 40. I feel for the poor official who has slaved for days to produce their answer to question 39 in the full and demoralising knowledge that it will never, ever be reached. I think if we are going to ask officials to do the preparation at a much shorter period we have to radically alter the number of questions we are asking them to prepare for. I have effectively suggested we halve the numbers and I do not think I am being unrealistic in what I propose there.
(Mr Cook) I have not got any hard and fast prejudice on this matter and possibly not all my colleagues would concur, but I would personally think two days is not unreasonable, but I add the rider it has to be two working days. That I think will be reasonable.
(Mr Cook) I would not regard it as an abuse at all. In fact, if the Member has a particular angle that they want covered it is entirely rational for the Member to let the minister know what is the particular point he is trying to elicit so that the minister can focus on that point. Members are entitled to the best possible answer and if they give ministers warning of the particular angle they are looking for, that increases the chances that they will get answers to the point that concerns them.
(Mr Cook) I think that is a very interesting question. At paragraph 29 of my paper I suggest the new quota that we should have for oral question time. For instance, I suggest that we slash the number of questions that are tabled now from 40 to 20. I have never known anyone to reach question 30 and very rarely go anywhere near question 25. In modern times we have never, to my knowledge, reached question 20, although I think there was one case with the Ministry of Defence recently where three were booked (?) and three were withdrawn, which is unusual.
(Mr Cook) Because of withdrawals. Maybe 25 might be more prudent than 20, but we are certainly never going to come anywhere near question 40. I think Mr Luke is asking a slightly different question, to which I am quite sympathetic, and that is that we should take question time and look at it in ways in which we can increase the exchanges on a particular theme or a particular topic. For instance, if we go to question time in the House of Lords, they will have four questions for half-an-hour and each is more or less timed at seven-and-a-half to eight minutes. So you will get a mini-debate, as it were, on that topic before you move on. I think there is a very rational case to be made that at present in the Commons we try to cram in too much and, as a result, possibly are not as effective as we might be in having a serious exchange on some issues. If you were to do it on that basis there would need to be greater discipline on the part of Members to be present, or if they cannot be present to withdraw in sufficient time for another to take their place. We could do that by having 15 questions originally tabled and if up to five questions are withdrawn from the original ten the rest will move up.
Sir Robert Smith
(Mr Cook) That seems a perfectly rational inference and, indeed, could be one of the bonuses of the shorter notice period.
(Mr Cook) I think I probably have to be honest and say I do not very often find myself reading to the end of the briefing on question 40, but in terms of volume it was identical to the questions that went beforehand, and if you are the official I guess you cannot take the risk that you are suddenly going to be found to have question 40 reached. It must be a soul-destroying task. Realistically, though, if we are going to ask officials to produce briefings in a shorter period of time - and I am sympathetic to that - we also have to relieve them of work which, frankly, is wasted effort and must be a very demoralising task.
(Mr Cook) I probably should declare a personal prejudice here. I am not attracted to open questions and, indeed, I think that we tend to use open questions not to elucidate facts or to shed light but to try and trip each other up. If I take an example from today, the first question for the Prime Minister was on how many school playgrounds we had sold recently, to which the Prime Minister gave an extremely competent and professional reply. I, frankly, do not think it is the real world of politics to expect the Prime Minister of Great Britain to be up to speed on how many playgrounds have been sold in the last few months. If a Member wants to pursue that question the Member is perfectly entitled to do so, but it seems to me to be more rational from the Member's point of view, and everybody else's point of view, if that is given by means of a specific question, so that the notice is there. I would not want that culture of what I sometimes call party political mud-wrestling to be extended to the other departmental question time as well. I think if a Member has an issue that they want to pursue then the honest and proper way to do it is to table a question about it. If in the course of the exchanges they can then display to the Government an inadequate answer it is all the more impressive when the Government can give an advance notice. It may be, on another issue of topicality, a separate question and, perhaps, this will be innovative, but I would not myself exclude it. There should be room somewhere in the major question times for there to be a question, possibly to be tabled overnight, to be taken in the last five or ten minutes of question time - or, indeed, the first five or ten minutes of question time - but I think it entirely reasonable that if Members have an issue they want to pursue particularly if question notice is short, that they should declare that in advance. I do not think we advance respect for Parliament or our own political exchanges by treating them as some sort of finals exam in which you cannot see the paper until you sit down at the table.
(Mr Cook) I did not come here to argue for removing open questions to the Prime Minister. That would be a big step. However, I certainly think that it would be in everybody's interest if people were free and indeed were encouraged to table specific questions for the Prime Minister to answer. Obviously, we would have to have different rules for the Leader of the Opposition, who must, quite properly, be free to raise issues of concern at the moment. Without wishing to be discouraging, one can easily spot what the opposition is going to raise because there are only so many issues around in the ether. Personally, I think it would be to everybody's advantage if there were more specific, targeted questions and fewer open ones in which you can be asked about anything at all.
(Mr Cook) It is a very delicate question you raise there, Chairman, and I would hesitate to stick my neck too far out. I would like backbenchers to have the opportunity to raise the questions and areas of concern. Of course, that is a particularly sensitive issue on our side because the alternating practice means it comes to our side much less often than the other side of the floor. However, the reality is that the public out there have come to see Prime Minister's Questions as the opportunity for an exchange between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, and that is at the heart of it. Indeed, it is a very important part now of our process of Parliamentary debate and scrutiny, and I do not think, realistically, anybody would wish to lose that.
(Mr Cook) It has been suggested and I can actually see the attraction in it. If we were to move to something similar to the House of Lords' style of questions, as I was discussing with Mr Luke, in which you had, say, ten questions which went through in your half-hour and each question got five to ten minutes (some longer than others at Speaker's discretion), in that kind of envelope of serious discussion on a limited number of questions, I personally think that, without making any judgment about whether the question is properly answered, it would be entirely reasonable to allow the Member who initially asked the question to ask a supplementary at the end. That would seem to give a reasonable balance and shape to it. I genuinely think we would have a more serious, more useful, more viable and more productive form of scrutiny question time if we had that serious exchange over a reasonable period of time in which the Member could come back with a supplementary. Of course, it really comes back to what I find is a frequent dilemma when looking at modernisation: if we are going to be effective and relevant we need to be reported and what the media like to report best of all is the theatre. If we want to restore our respect among the public we have to show that we are carrying out serious business and not party political point-scoring. I think the form we were exploring earlier might help.
Chairman: You will be aware that we have taken evidence from Lord Norton of Louth and, as many here are aware, he has also given evidence to your Committee about modernisation. I am going to ask Desmond Swayne to come in and put two questions to you, basically to do with what Lord Norton has proposed.
(Mr Cook) As I said earlier, I am sympathetic to having more closed questions within Prime Minister's Question Time. I think it would advantage Parliament and it would be to the advantage, also, of the way in which it came across as a serious attempt to advance public interest and the public knowledge, as opposed to what - if I am honest - often appears to the public outside as if we are looking to score a point, taking part in political advantage rather than pursuing the public interest. The public love it in terms of watching it as theatre, but I do not think they respect it in terms of serious Parliamentary exchange. You also, Mr Swayne, in your question, refer to two half-hour sessions. I think I would be remiss if I let that question pass by without saying that the fact I am answering the question does not imply assent to two half-hours. If I can respond to this from the perspective of the administration, which is a matter, after all, of legitimate concern to all Members of Parliament, enormous effort goes in, by both the Prime Minister's office and by the Prime Minister himself, to answering questions in the House of Commons. Since we moved from two quarter-hour sessions to one half-hour session the current Prime Minister has actually missed question time less often than his predecessors because he is obligated there once a week rather than twice a week, and therefore, pro rata, for time in office, has actually answered more question time than his predecessors. It is an enormous demand we make of our Prime Ministerial time, entirely justifiable when you are accountable to Parliament, but I do not think it would be prudent to double that demand we make of him, particularly in the modern world where so much of the job that is done by the Prime Minister necessarily and unavoidably (and I am talking about the office not the person) has to involve a degree of foreign travel and foreign meetings. When I was Foreign Secretary I found it difficult enough organising Prime Minister's foreign visits on the basis that he had to be in Parliament every Wednesday, and you sharply reduce the number of places in the world you can go for a working day if you have to be in the House every Tuesday and every Thursday. I do not think that is in the national interest.
(Mr Cook) Are you proposing that as an alternative?
Mr Swayne: No, as an occasional feature.
(Mr Cook) First of all, I would certainly have said that if we can escape from the gladiatorial combat on the floor we might enhance the status of Parliament, even if we reduced our ratings by being able to be seen to be doing something more serious. I think we would have to be careful that we were not, in taking this step, introducing a gladiatorial approach in places and procedures where at present we are free from such things, in Westminster Hall and Select Committee hearings. Speaking as an individual I would not close my mind to it, but do remember that we have had over decades a very firm rule that has run through many Prime Ministers that they do not give evidence to an individual Select Committee, and the moment they give evidence to one where do you draw the line with others? I think if we were looking for this the Liaison Committee is probably the place where it would happen.
(Mr Cook) It is a very innovative and interesting idea, and I think I would want to be careful that I neither killed it at first sight nor committed the Government to taking forward something which is put to me as a new idea. One thing I would say is that, if you look back at, for instance, the exchanges that we saw on television in which the Prime Minister did that with members of the public before the last election, if one is quite honest and humble in approach to Members of Parliament, I am not sure that those exchanges were not more illuminating than what happens across the floor of the House in the House of Commons. It is certainly an environment in which our Prime Minister would be very comfortable, with a more informal, less combative exchange geared more to actually making progress in identifying the truth and identifying solutions and might actually do a lot of good for us. One would have to, first of all, weigh very carefully whether the Prime Minister, with the demands and pressures on him, would permit time for such an innovation, and we would have to think very carefully about how we preserve the kind of informality of approach that you outline without us finding in Westminster Hall that we have simply transposed the gladiatorial atmosphere of the chamber. On the design of the chamber, of course, it is pure accident that we sit the way we do. We sit the way we do because Henry VIII gave us St Stephen's chapel in which to sit and we still sit, to this day, in seats facing each other in the way they did in the original chapel.
(Mr Cook) I think we can make too much of the distinction, Chairman. You say that standing orders are under the formal control of the House of Commons and, plainly, that is the case and any standing order has to be voted upon by the whole of the House and command a majority. Equally, it is the case that, on the other hand, half the Government (?) can table a standing order and nobody else can table a standing order so the degree of latitude to the House could not possibly be over-stated. In 1997 we were a new government and we came in with a thumping new mandate. I think the Prime Minister was quite right to seize the initiative and to make the change there and then. I fear consultation, which you aspire to, would have meant we would have ended up doing it months down the line, by which time we would have established a new precedent of this Prime Minister doing it the old way. For what it is worth, I think the new way of doing it is much better; it is more efficient, certainly in relation to Prime Ministerial time, and a more efficient use of the House's time, and it has enabled us to have a sustained exchange for half-an-hour instead of what were two jerky and short 15-minute exchanges.
(Mr Cook) There is an issue as to what is the balance between the frontbench questions and the backbench questions. I do not think it directly arises from whether you have one half-hour or two quarter-hours. In the days of the quarter-hours the Leader of the Opposition got three bites over the aggregate of the two 15-minutes, and did have those six bites if he wanted to take that entire time. If you take today, Mr Ian Duncan Smith got up at 16 minutes past and was finished three minutes later. You still had the rest of the time for backbench Members, which is certainly no worse, and possibly better, than it was in the old days. That is not to say that I can see that from the point of view of the backbencher on the Conservative side it may well be attractive to have more time for them than for Mr Ian Duncan Smith. I would not imagine you would want us to put that to the vote of the Labour Party.
Chairman: Minister, I congratulate you on your level of briefing before you came to this meeting.
(Mr Cook) The answer to the second question is yes, and the answer to the first point is that we are getting an absurd number of priority questions. As the figures show, we are approaching roughly half of all questions being given priority by the Member tabling the question. I have the greatest respect and affection for my colleagues but I just do not believe that 48 per cent of all questions tabled are really pressing and urgent questions. I do think that we have to try and find some basis in which a cap, or a discipline, is placed upon the use of the Named Day and short notice to elicit the answer. Unavoidably, if almost half of all questions are given priority by the Member and in the context in which the overall volume of questions is sharply increasing anyway, there is going to be a rise in answers that say "We will write or we will get back to you another time. We intend to reply at a future date." That is unavoidable. Personally, I would much rather we could have evolved to a situation in which there were fewer answers which were holding answers and more in the substantive, but to get there we need some realism on the part of Members. Some of the questions asked can be statistically enormously complex and difficult. Unless statistics are held in a convenient way to answer a question, it can involve hours and days of work for civil servants trying to establish what that might be. Mr Bercow - bless him, I make no complaint about him - asks formidable questions of statistical detail which it is just not possible to produce at short notice if you are attempting to do it within the Named Day process. The fairest and most logical way of resolving this would be for Members to be required to demonstrate the urgency to the question: do they need it for a particular event or a date? Is there some external pressing reason of public interest why this question has to be answered in the next three or four days? In truth, I think, that would put the clerks in the Table Office in an impossible position, having an argument with a Member as to whether or not the reason for urgency was bona fide. I personally think that the only way in which we can actually get a grip on this in a way that would be fair to the public servants and fair to Members also would be for there to be a quota of priority questions by a Member so that if you hae used up your quota for the week or the day it would come to an end. To be honest, I am sceptical whether most Members would need to table a priority question on any one day for answer within three or four days in excess of three or four questions.
(Mr Cook) Thousands, in the case of Mr Baker and Mr Bercow - thousands. At this point we have to assert what is the very important principle on which questions are tabled, which is that Government should be open to scrutiny and Members of Parliament are there to carry out that scrutiny. I would be reluctant to impose a quota on the total number of questions that can be asked by a Member. I do think we have to impose a quota on the priority of Named Day questions because, frankly, it is unfair to other Members because resources are being diverted at short notice to get an answer in an unreasonably short period of time at the expense of other Members' questions. Yes, there are questions that go down which, I think, frankly, are a waste of everybody's time, including the poor research assistant who typed it up. I have just answered a question on whether I have carried out a cost-benefit analysis of the exemptions order from the Pensions Act 1999. The exemptions order applies to the three great offices of state: Prime Minister, Speaker and Lord Chancellor. It relates to exempting them from the division on divorce of pension liabilities between partners. To my knowledge we do not have a Speaker, Prime Minister or Lord Chancellor who has actually divorced since coming into office and, in any case, even if they had there is no cost to my office or anybody else's. I really do question whether it makes sense for anybody to table a question inviting me to carry out cost-benefit analysis on such a narrow point.
(Mr Cook) In terms of whether a question has previously been asked, yes, the clerks of the House will not accept a question which replicates a question that has recently been answered or, indeed, recently been refused. You touch on what, I think, is an entirely reasonable point, which is that an awful lot of questions which go down are asking about matters which are easily in the public domain. To be frank, when I was in opposition I found it more useful to wander along the library and ask for information than to try and put questions to the Government. I am not making a party point but I got the answer in more convincing detail and, sometimes, quicker than when I tabled a question to the minister. Since those days the internet has exploded in terms of the availability of information. It is not for us, as a Government, nor for me as Leader of the House, to say Members cannot table what question they want, but possibly they could receive more guidance as to what is available other than going through the process of a question. Perhaps, also, we could do more with the Table Office to encourage Members to think of other ways of getting the information they seek. I think that has to be permissive. I would hesitate to do anything to restrict the right of Members ultimately to table what questions they want. They have had, I am afraid, to have some restriction put upon the use of the Named Day device because that is as expensive in attention to other Members' questions.
(Mr Cook) No doubt, if the Committee is minded to propose that it may wish to propose an experimental period, which will give us an opportunity to see whether it was working out fairly. In fairness to the clerks, if we do propose a quota we have to have it pretty absolute. The moment you leave anything dangling at the edges Members will argue about it, and we have to protect clerks from being in the difficult position of disagreeing with a Member.
(Mr Cook) Yes, I see what you are driving at, Chairman, but, you know, we could give every Member a very generous quota and still halve the number of priority questions at present. I would take a lot of persuading that a generous quota would legitimately and seriously inhibit the ability of a Member to get the urgent questions that he really needed to have urgently answered.
(Mr Cook) Certainly I think it is very important we make sure we protect the integrity of the system, and of course there are technical ways in which that can be done, and your consultant will be better placed than I to advise you on that. In terms of whether it will necessarily stimulate more questions from a Member, it may do but if members of staff want to table questions now they can do so, and they do so. That has been going on for a long time. I remember, back in the 1970s, one of my mining colleagues was impressed that the Tory member was asking a lot of questions on pneumoconiosis compensation and looked out for the member at several division lobbies and never found him. He chased him up in the Conservative Whip's Office and was told that the member very rarely came to Parliament. My colleague complained "No, he asks all these questions on pneumoconiosis", to which the Whips laughed and said "Ah yes, but you see he has a constituency agent whose father died of it and he is always tabling these questions to give the impression he is here." That goes back 30 years, it is not a new phenomenon. I would not let that stand in the way of e-mail.
(Mr Cook) I am not technically qualified to advise on what would be the most robust system of protecting the integrity of the system. I am quite sure, however, that we can do it. It is widely used in other parliaments, it is used even in this Parliament by the other place. There are immense gains from it, of course, for the Member and for the Government, and anything that gets us the answer quicker. If we can put it in a proper electronic basis we can then, of course, provide the reply electronically as well, which would be a great advantage to Members.
(Mr Cook) I said "even a generous quota", I am not lobbying for a generous quota.
(Mr Cook) If you take the totality of questions asked, speaking from memory the current number of Named Day Questions is 48 per cent of the total. That is within a rapidly rising total. I, personally, would have thought, as a rule of thumb - and I am not going to pretend that this has any particular scientific basis - if one-tenth of the questions tabled were urgent it is just about plausible - urgency, here, being defined by you and me to have it before a public meeting or event, or the public's need to know within a specified period before another external public event takes place. I would have thought, in those circumstances, 10 per cent of the total is quite high.
(Mr Cook) It will be difficult. It would require a little bit of short arithmetic, but if we take the current session - and this is only up to the end of January, from June 2001 to January 2002 - we had 41,000 questions tabled. That is a daily rate double the previous three or four sessions. It really is cumulating. Ten per cent of that would be about 4,000. So you are still left with quite a large number of questions available for priority use.
(Mr Cook) 100 would be very generous indeed, because that would aggregate at 60,000 questions, which would exceed our present total. If every Member was tabling, say, ten parliamentary questions in the course of a session, you are still going to end up with 6,500 questions.
Chairman: Thank you very much.
(Mr Cook) I think that if we are going to have electronic tabling of written questions, there is no logical reasoning for resisting electronic tabling of oral questions. I think that you need to have a particular point on the day when the shuffle takes place to decide who is in the top ten, or the top 20, or whatever figure you recommend, but I cab see no reason why that should not be done electronically.
(Mr Cook) First of all, I totally agree with your comment on the long recess. I have always found it a little bit difficult to describe the summer recess, because for those of us in Scotland it is autumn almost anyway. That is why I have put forward proposals that we should rise a bit earlier in July and compensate for that by coming back in September.
(Mr Cook) Yes. The big criticism of the House's long recess occurs in September when the rest of the world is back from holiday, when all the press lobby has filled up, when they are under pressure from their editors to write copy, they have no copy, in the sense that the House did not sit yesterday, so they write copy saying that the Parliament is not sitting and it is a disgrace. So I think there would be a lot of sense in us being back then, and I think it is very important in terms of the proper scrutiny by Parliament and Government that we should not be absent for so long. I think there is an issue that questions are not allowed between the end of July and the beginning of October. That cannot be satisfactory. If we secure that change - which I hope to have in place for next year - then of course questions could be tabled as soon as the House returns in September. You have therefore diminished the period by half during which questions cannot be tabled. Personally, I am in favour of us accepting written questions during the subsequent conference recess which we have identified, rising again in September for the conference season. All Ministers are around for the conference season, nobody is using that time as a holiday period. It would be perfectly reasonable for questions to be tabled then. As you say, Ministers and their staff, and indeed our parliamentary clerks, are also entitled to their holiday. I think that during the bona fide holiday period of the end of July/August period I personally would not wish us to get into the question of accepting questions.
(Mr Cook) No, I think you either allow them or you do not, otherwise you are back to the discretion of the clerks - will they or will they not accept that this question fits these particular circumstances . There is also a wider point here that every department has a duty Minister during the holiday period, and that duty Minister will field all enquiries that come up at a ministerial level and in correspondence too. In a large department like DEFRA, or DTLR or the Home Office that particular duty Minister may not of course be familiar with the particular area of the questioning or of the issue being raised, and therefore I think it would be unreasonable to have a situation in which a duty Minister not familiar with the issue was signing up a parliamentary question on it. That is why I think it would be wise for Parliament, as well as for Government, if we were to confine the tabling and answering of official parliamentary questions to that time, so that the responsible Minister is there to deal with them.
(Mr Cook) I have no plan B at the moment, so I am going for broke, as it were. I would not want to speculate on what we do in the event of a rebuff, but plainly I would not close my mind to the kind of response that you describe. Can I just make one additional point? Whilst I have been quite robust in saying that during that summer recess, July and August, we should not accept questions, I do think, as I mentioned in my memorandum, we could be answering questions, and I do find it unsatisfactory that on the last day of sitting you bring up Hansard and every second question is answered with "I will write to the hon. Member." Rather than have this dealt with by letter, which is necessarily a private exchange, I see no reason at all why we should not, for a fortnight in the summer recess, have a special edition of Hansard in which we print the answers to the written questions that we could not get out before the House rose.
Chairman: I thank you for your modest concession.
(Mr Cook) I would need to consult with my colleagues who are more likely to be exposed to this novel procedure than myself. My specific interest is the narrow one of the parliamentary process and management. I retain, I think, my broad prejudice in favour of questioning taking place on a clear, specific, unannounced scene. I would have a worry, Mr Luke, that if we went down that road people would sharpen their pencils and suck the end of them until they came up with a clever-dick question of the kind we currently see in the Chamber. I do not actually think that that either enhances the process or the parliamentary reputation.
(Mr Cook) Yes.
(Mr Cook) Yes, but Thursday has always been good, clean fun. I enjoy it, I think my audience enjoys it. A little bit of the stress is taken out of it, though, by the fact that I am not the responsible Minister for the questions I am being asked. There is therefore tolerance and good nature in these exchanges. With a Minister they would be rather sharper, if they were actually dealing with the Minister responsible for the area of questioning. I think also one of the great values of the Thursday Business Statement is that it provides a notice-board on which Members can pin up issues of concern to their constituents, which is a very important parliamentary function. Some of those issues raised may be the talking point of their constituency, and it is entirely legitimate that there should be an opportunity in Parliament when they can be raised.
Chairman: Making an observation from the Chair, before I ask Desmond Swayne to ask the last questions, there are many of us in the House who think that Business Questions on the Thursday are the most relevant and important question time of the week, mainly because the Speaker, or the Speaker in the Chair, seeks to call many, if not all, Members who are rising on the Thursday, and it does give Members an opportunity which very often they do not get at any other question time during the week. So from the Chair may I say how much Business Questions are appreciated. I think really that was one of the purposes of what Ian Luke was saying: that we would like, in a way, more opportunities for this sort of occasion. I merely leave that with you as a point.
(Mr Cook) I think your view of the unstarred questions and our Adjournment Debates is pretty close. The proposal being put to me is that we should look at unstarred question which provides for mini-debates rather than simply the sort of very brief Thursday question time we have; and also the fact that a couple of times a week they have a topical question added to that, which enables them to be relevant to the issue of the day or the issue of yesterday. Indeed, I went to the House of Lords earlier this week to observe them doing unstarred questions. I certainly think that we should be willing to learn lessons from other legislatures, and before we roam the world looking for those lessons, we should wander down the corridor and see what lessons there are in our own building. But the culture in the House of Lords is so very different. I therefore think we have to have a degree of commonsense about the extent to which we simply pluck a procedure from the House of Lords and import it into the much more heated culture of the Commons Chamber. Indeed, I could see the exchanges I listened to - the very sober, very serious and heated exchanges in the Lords - having a totally different character in the Chamber where people do interrupt and jeer, for example, in a way that they do not do in the House of Lords. Can I just go back for one second to the question of the informal changes. As I said, I think serious question time is much better done on a clear, designated question that specifies the topic. I can see much merit in more informal exchanges between Ministers and Members of Parliament. Indeed, maybe we can achieve some procedural changes that help to provide for a more mature and more serious culture in the Commons. It would be possible to have those exchanges on a cross-party basis, not just on a single-party basis. But that is not necessarily the process of Parliament. The process of Parliament is always going to be to have a degree of formality, and quite properly so. Maybe outwith the confines of the formal sittings in Parliament or Westminster Hall there could be more opportunities for informal exchanges, but I think that is a separate process from how we tackle reform of scrutiny directly.
(Mr Cook) I would not want to concede that the making of statement was necessarily an advantage to the Executive. I think it is also important to Parliament, and it is an important element of scrutiny, which is why Opposition are vigorously demanding more statements not fewer statements. I would want to reflect on the possibility of a topical question of the kind to which you referred. In my mind, it is a matter which I would hope to discuss with colleagues. Indeed, I would welcome the Procedure Committee discussing it as part of its inquiry. One point I would make is that we have discussed earlier on how we make Oral Question Time more topical. I think it is important and essential that we do that. Of course, what is a topical issue at the moment may not happen to be within the subject area of the department which then bids for oral questions, and therefore perhaps one needs to think creatively and innovatively as to whether there are ways in which issues which do not belong to that department can be raised at question time.
Chairman: Thank you.
(Mr Cook) The trade-off might be tempting. I think I would want to have carefully thought over any such proposals. If it were put in as a trade-off, I am sure I would be willing to sit down and contemplate it. Of course, there are rules for Private Members' Questions which they have to satisfy in terms of their urgency and their basic importance, and therefore it does not lend itself in its present format to an arithmetical quota in advance. I think also one is bound to say that there may also be a trade-off. If we do go down the road of topical questions, what then is the point of the present PNQ system? There may be an issue to be addressed there as well. All of these things I think have to be taken in the round. I am very conscious that there is a danger, when we approach modernisation, that we take issues one at a time, without looking at the cumulative effect, which is why I welcomed the way in which you referred to potential trade-offs that may be there. Of course, in fairness to the nation out there, they do require a government that functions and does its business. That does mean that Ministers have to be able to spend some time at their desk getting on with business. That is very much in the interests of Parliament as well as of the citizens. We therefore want to make sure that whatever changes we make entirely enable Parliament to function and enable Ministers to get on with that.
(Mr Cook) Thank you very much, Chairman. If I can help in any written form to follow up any points, I would be very pleased to do so.
Chairman: Thank you for the offer. Thank you very much.