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Intriguingly, the luxury of time today has enabled me to notice that there was one additional question on the home computing initiative that day. It could have been grouped with the others, but was not. I do not want to make a party political point, save for the small observation that that ungrouped question happened to come from a Labour Member. I do not know how that could have happened, but there we are: perhaps he was asking about a matter that the Government were
anxious to emphasise, whereas they did not want to discuss my concerns, such as those that had to do with the level of consultation with the industry before the decision was taken.
Eight of my questions were not answered at all in the omnibus reply. One was answered partially, and precisely oneand only onewas answered fully and properly. I needed the answers to be able to find out what was going on so that I could deal with the industry and my constituents, and the Table Office fully shared my concern about the extraordinary way that my questions had been grouped. That is almost unprecedented, but the office was a great help in enabling me to ask two follow-up questions.
The questions concerned were grouped to enable a full, substantive statement to be made in the House.[ Official Report, 16 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 831W.]
A week later I asked a further question about the considerations taken into account when decisions about grouping were made, and I received a restatement of the previous answer, citing a full, substantive statement. In fact, it was no such thing: instead, I am forced to conclude that it was a pretty blatant attempt to avoid giving me information that would probably be available under the freedom of information legislation.
As I say, I like the Paymaster General, and in fairness to her I must say that a letter from her happened to come in the post this morningI am sure that the timing is accidental. I can only regard the letter as conciliatory, as it invites me to work with the Government on the development of a new digital inclusion strategy. I am grateful for that acknowledgement that the precipitate abolition of the home computing initiative created a hole in the Governments strategy. That should not have been allowed to happen, but normal relations have now been resumed.
I want to say somethingbriefly and, I hope, not too pompouslyas Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee. It is a little foolish of the Department of Trade and Industry, which I think shares my concerns about the abolition of the home computing initiative, not to have replied at all to my four questionsthree in March and one in Aprilon the subject. If I were at the DTI, I should reply to questions from the Select Committee Chairman more promptly than that.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend realise that his account demonstrates a worrying change in the culture of the civil service when it comes to answering parliamentary questions? When he was in Whitehalladmittedly that is some years ago nowwas not the view taken that hon. Members were responsible for phrasing questions succinctly and crisply to elicit specific information, but that it was the duty of the Department to give full, factual and accurate responses, and not to try to conceal information in the way that he has described?
Peter Luff: I am grateful for that point, with which I agree. I am about to offer the Government a case for the defence, because there are issues that the House needs to address, too. In the particular case of the home computing initiative, I think that there was a deliberate attempt to withhold information, but other answers have a more innocent explanation so far as the Government are concerned, and we must look to ourselves for a significant share of the blame, some of which we all must share.
Four years ago, the Procedure Committee conducted a survey of Members views on questions and received 167 responses. Broadly, it concluded that the system was generally thought to be pretty effective, but that the speed of answers was not sufficient and there was a problem with the quality of many answers. I submit that those problems have got considerably worse in the four years since then.
The Select Committee on Public Administration has also been monitoring ministerial answers and their quality for several years, but I see no evidence that that important work is having the effect that it ought to have.
Let us put our own House in order, however, before we tell the Government what to do. Members of Parliament are tabling too many questionsfar too many questions. This has no doubt led to many Ministers feeling, quite fairly and legitimately, swamped and unable to deal with the deluge in sufficient detail and with sufficient speed. It also leads, I suspect, to the setting up of centralised answering units in Departments, which are an extremely unwelcome development.
The use of the questions procedure has grown significantly. Perhaps some historical perspective will help. In the Session of 1847 there were 129 questionsan average of about one a day. I think that they were all oral questions, as the principle of written questions had not then been established. I have a lengthy exposition at my disposal on the development of the number of questions asked, but I shall cut straight to the more relevant, recent dates. The Table Office has helpfully provided me with figures for the questions tabled in each financial year since the millennium. The House, of course, operates its Sessions over a different year, but these figures are for the financial years because that is the basis on which the House of Commons Commission works, and they are useful.
There were an average of 302 questions each day in 2000-01; there were 460 in 2001-02; there were 463 in 2002-03; there were 472 in 2003-04; there were 456 in 2004-05; and there were 596 in 2005-06. Those figures include orals, which account for between 20 and 30 a day. There is a different procedure for oralsthe shuffle, in which only those that come out on top are printedand orals are a constant, and a small proportion of the total. The figures give a measure of growthfrom 300 to 600 over that period.
dealt with by the Table Office each day.
They represent questions that appear on the Order Paper, so refer to orderly questions. For questions offered to be tabled, including those that are cardedthe procedure by which a question
challenged at the Table Office will bring the Member a card asking him or her to go to discuss it with the Clerksthe figure for 2005-06 was 656 per day. The overall trend is sharply up. At the end of that year, the Table Office was receiving 33 per cent. more questions every day than it had just 12 months previously.
I have not done my research in detail, and I shall not name and shame anyone this evening, but it seems that the increase is caused by a relatively small number of Members. For example, on 15 June last year, of the 367 ordinary written questions that appeared in the blue pages of the Order Papernot including 73 named-day questions and 25 oralssome four Members accounted for 174, or 47 per cent. of the total. It is not always the same four Members, of course, but I understand that there is a pretty strong pattern identifying 20 or so Members who make a significantly greater use than the rest of us of written questions.
What are the reasons for that increase in question numbers? First, it has become too easy to ask a question. The Procedure Committee found that there was overwhelming support for electronic tabling of questions: something like 74 per cent. of those who responded were in favour, with 24 per cent. against. I say, however, that popularity is not always a good guide to propriety. Although questions may be received only if a Member signs up for e-tabling and uses the dedicated system, when a question comes to the Table Office by that route there is no way of determining whether there really is a Member at the other end. Strictly speaking, of course, a Member will use the system personally and not give his log-in details or his password to anyone else. But we live in the real world, and we know what really happens.
The use of e-tabling has increased sharply. At present, 310 Members are signed up for the system. In May, 176 Members tabled one or more questions by that method and the top tabler tabled 197 e-questions. Over the whole year 2005-06, the percentage of all questions e-tabled was 29.6, but the proportion is increasing, and hit 40 per cent. for the first time in February 2006. E-tabling has made things too easy.
I shall be even more controversial by saying that another reason for the increase in questions is pure and simple laziness. There has been a significant change in the character of parliamentary questions. More than ever, they are used for acquiring large chunks of statistical information or general knowledge, not to inquire into aspects of Government policy, which I consider to be their prime purpose. One might think that a Library, a website or a reference book would have provided the Member with an answer more easily and much more cheaply.
Some Members do not first check whether the information is already in the public domain; Departments provide a great deal of information online; I have reservations about their use of websitesbut that is the subject of another debate. Members do not need to ask parliamentary questions to find the information but, without betraying any confidences, I can tell the House that I have heard Members engage in exchanges, often robust, with Table Office staff about their right to ask questions, after they have been called in because their question was
carded. I have also seen Members happily throw away significant numbers of carded questions without a seconds thought. Obviously, their commitment to those questions variesprobably in inverse proportion to their authorship. A question drafted by a Member has more emotional capital invested in it than one drafted, and tabled, by a researcher.
When I asked how many carded questions drew a Member into the Table Office to discuss them, I was really surprised by the reply. Detailed records are not kept so the figure is only a guess, but the order of magnitude is right: the Table Office estimates that only about 30 per cent. of questions carded as not being in order and needing to be discussed are actually followed up by the Members who tabled them. The other 70 per cent. just lapse and go into the wastepaper basket. Not much commitment there, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I shall make an enemy with my third accusation. Why are we so obsessed with volume? It is a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, and the danger of performance indicators. I put much of the obsession down to a desire on the part of some MPs to provide tangible evidence that they have been working. Some MPs table long lists of questions in an attempt to appear active, just as some Members table and sign large numbers of early-day motions to pretend the same thing. We all know that early-day motions are usually parliamentary graffiti, and many written questions are not much better these days. Researchers are often drafted into helping with the task of giving the appearance of usefulness. The questions are then submitted, with no scrutiny at all from the Member, on pre-signed forms, and dropped into the box outside the Table Office or tabled electronically.
Chief among the villains is a well-meaning website, www.theyworkforyou.com, which provides numerical rankings of MPs parliamentary activity, referred to as performance data. For example, to choose a Member at random, the website includes the revelation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has received answers to 35 written questions in the last year323rd out of 644 MPs. It also states that he has attended 36 per cent. of votes in Parliament, coming 628th out of 644 MPs. Those are hardly high scores, although I suspect that they are much higher than those of one or two members of the CabinetI name no namesbut they are certainly not an accurate reflection of the work done by the Leader of Her Majestys official Opposition. Those activities are not the best use of his time.
has used a three-word alliterative phrase (e.g. she sells seashells).
Such websites do, to some extent, help people to engage with politics, but it is entirely misleading to imply that an MPs performance can be judged simply in terms of the numbers of questions asked, votes participated in or even alliterations uttered. Numbers are a very crude indicator of effectiveness. One good question is better than 100 bad ones. Indeed, often one short questionparticularly in oral questionsis better. The single word Why? can often floor a
Minister much more effectively than anything else. However, we are now in an arms race in which what can be measured will always count for more than intelligent analysis of what has been achieved. That is very worrying.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): At the risk of making lots of enemies, may I suggest that the media play a part in that? The other aspect is the publication of Members allowances. A number of media organisations do the crude sum of dividing ones allowance by the number of times one has spoken or the number of questions one has tabled. In that way, they work out a value-for-money indicator. If that is how we are judged, Members will be driven to focus on quantity, not quality.
Peter Luff: I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has made a valuable additional point. We have to be extremely careful about that. I see the Deputy Chief Whip on the Government Front Bench. He is not allowed to participate in our debates or to ask written parliamentary questions, so he scores zero on all those things, but he is a very effective Member of Parliament. He has more access to Ministers and more influence than I do, and can probably achieve as much or more for his constituents. However, that is all entirely invisible. On the performance indicator that my hon. Friend has just identified, the Deputy Chief Whip would do extremely badly, but that would be a monstrously unfair representation of his contribution in the House.
The problems with asking too many questions are very simple. I do not want to repeat myself. My main concern is the long delays in answering questions, as they stack up in Departments, and the reduced quality of the answers that inevitably flows from that. Interestingly enough, a witness before the Procedure Committee, a former colleague of ours, Andrew Bennett, said:
We have gone for quantity rather than quality. There is a major problem that some junior ministers spend all their time rushing around...here there and everywhere. They do not have time to think about the answers, particularly to written questions, so they just sign off whatever the civil servant puts in front of them. There are far too many questions and it would make a big difference if there were fewer but there were far better answers to them.
The answer is not the artificial rationing of questions. If the questions matter, they should be asked and there should be no arbitrary limit on them. The trick is to make sure that they do matter. Effective scrutiny and effective defence of our constituents depends on our unfettered ability to ask the questions that must be asked to get to the bottom of an issue, whatever that issue may be. There have been occasionsat the time of foot and mouth disease, and when there was a proposal for an asylum centre in my constituency, which raised interesting questionswhen I have asked large numbers of questions. An arbitrary cap would have inhibited my ability to serve my constituents properly.
There is also the question of cost. We must acknowledge that questions are an expensive business. The business of holding the Executive to account is important and merits spending money, but such a tool should not be used irresponsibly. Five years ago the
average cost of answering a written question was estimated to be £129 and that of answering an oral question £299. Asking questions is an expensive business, and we must be careful how we use the tool.
I have indulged in the luxury of more time and have made my points at greater length than I might otherwise have done. Let me turn to what I suggest are three possible remedies. The House has a less legitimate right to complain about inadequate answers if individual Members are abusing the system. I am clear that many answers are inadequate, and I am clear that many Members are abusing the system. I am also clear about what needs to be done, although other Members may have different suggestions to deal with the menace that I have identified. I propose three simple measures to reduce the number of questions tabled, in the hope that as a result, Ministers will feel able to pay more attention to their replies.
Although my remedies are procedural, it is worth emphasising that, as I said earlier, it would help if we thought a bit more carefully about where we could find things out. Training in both the sources of information available and the purpose of parliamentary questions would help. Parliamentary questions are not a short-cut research tool, but a vital part of the politicians armoury to hold the Government to account. My three proposals will not be popular with all Members, but they are important. They are based on the principle that if a thing is worth asking about, it is worth making a bit effort to ask about it.
First, we should end the electronic tabling of questionsat least while the system is examined for abuse. We know that it is being abused. Our individual convenience should not come ahead of the integrity of the whole system. True parliamentary modernisation is not about making things easier for Members or the Executive, or even using new technology for its own sake because it is there. It should be about making Parliament more relevant. The loss of e-tabling may be regretted by the anoraks and nerds, but it should be welcomed by all true parliamentary democrats.
My second proposal is that we should require all questions to be tabled in person by Members, not their staff. I repeat that if a question is worth asking, it is worth making the effort. The proposal would be a form of rationing through which those who made the effort would get the reward. There would be no more dropping parliamentary questions in the box outside the Table Office. Members of Parliament would actually have to go through the door in person and hand their questions to the hard-working and helpful Clerks who frequent the office. Members might find that their questions were improved in the process if they sought a bit of advice from the Clerks.
If we could table questions when the House was not sitting, the proposal would require the Table Office to be staffed for at least part of the summer recess. As I have the luxury of more time, I will make my next point at more length than I had intended. I do not favour a return to September sittings, for a range of reasons that are outside the terms of the debate, but the House should find it easier to hold the Government to account during the recess. One way of achieving that would be to allow Members to table written parliamentary questions during the recess.
I am aware of two Select Committee recommendations on this matter, although there are probably others. The third report of the Procedure Committee in 2001-02, entitled Parliamentary Questions, said:
We therefore recommend that with effect from 1 September each year, Members should be permitted to table written questions...this change should be made irrespective of whether the Governments proposals for September sittings of the House are adopted.
during recess periods...the Table Office should be open every Thursday during specified hours.
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