UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 337-i

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE

PROCEDURE COMMITTEE

 

 

WRITTEN PARLIAMENTARY QUESTIONS

 

 

Wednesday 11 March 2009

 

MS JACQY SHARPE, MR NICK WALKER, MS KAREN SAUNDERS

and MS LYNN LEWIS
CHRIS BRYANT MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 87

 

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Transcribed by the Official Shorthand Writers to the Houses of Parliament:

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 11 March 2009

Members present

Mr Greg Knight, in the Chair

Ms Katy Clark

Mr Roger Gale

John Hemming

Mrs Siān C James

Sir Robert Smith

Sir Peter Soulsby

_____________

Witnesses: Ms Jacqy Sharpe, Principal Clerk, Table Office, Mr Nick Walker, Table Office, Ms Karen Saunders, Table Office, and Ms Lynn Lewis, Editorial Supervisor of the Vote, gave evidence.

Q1 Chairman: Welcome and thank you for coming along. We are quite a way through our report into written questions. Although we have already had some evidence from the Principal Clerk, David Natzler, we thought we would like to update ourselves about the present position as you see it. Perhaps the best way to deal with it is to ask you a question en bloc and you can choose who would like to answer it. One of the reasons we started the inquiry was the substantial rise in the number of written questions since 2005. What is the current trend? Is it still going up or has it plateaued?

Mr Walker: I can update the statistics with which you have already been supplied. The overall position is that there has been a continued and steady increase in the number of written parliamentary questions with quite a marked jump round the beginning of the current session last autumn. There has also been an increase in the number of e-tabled WPQs in both absolute and proportional terms. The main statistic we keep is of the number of questions which appear on the following day's notice paper - the blues - which is almost never the same as those actually tabled by Members the previous day. The average number appearing on the blues per sitting day in calendar year 2007 was 414; in calendar year 2008 it was 434; and in 2009 up to last Friday the number was 514. In terms of e-tabled questions, the average number of WPQs received by the office, not necessarily appearing on the paper, was 183 in calendar year 2007; in 2008 it was 206; and in 2009 to date - it is a short period and maybe not wholly representative - the number is 320. In the past few months the proportion of WPQs e-tabled has regularly exceeded 50 per cent of all WPQs tabled. We have noticed that trend since October of last year. It reached a peak proportion of 69 per cent in January. That may or may not be a blip; we do not know.

Q2 Chairman: Do you have any theory as to why there was an increase in the autumn?

Mr Walker: I do not believe we have any particular theory as to why there was a jump. There always tends to be an increase at the start of a session with Members tabling questions that perhaps did not get an answer in the previous one. That is a regular phenomenon, but the increase at the start of the current session seems to be slightly more marked.

Q3 Chairman: Do you believe you have sufficient resources properly to handle the current level of questions?

Ms Sharpe: We certainly hope that we are handling them properly. At the moment we have five clerks in the lower office dealing with questions on a rota basis. If we continue at this level we may need to consider whether it would be necessary to have a sixth clerk to help us with the questioning.

Q4 Chairman: David Natzler identified a problem when late in the day a large number of questions was brought in. If we were to recommend that for example any written questions brought to you after the moment of interruption could be left over to the next day would that be of any help to you?

Mr Walker: At the moment we have a cut-off of half an hour after the moment of interruption, so it is 10.30 on Mondays and Tuesdays, 7.30 on Wednesdays and 6.30 on Thursdays. One phenomenon we have noticed which we believe is associated with e-tabling is that large numbers of questions arrive through the e-tabling system in the late afternoon/early evening. It seems to me that perhaps after a Member or his research assistant has spent the day preparing questions they come at the end of his working day but in the evening for us. Sometimes it can be quite difficult for us to digest that number of questions in the evening. One possibility is to make an earlier cut-off time for e-tabled questions. Another possibility that we are looking at, which would in no way would affect Members' right to e-table questions, would be to place a limit on the number each could have in his or her basket before sending them off to the Table Office. Therefore, after a Member had drafted 30 questions the system would not allow him or her to draft any more until those had been sent off to the Table Office. The Member could then start a new basket. It would not affect the total number; it would just mean that questions would have to be sent in regularly to the Table Office rather than arrive in a huge pile at the end of the day. That is one possibility we have been considering.

Ms Sharpe: We would not wish in any sense to limit the time at which Members can themselves bring in questions. If a Member wished to come in with a question at the moment of interruption certainly we would wish to deal with it. Mr Natzler did not suggest that an earlier cut-off should apply to those questions that Members brought in personally.

Q5 Sir Robert Smith: In previous evidence reference was made to the rising number of round robin and identical questions to all departments and a lot of questions being tabled by opposition front bench Members. Have you noticed any recent trends in the types of questions? Do you have any further evidence on that?

Ms Sharpe: There are certainly a number of round robins. I have been back in this office only since the beginning of November. I do not notice the number as being larger than the last time I was there at the end of the 1980s.

Mr Walker: I do not think there has been any significant change in round robins in the past year or so. We receive a lot of round robins. Sometimes the question asked in a round robin is patently inappropriate to a particular department or minister. We try to weed them out but we know that sometimes such inappropriate round robin questions are asked of departments.

Q6 Sir Robert Smith: Do you mean that because of the volume it is difficult to spot that a particular question is inappropriate?

Mr Walker: That is exactly right; it is to do with volume. In terms of the Members who are tabling, we still have highly prolific Members most of whom are not on the Opposition or Liberal Democrat Front Bench, but some backbenchers table a lot of questions and a high proportion of WPQs are still attributable to the top 20, as you would expect in any kind of statistical distribution.

Q7 Sir Robert Smith: Nowadays how easy is it to spot whether a question has already been answered or the information is already in the public domain?

Ms Sharpe: The office tries to identify any questions which have been answered. We read the answers each day in Hansard and then rely on our upper office to do a search on PIMS to see whether they can identify questions. We would mark them "last asked" and try to get the information that way. We identify a lot of questions where the answer is already available.

Q8 Sir Robert Smith: This inquiry has been going on for a while. In February 2007 the then Leader of the House expressed concern that many questions seemed to be "without serious value" and were "trivial or frivolous". Is that a judgment you can make?

Ms Sharpe: It is a judgment we would make very reluctantly. We may very occasionally card a question on the grounds of being trivial. Members have reasons to ask questions that we do not know and we would do it very rarely and with extreme reluctance.

Q9 Sir Peter Soulsby: It was suggested at one stage that the Freedom of Information Act might make a difference to the volume or nature of questions and provide a more productive alternative to certain types of questions. Have you detected any impact of the Act on the volume of questions which is clearly growing or their nature?

Ms Sharpe: I am not aware of any. Obviously, the reasons for questions are different from freedom of information. One never wants to confuse them because questions are part of parliamentary proceedings and FOI requests are not. I have not been aware of a great impact. I do not know whether Mr Walker is aware of it.

Mr Walker: I am not aware of an impact on the nature or number of questions we receive. Members will sometimes make observations to us in the office about the use to which they put Freedom of Information Act or parliamentary questions, but there is nothing in terms of the contents of the questions tabled.

Q10 Ms Clark: How well do you think Members understand the existing rules on tabling?

Ms Sharpe: Some of the rules are probably quite difficult to understand. Obviously, we are always very happy to discuss with Members how a rule might apply to their questions and how they might be reworded to enable them to ask an orderly question. We would certainly give consideration, if you thought it helpful, to the provision of some guidance to Members on the rules and how they apply in particular cases so that Members have a clearer idea of what the rules are and how they affect them.

Q11 Ms Clark: Do you get the impression that there are particular rules Members find frustrating?

Ms Sharpe: I think questions relating to matters which have been devolved are frustrating to Members. That is one of those instances where it is very difficult to think of an alternative way to frame the question. Some Members also find the rule about basis quite frustrating. Obviously, we take their word if they say there is a basis for a particular question, but usually it means that the Member needs to come and talk to somebody in the office to establish that there is a basis.

Mr Walker: Quite understandably, Members often think that under the basis rule they are in a Catch 22 situation. They are asking a question to find out information and we are asking what basis they have for thinking that such information exists, but there is nearly always a way of getting round that rule except in cases where the question seems to imply some kind of misdemeanour or misbehaviour on the part of a minister.

Q12 Chairman: Further to that, approximately what percentage of questions where the Member has not brought them in personally do you have to card?

Mr Walker: The overall number of questions that are carded wholly or in part is between 10 and 15 per cent. That is the best estimate we can make; we do not have precise figures. It is likely, though we have not made the calculation, that that figure is higher in respect of questions that the Member has not handed in personally and have come through the post, been e-tabled or have been brought in by somebody else simply because at the moment there is no opportunity to discuss if the Member wishes any issues which might arise.

Q13 Ms Clark: You will be aware it has been suggested that there could be a codification of the rules. Do you think that would be useful?

Ms Sharpe: Obviously, that is a matter for the Committee. If it was codified it would probably need to be informal because if it became too formal it would in a sense be like a standing order and any change in the codification might have to go to the floor of the House to be considered. I think guidance that was authoritative but not binding in the same way as a standing order or formal codification would probably be more helpful.

Q14 Ms Clark: Do you see any other risks or negative aspects of codification?

Ms Sharpe: It might be difficult to ensure that it was always topical. Sometimes the pattern of answering might change the way one approaches or implements the rules. If it is formally codified there may be a delay in reflecting that in any new codification.

Q15 Ms Clark: Are you aware of any disparities between the rules used by your office when deciding whether to allow a question to be tabled and the guidance given to government departments for answering questions, for example in deciding whether a question is sub judice?

Ms Sharpe: I think that for something like sub judice we would be working to the same rules because obviously it is quite clear where a matter is before the courts. I am not aware of what guidance government departments would be given in respect of other matters. We are entrusted by Mr Speaker with the job of looking at questions and making sure the rules are followed and obviously that is our prime responsibility.

Mr Walker: We apply the House's sub judice resolution which may mean that on occasions Members are able to raise matters, for example the judicial review of a ministerial decision on which a department might not particularly wish to comment either on the floor of the House or elsewhere, but within the rules of the House that is permissible. What ministers say is then a matter for themselves to account for.

Q16 Ms Clark: Do you monitor questions where the government refuses to provide an answer? Have you noted any particular areas where the government refuses to answer? Are any themes coming through?

Ms Sharpe: We certainly keep note of questions where the government has declined to answer, for example in areas like national security and individual tax affairs. There may be some others.

Mr Walker: Probably the two main reasons are disproportionate cost and the fact that the information is not collected centrally. We do not have a systematic means of recording answers. We try to read Hansard and see where the government is not answering or the types of questions that it says it is unable to answer. We would do that purely for the purposes of advising Members who wished to table similar questions in future.

Q17 Ms Clark: You will be aware that previously the Select Committee on Public Administration monitored "blocked" questions. Do you think there is still a need for parliamentary monitoring of "blocked" questions? If so, who do you think should carry it out and how do you think it can be done in the most effective way?

Ms Sharpe: It may be a matter for another committee. Obviously, this Committee would be one possibility. The Liaison Committee which establishes core tasks for committees might be another way of doing it. However, I noted that in its report published today the Liaison Committee warns that committees' much prized autonomy and quality of scrutiny may be reduced if they are overloaded with demands. I have not read the report because it has just come out but that point is emphasised in its press notice. Whether they would be receptive to that is obviously a matter for them.

Q18 Mr Gale: I take you back to the issue of authenticity and the involvement of Members in questions. First, how valuable is face-to-face contact with individual Members when questions are being tabled?

Ms Sharpe: I think it is valuable because it means that Members usually have the opportunity to table a question which, if it is brought in by hand, may have to be carded and the process may be delayed. About 90 per cent of problems with questions could be solved by discussing them with the Member. Assuming as we do that the Member wishes the question to be tabled as soon as possible, obviously that would remove some of the delay and ensure that the question was as near as possible what the Member wanted. Sometimes the problems are small. It may be that perhaps we cannot read something and therefore the question is delayed unnecessarily whereas if we can see the Member it can be sorted out very quickly.

Q19 Mr Gale: To reduce delay have you ever considered electronic carding and just sending the Member an email?

Mr Walker: We do that at the request of Members.

Q20 Mr Gale: The Member must request it and then you will do it?

Mr Walker: That is right.

Ms Saunders: Perhaps I may say that I automatically email Members when it is short notice.

Q21 Mr Gale: The former Leader of the House expressed concern that electronic tabling had removed the Members' imprint from some questions. Do you think there is merit in that argument?

Ms Sharpe: We assume that questions come from the Members.

Q22 Mr Gale: If that is so let us come to the authentication process. Clearly, it is important that you and the House are satisfied it is the Member and not somebody else who tables the question. If we are to go on down this road and face-to-face contact with Members is to diminish are you satisfied that the authentication process is strong enough, or is there a better or different way to ensure that it is the Member who is tabling the question?

Ms Sharpe: I think that at the moment we are operating on a weak authentication process. Obviously, it could be made stronger by the use of a thumbprint, pass or some other mechanism. It is really a question of whether this Committee thinks it is justified in doing so. I do not think we have a personal view on it.

Mr Walker: It might be helpful to us in the Table Office if we had some guidance from the Procedure Committee as to exactly what level of authentication is acceptable. At the moment despite what my colleague says we have no way of knowing in some circumstances whether a Member has seen an e-tabled question. We think that in most cases the Member will have authorised the question however directly or indirectly. In many cases the Member himself or herself will compose and send in the question. One phenomenon that causes us some difficulty is when a lot of e-tabled questions arrive. We have a problem with a proportion of them which we send back to the letter board. The Member's office rings us up and asks us to send them back to the letter board, which is fine. They go back to the Member by that means and then another batch of question comes in and we cannot be certain in those circumstances that the Member is aware of the problems we have experienced and taken them into account in redrafting the new questions.

Q23 Mr Gale: Those of us who habitually table questions only on a face-to-face basis value the input of the clerks of the Table Office because not infrequently, unfortunately, your phraseology is better than ours but also because it enables us to argue the toss with you if you think something is out of order and we do not. It places a considerable onus upon you, but how would you feel about being given the power to card electronically-tabled questions where you were in any doubt as to their provenance? Would you welcome that or consider it to be beyond your remit?

Ms Sharpe: I think it would be impossible for us to judge. Personally, I would not welcome it. Obviously, if something comes from a Member's account we accept that it is authorised by that Member.

Q24 Mr Gale: Would it help you if as a committee we recommended a strengthening of the guidelines to Members and the understanding that individual Members are required to take personal and particular responsibility for every question tabled in their name?

Ms Sharpe: I think that would be a welcome statement of what we hope and understand is the practice.

Mr Walker: I agree that there could be more clarity.

Q25 Sir Robert Smith: Despite having quite strong Luddite tendencies, is not the historical perception that even before the advent of computers there was a rumour that Members signed a whole batch of preprinted questions, so anything arriving by post is susceptible to the same question mark as something that arrives electronically, except that electronically there may be a temptation to increase the volume because the workload is easier.

Ms Sharpe: Yes, I take that point.

Q26 Mrs James: The next series of questions is related to the tabling of questions and their number, in particular late answers et cetera. What do you consider to be a fair interval for an answer to be considered "late"? What impact would a definite deadline for answering have on the tabling of questions and the quality and timeliness of answers to questions?

Ms Sharpe: Obviously, it is a matter for your Committee and the House to decide definitively what a late answer would be. The government has said that normally it aims for a week, but in general it would be regarded as a little difficult to insist that all questions should be answered within a week because some may demand a lot of extra work and cover a large number of issues to be considered. The problem with any limited number is that one might encourage an answer to be given so that the date is met but it is less substantive and helpful than would be possible if there was slightly more time to answer and the department was not viewed as being late. I also wonder whether one might encounter a greater number of "disproportionate cost" answers if there was a date by which it had to be answered and therefore more officials and greater expense would be involved in trying to get the information, but obviously that is a matter for government to work out.

Q27 Mrs James: On the back of that, do you see benefit in producing a regular list of questions, perhaps quarterly, which at the time have not received an answer? Do you think that is achievable?

Ms Sharpe: There might well be a benefit. You will be aware that the House of Lords has a system for identifying late answers, but its scale of questions is much smaller. At the moment it is quite difficult to identify late answers by PIMS to be absolutely certain that the information is correct. It may be possible to interrogate Hansard to get the data required, and we would certainly be happy to look into that if the Committee thought it useful. When PIMS gets its replacement system - my colleague is more expert on it than I - it may be possible to put it through that. The other possibility is to ask departments to make reports to their departmental committees or this Committee or perhaps to put the information in the Library on a regular basis. One assumes that for its internal processes a department will have a record of when a question comes in and when it is answered and that might be able to be transmitted.

Q28 Mrs James: Do you think there would be benefit in producing a sessional assessment of departmental performance in answering questions? Do you think that is possible given your resources and the pressure of the number of questions?

Ms Sharpe: One could produce a list of questions which had not been answered. It would not necessarily reflect departmental performance because some departments may have a huge number of questions and others very few. That is an issue that needs to be taken into account. In addition it would not necessarily reflect when the questions emerged. If a department suddenly received a lot of questions a week before Prorogation it might be almost impossible to answer all of them and therefore that would be reflected in the statistics and skew them.

Mr Walker: There are two aspects of performance: timeliness and quality of response as perceived by the Member. We cannot get involved in fairly subjective and political discussions about whether or not answers are adequate in terms of quality. In some circumstances there may be a trade-off. If you put pressure on departments to answer within a certain period quality may suffer. Obviously, that is a judgment for others to make.

Q29 Mrs James: You talk about the timeliness and quality of the answers. I find it a little difficult to imagine. Unless we put pressure on departments by setting deadlines and evaluating performance what else are we left with?

Mr Walker: It used to be the case that Members had an unlimited number of so-called name day questions and could insist on departments answering tem within a certain number of days. That was eventually rationed because it was thought that Members were tabling questions which really did not require urgent answers. The Committee on Procedure looked at it and the House agreed to ration the number of name day questions. I am not saying it is inevitable, but if you increase the pressure in one way the question is whether it will affect the quality of answers that emerge.

Q30 Mrs James: Do you think it would be useful if we went back to a similar system?

Mr Walker: I do not have any comment on that.

Q31 Chairman: We appreciate Jacqy's point about the seven days, but I would have thought that in these days of electronic communication within departments a period of 14 days would be seen by many people to be a reasonable time beyond which an answer is deemed to be late. Do you agree with that?

Ms Sharpe: It is very much a matter for you, but I certainly understand the point behind it.

Q32 Sir Robert Smith: When we went down the road of electronic questions one of the naļve thoughts was that there would be a seamless flow as information went whizzing round by electronic means to government departments which they handled electronically and it came whizzing back. None of that has happened yet, but there is talk in government of some kind of electronic handling of questions. Will that alter the interface between Parliament and Whitehall in terms of, first, gathering statistics and, second, perhaps the processing of questions?

Ms Sharpe: This is the electronic parliamentary community as I think it is called. If government departments and the House use the same electronic system it may become easier to identify them, but as far as I understand this has not yet been finalised and there is no firm business case to take it forward.

Mr Walker: At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, to use your earlier expression, at the moment we in the Table Office see no way round the need to edit questions in pencil so we have a clear audit trail of what the Member originally drafted, any changes we have made to it, any suggested changes and any reasons we think it needs to be carded so that on the face of each question everything can be seen. It is much more difficult to do that in electronic terms. Although it may be puzzling to Members the e-tabling system in effect is simply a means of transmitting information to us in a different form and those questions are then printed out and treated in exactly the same way as any other questions received in hard copy. Clearly, there is scope particularly within government for greater electronic co-ordination of the questions system and we are prepared to play our full part in that along with other parts of the House service which has an interest and role, including the Official Report.

Q33 John Hemming: You may be aware of my interest in unsatisfactory answers provided by departments. There is no formal appeals mechanism. Obviously, you can table a pursuant question. Do you think there is a need for a more formal appeals mechanism if a Member receives an answer that he or she considers unsatisfactory? What do you see as the risks of such a mechanism?

Ms Sharpe: As my colleague said, the difficulty is identifying what is an unsatisfactory answer.

Q34 John Hemming: If the Member considers it to be unsatisfactory?

Ms Sharpe: If the Member considers it to be unsatisfactory he or she has the opportunity to pursue the matter, perhaps raising the matter in business questions or seeking an adjournment on the issue.

Q35 John Hemming: Or seeking to raise it in business questions?

Ms Sharpe: You are quite right to correct me. It is very difficult to think of the operation of some other formal appeals system other than perhaps going to another committee to adjudicate upon it.

Mr Walker: It is a political matter and will have to be dealt with at that level. The Committee on Public Administration used to do it.

Q36 John Hemming: But it did not look at adequacy, did it? It looked at whether it was adequate at all.

Mr Walker: It looked at various aspects of the whole system. The Committee on Communities and Local Government looked at the adequacy of some answers or the government's practice in answering questions. On the other hand, these are normally matters of interest to the individual Member who is frustrated because he or she feels that the question has not been properly answered. It seems to me that normally it is the Member who looks for ways to follow it up. I believe that ultimately political pressure is the only route.

Q37 John Hemming: Do you have any rough idea of how many questions are inadequately answered according to Members?

Ms Sharpe: I do not think we keep a list of pursuance.

Mr Walker: Purely anecdotally, occasionally a Member will come into the office and say to us directly that he or she feels an answer is unsatisfactory and asks us how best to frame a follow-up question to try to get further information. Apart from that, I do not believe there is any way to gauge the extent of dissatisfaction of Members as a whole.

Chairman: I think that is fair comment because for every one Member who comes to you unhappy there may be another half-dozen who are unhappy but just look for other ways to pursue it without notifying you.

Q38 John Hemming: In a sense it raises another question: would the Table Office be willing to have a role in recording when Members consider an answer unsatisfactory?

Ms Sharpe: If the Committee recommended it and there was a formal record of a Member being unhappy about an answer, as opposed to anecdotal evidence, it could be done.

Q39 John Hemming: The Member would have to fill in a standard form and turn up with it personally, not do it by e-tabling, and ask for a pursuant question. The form would say, "Member x considered the answer inadequate and, pursuant to this, could the department do any better?" Do you see a problem with that?

Mr Walker: Are you not saying that in effect that would be the same procedure as a Member tabling a question pursuant to an answer in which for whatever reason the information was not provided?

Q40 John Hemming: If you look at the question of process I think it would be wrong for the Table Office to be put into a position where it had to exercise judgment as to whether a question had or had not been adequately answered. The question on the paper here is whether you would be willing to have a role in judging it. I do not think you do want such a role?

Ms Sharpe: No.

John Hemming: I do not think that is appropriate. It is similar to the position under freedom of information where the first step is to ask for a review within the public authority that you are approaching for information. Logically, the first step following an unsatisfactory answer is to go back to the department and say that in your view it is not satisfactory and ask for its response to that. That could elicit a response. At a later stage it could go to the departmental Select Committee or whatever, but from your point of view you would be entirely happy to have a process where you record and ask another question pursuant to a previous one which the Member thinks has been answered unsatisfactorily.

Q41 Chairman: It would have to be more sophisticated than just a straightforward pursuant question. Some pursuant questions arise out of the information that is revealed in the answer about which the Member does not know. I think Mr Hemming is talking about the situation where a Member wishes to table a pursuant question which relates only to the unsatisfactory nature of the initial answer.

Mr Walker: The ability to table a pursuant question depends to some extent on the nature of the original question. If the government responds to a question by saying that it cannot answer it on grounds of national security for us that is a clear block, but a Member may well come in and say he or she thinks that is unsatisfactory. I can well imagine circumstances in which that would happen. The Member would claim that it was not a matter of national security and would like it recorded that he or she felt it unsatisfactory and the government was refusing to answer it. Without an actual procedure to follow the registration of dissatisfaction, if one wants to call it that, I am not completely persuaded of the value of the procedure. I believe that at the time of the introduction of the Freedom of Information Bill the government said it was possible for Members to submit a freedom of information request as a kind of appeal against it.

Q42 John Hemming: But that is really an undermining of democracy. The theory is that parliamentary questions should elicit as much information as possible and more quickly than the Freedom of Information Act and to resort to the latter as an appeals mechanism is not very good at all. What you are saying is that as long as there is a procedure whereby one can go somewhere else afterwards you are entirely happy to have a form for unsatisfactory answers and pursuant questions because at some point the fact that it is considered an unsatisfactory answer is recorded?

Ms Sharpe: If the Committee and House think it is a good idea we can certainly give thought to how it can be achieved. We can certainly give some thought to it this week and see if we can provide you with a supplementary note.

Q43 John Hemming: What I read into what you are saying is that if there was no further procedure you would see it as relatively futile but if there was a next step after it and a process that a Member could follow it would have merit?

Ms Sharpe: We would certainly look at it. If you would like us to give it some thought and provide a paper on it with our views we would do so.

Mr Walker: That would be my initial reaction. I just want to make clear that I do not advocate use of the Freedom of Information Act as an appeal mechanism for unsatisfactory answers to parliamentary questions.

Q44 Chairman: We may write to you further. Is there anything that you wish to add or place on record?

Ms Sharpe: I should emphasise that the fundamental aim of our office is to be helpful to Members who wish to table questions. I noted that in one evidence session a Member thought that sometimes we might act as gate-keepers to keep down the number. That is not our aim. Our aim is to help Members to table questions as is their right within the rules that we implement on behalf of Mr Speaker.

Chairman: I thank you all on behalf of the Committee for giving us your time and sharing with us your expertise and knowledge. It has been very helpful to us.


Witness: Chris Bryant MP, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q45 Chairman: Do you wish to make an opening statement or shall we just kick off with questions?

Chris Bryant: I believe that you had an opening statement from the former Leader of the House when he appeared before you in this inquiry. I am happy to answer questions.

Q46 Chairman: Do you share the view of some people that there is a need to try to bring under control the volume of written questions being tabled?

Chris Bryant: No. Questions are a vital part of how we do our business and hold the government to account. Not many months ago I was a backbencher, so I know how important questions are. Some Members use written parliamentary questions; others use the Chamber for oral questions far more than they table WPQs. I think it is important that we support Members in whichever way they wish to transact that piece of business. It is absolutely essential to the process of government.

Q47 Chairman: There has been some suggestion that Members table questions not in a search for knowledge or to pursue a particular grievance but because these days their performance is rated on a number of websites. Do you think there is anything in that?

Chris Bryant: I am sure that all of politics is about the pursuit of truth and nothing else, but I am aware that the numbers have dramatically increased over the years. You have already had the statistics, so I will not bore you with them again. I was looking at the tabling of questions just last week. Last Thursday one Member tabled 163 questions of which 138 were to the department of which he is shadow minister. I make no criticism of that but merely make the point that it is an awful lot of questions. At the other end, somebody has to answer all of those questions. I am interested in whether there are means by which we can improve the process so Members get more adequately answered questions more swiftly. One particular matter to which you may wish to return is whether there is another way to deal with round robins questions. Another question raised by others is to do with authentication. I am not a Luddite at all. When I was a backbencher I always tabled online, but theoretically it is possible at the moment for a Member and several members of staff to log on at the same time and write and table questions. I suppose it is therefore theoretically possible that questions may have been tabled in the name of hon Members without their specific involvement. I think that is wrong. This is about MPs and not researchers scrutinising government.

Q48 John Hemming: On the question of efficiency, I see written parliamentary questions and oral questions as a process beyond asking for information in a letter or email. Perhaps there is some merit in trying to introduce a departmental email address to which questions can be addressed within the department that does not have all the processes involved in a written parliamentary question. Therefore, those people who want to ask lots of detailed statistical questions can get them without all the overhead. There is a lot of overhead to a parliamentary question. Is there any merit in having enhanced freedom of information for Members that obviates the overhead of a written parliamentary question?

Chris Bryant: Sometimes people ask questions where the information is clearly available from another source. I know that sometimes departments get a little fed up with it, but they have just got to bear with it. The truth is that an hon Member may want to table a question through this system precisely so that the minister is putting his or her answer on record. I think that is a perfectly legitimate thing for an hon Member to do. One of the values of having a system of voting in this House where we have to walk through lobbies is that ministers are there and you can ask questions. You cannot ask these kinds of factual questions but you can find out the direction of travel or who is the right person to ask about something, or whether he is minded to do something. I think that happens a lot across party boundaries.

Q49 Chairman: If we recommended that, for example, electronic questions coming in after the moment of interruption could be carried over to the next day to reduce pressure on the Table Office would you have a view on that?

Chris Bryant: I am very happy to listen to the recommendations of the Committee. For that matter, you might want to think about an earlier time, for example that it should be five o'clock every day of the week or something like that. Both myself and the Leader of the House would be very happy to listen to the Committee's suggestions about that. Certainly, for private offices and parliamentary clerks in each of the departments there is an issue about when they get questions, because if it is five o'clock they will have all of them by the end of the day and will be able to start work on finding the appropriate information perhaps more swiftly. That might provide an inconvenience to Members. An urgent question might arrive at 10.15 at night and a Member would want to ensure it was on the order paper next morning. It may be one would then need an urgent version of a question.

Q50 Chairman: The Table Office told us that it would not want that rule to be imposed on Members who came in personally, so I suppose that in answer to that last scenario a Member could be encouraged to go into the Table Office in person?

Chris Bryant: That is one option. There is a question as to how one authenticates a question as having had the imprimatur of the individual Member. For example, people have talked about only one computer at a time being allowed to log on to e-tabling. That might be a solution. Another solution might be that Members had a toggle and could use that to authenticate a question as coming from them, or the versions you heard about earlier from the Table Office so it does not suddenly have 153 questions dumped on it at the end of the day but batches of 15 at a time. They can be trundled through the system and sent off to departments so they can get working on the answers.

Q51 Sir Robert Smith: On the question of authentication, should it also be the case that a written posted question has a signature at the bottom of the question, not at the bottom of the paper, so it is clear that the Member has signed it after the question has been written rather than before?

Chris Bryant: I have not seen any examples myself and what I say is really third hand. I have heard of questions that have been written very carefully all the way round the Member's signature in different handwriting. It might well be helpful if the code of conduct for hon Members made it clearer precisely what the expectation is of Members' involvement in questions tabled in their name. It may be that when you are e-tabling you have to sign a more categorical statement as to your involvement in drafting the question. I do not say that every question must be physically written by an hon Member because research staff play an important part in supporting Members, but an hon Member should be aware of all the questions he or she has tabled or have been tabled in his or her name.

Q52 Sir Robert Smith: From the answers you have given so far it appears that you do not share the same view as Jack Straw.

Chris Bryant: There has been a dramatic increase in questions. I think that one of the questions put to the previous witnesses was why such a dramatic increase had taken place. I think that broadly there are two reasons. First, the internet era has now spread out to the vast majority of MPs. Originally, some 45 Members did it; now 330, more than half of the Members of the House, e-table. That makes it much easier, not least because once you have typed in your first question you are asked whether you want to put the same question to another department. It may be we should at least insist on the individual typing in the question each time to each department. A question arises about round robins. The second reason is that the statistics provided by some websites have tended to encourage people to accrue vast numbers of parliamentary questions as proof of their effectiveness as MPs.

Q53 Sir Robert Smith: He was trying to push the rule about not asking for information already in the public domain, but you make the point that people may want to get ministers' endorsement of that agreed information?

Chris Bryant: I think there is a matter of common courtesy here. If either a researcher or Member wants to find something out sometimes there is a swifter and more effective means of doing that than tabling a written question. I know from my own office that when we have parliamentary questions often staff ring up the Library to find out the answer. It is quite clear that the Member could have contacted the Library in the first place, but the whole point of ministerial office in regard to questions is that you should be as helpful as you possibly can because that is how we make sure we have a strong parliament and better government.

Q54 Sir Robert Smith: You referred to round robins. Do you think that there might be a clearing house in government rather than each department being swamped with the same thing?

Chris Bryant: It is quite easy to spot round robins. They come to the Leader of the House and nearly always they are completely inappropriate. I am always answering "nil", "none" or "not applicable". Government as a whole will decide what attitude to take towards these round robins but it may take some time for that attitude to be developed because some departments may be rather more directly affected than others. Consequently, that slows up the process. We might just be better off saying to Members - I would be interested to hear the Committee's view on it - "Own up to the fact that you are asking a round robin question that you want to go to all departments and then we will provide an answer. We will not be able to provide that with the same degree of swiftness as we would for other questions but, let us say, in two to three weeks we will be able to provide an answer and you might get a better answer across the whole of government, which is really the point of the question." One of the 163 questions tabled the other day was about where furniture was sourced and what the contract was in a particular department. I am sure that that will appear in lots of other departments as well in the next few days. The question is: "To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, pursuant to an answer on departmental furniture, if she will list each of the suppliers who provided furniture and fitting services to her department in 2007/08." There may be lots of perfectly legitimate reasons for asking that question, for instance to find out from what country the furniture was sourced and all the rest of it, but it might be more sensible to own up to it as a round robin question and ask the question of the whole of government.

Q55 Ms Clark: From your perspective in general how well do you believe Members understand the rules on the tabling of questions?

Chris Bryant: I can only assume that most Members are like me and therefore have a broad understanding of the rules but sometimes need to have it cleared up. Unfortunately, in my job I get to clear up my understanding of these things on a regular basis.

Q56 Ms Clark: You will be aware of suggestions that there should be a codification of the rules on tabling. Do you have a view on that? Do you think there would be advantages or risks involved in setting up that kind of system?

Chris Bryant: I think we could clear up the code of conduct for Members just to make it clear that there is an expectation on behalf of the House that all hon Members have a direct involvement in any questions that are tabled in their name. After all, you would not expect a researcher to stand up in the Chamber to ask an oral question. My worry about extensive codification of rules on questions is that there is a delicate balancing act between freedom of information requests and written parliamentary questions. I am also very hesitant about the suggestion that there should be a system whereby an hon Member can say whether he or she is dissatisfied with an answer. I believe every opposition Member will always say that about any answer he or she has ever received because that would be the incentive to do so. I think that in the end politics comes into it. Ministers are accountable for the answers that they provide and if Members are not happy they have many other ways to express their unhappiness.

Q57 Mr Gale: When the clerks gave evidence earlier this afternoon they said there was considerable merit in face-to-face contact with Members who table questions. I would go along with that from personal experience. The opportunity to take advice and, if necessary, challenge decisions by the Table Office is immediate and solves problems very fast. As the resident Luddite on this Committee I am therefore not entirely happy with electronic tabling at all. I think it diminishes the value of the process. You indicated a few moments ago that it was acceptable for researchers to have a hand in the preparation of questions. No doubt to what extent that is so you will tell us in a moment. You also expressed concern, as has the Committee, about the necessity to have the Member's imprimatur on the question. The question is how we achieve that. If this Committee comes forward with proposals for some form of additional verification on the part of a Member to say in terms that he or she has seen and is responsible for a particular question will the government be willing to go along with that?

Chris Bryant: I certainly would. I think it would be very difficult for us to retreat on e-tabling because it is enormously useful to the vast majority of Members. It means that if you are doing work in your constituency but nonetheless you want to table some questions you can do so. You are absolutely right about the value of conversations with people in the Table Office. In particular, anybody who represents a seat in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland is painfully aware of the discussions you must have around questions to do with devolved responsibilities. There are also various other areas where the Table Office can correct our grammar - certainly not yours, Mr Gale - but it would be difficult for us to retreat on the basic principle of e-tabling. However, there is a need for a system of better authentication of a Member's involvement. I believe that researchers play an important role in being able to scout out issues for an hon Member but in the end it must be a question tabled by that hon Member. It is an irony that you cannot add your name to an EDM electronically but you can table a question on the order paper by that means.

Q58 Mr Gale: To take this a stage further, if we say that there shall be on every question a statement that the Member has seen and personally approved the question and there is a code which only the Member of Parliament can use - so you cannot give a researcher your code to use - and it is understood as part of the code of practice that only the Member is allowed to use that code would you go that far?

Chris Bryant: I think that is what the present system presumes, although from the direction of travel of the questions that I heard this afternoon and what was said by the earlier witnesses in "clerkese" it is not what we all know is actually happening. I think that if the Committee came up with recommendations about strong authentication we would not want to stand in the way of the House coming to a firm decision on it. In the end it must be a matter for the House.

Q59 Mr Gale: If you believe that - for the record, I certainly do - do we go to the stage of saying that there will be sanctions against a Member who abuses that system? We can talk about what those sanctions are in due course.

Chris Bryant: I am not so sure about sanctions. If one writes something into the code of conduct for hon Members the moment they break that code it can be reported to the Committee on Standards and Privileges which will decide that matter. For that matter, at one point I raised the question of how an hon Member who was in the Big Brother house could have signed up to an EDM whilst he was not at liberty to attend the House. The Speaker conducted a short investigation into that. It had all been done before he went into the Big Brother house, but I think that if in those or any other circumstances it seems that the hon Member prima facie had absolutely no involvement whatsoever then other hon Members would be irate about it.

The Committee suspended from 3.47 pm to 4 pm for a division in the House

Q60 Sir Peter Soulsby: When the then Leader gave evidence to the Committee in 2007 he spoke quite powerfully about the impact on departments who had to answer the increasing volume of questions. Obviously, those questions are not evenly spread between departments and there is a particular impact on parts of particular departments. To what extent do you think departments are geared up adequately to respond to the number of questions they get and to respond in ways that are meaningful to the questioner?

Chris Bryant: If we quadrupled the number of staff the pinch point would still be the ministers because there is a fixed number of them. If 300 questions to the local government minister are tabled he has to provide answers to them whoever has drafted them for him or her. Each department has a parliamentary clerk and each will have between two and six staff working with them. By my reckoning there are 20 parliamentary clerks and 56 dedicated parliamentary question other staff in departments. However much you increase the number, in the end the problem is ministerial time.

Q61 Sir Robert Smith: To reinforce that point, is it your impression at least that the pinch point is not the absence of clerks to deal with it but the fact that all of them have to be filtered through the minister?

Chris Bryant: The number of ministers has not gone up but the number of questions to certain departments and elements within them has increased dramatically. The Department of Health has far more questions than other departments and of late DCLG has had a very large number of questions. Quite often it is opposition spokespeople who ask the questions. For instance, on the list of questions last Friday there were 110 ordinary questions tabled of which 72 came from three Members: Philip Hammond, Mark Hoban and Rob Wilson. I have already referred to the fact that last Thursday there were 163 questions tabled by one Member, Stewart Jackson, of which 138 were to his opposite number in the department.

Q62 Sir Peter Soulsby: In that sense it cannot really be said that it is the volume of questions and the fact there is not a sufficient number of clerks to process them that prevents departments from giving what is sometimes seen as less than helpful answers?

Chris Bryant: No. What is a satisfactory or unsatisfactory answer is a moot point. I know of questions which, if the Member had gone to see the Table Office, would probably have been tabled in a more readily understandable way.

The Committee suspended from 4.03 pm to 4.17 pm for a division in the House

Q63 Sir Peter Soulsby: I want to ask about the effect on the quality of questions and put to you what the former Principal Clerk said to us. It is not just Members who perceive that the quality has deteriorated. We were told that since the rise in the volume of written questions "answers from some departments may be less helpful than they used to be". Therefore, not just those who receive the answers have the impression that the quality has declined; those who process them also have that belief. Is that accurate? If so, is it something that is happening within the departments, or perhaps is it the nature of the questions?

Chris Bryant: I do not think draftsmanship has become more slapdash and there are more inappropriate commas and too many inaccuracies because there are too many questions and not enough staff to draft decent answers. I believe that ministers feel somewhat under the cosh because of the number of questions they have to answer. It stands to reason that if the number of ministers remains the same but there are more questions you have to spend more time during the day which still has the same number of hours to deal with them than you did in the past. I have never managed to find a way to evaluate across the House whether or not the quality of questions is improving. What we try to do is ensure that answers are timely. The Leader of the House regularly writes to the whole ministerial team to say how important that is. I meet parliamentary clerks to emphasise how important all of this is. We are trying to find whether there are ways to improve the service that ends up going to Members, hence the discussion you had earlier about the electronic parliamentary community. I hope that in the end that may be able to deliver a swifter answer. I am conscious of the fact that the PIMS system is not very good at providing accurate figures and so on.

Q64 Sir Peter Soulsby: Obviously, the number of name day questions that Members can ask is now limited, but even with its limited availability there is a perception that Members get a disproportionate number of holding answers as a result. I suppose that in a sense that is related to the point you have just been talking about. Do you think there is any way in which that can be improved?

Chris Bryant: There is a difficulty in that sometimes there is a question that is capable of being read in perhaps four different ways. Normally, one would ring up the Member and ask what he or she is trying to get at and find the answer, but that process tends not to happen because you would end up ringing up hundreds of Members all the time. Questions are designed as a means to provide information to Members and as a way to scrutinise government, but when they are used merely as a party-political tool politicians become nervous about how to answer questions. I think that that may end up being reflected in the quality of the answer. But the ministerial code is clear about how helpful ministers should be.

Q65 Mr Gale: Some ministers are extremely good and bust a gut to provide the answer. If it is a straightforward question that warrants a straightforward answer you get it. Other departments and ministers seem to have the absolutely standard practice of saying, "I will reply to the hon gentleman as soon as possible", and that is all a Member gets within the two days. A week or 10 days later you get a substantive answer. I just wonder whether you can look at custom and practice within departments, because it seem to be the culture in some departments to say that is what they do with questions irrespective of their quality or detail.

Chris Bryant: There may be cases where that is true, though it is a simple fact that some departments have many more questions per minister; in particular, some parts of departments have many more multiples of questions per ministers than others. I end up answering five or 10 a week, whereas others will answer more than that per day. I think that produce a different mindset. I am always happy to follow up. Quite a few hon Members have come to me. Somebody asked whether there should be an adjudication system. I think that broadly speaking it is the office of the Leader of the House. It is our job to make sure that ministers give faithful, honest and appropriate answers and that anything that needs to be chased up can be chased up. The most recent example I had involved Bernard Jenkin. It was slightly complicated because the information was not held by the Department for Health but by the local ambulance trust. Understandably, the Member felt that if he could issue an FOI request to the ambulance trust the Department of Health could get the information for him even though there is an arm's length between the two. In the end we managed to sort out the information for him. I think that is the kind of role that the office of the Leader of the House should play.

Q66 Chairman: You will know that the House of Lords regularly publishes a list of those questions that have not been answered. Although I do not think we would want to implement an identical practice because of the volume of questions in the Commons, if we considered some sort of publication, maybe on a quarterly basis, would you welcome it?

Chris Bryant: I am agnostic about it. If hon Members think it would be helpful it might be possible to do it, perhaps not in written form but online.

Q67 Chairman: Why not in written form?

Chris Bryant: Only because of the volume of paperwork that we already publish. The House publishes a great deal of paperwork. That might lead to some Luddism, without meaning it in a pejorative sense. I am not entirely sure what the real value would be. Ministers know the position. We monitor pretty closely each department to see where there are real problems. If there are lots of questions on Africa in a particular week and the responsible minister is not able to answer those questions there may be a temporary difficulty, but if there are longer-term issues the Leader of the House will speak to the secretary of state.

Q68 Mrs James: I go back to questions I asked earlier about late answers to questions. Would you welcome a sessional assessment of departmental performance to ensure questions were answered promptly? What do you think would be the impact of such a document?

Chris Bryant: We pretty much do that now. There is just one difficulty which I think the EPC system will ease for us. PIMS is not very accurate. For example, PIMS came up with a number for the questions before Prorogation that lapsed which was much larger than the figure I believe to be accurate. I am slightly hesitant about the figures. Whether or not a question has been answered is not readily identifiable through PIMS.

Q69 Mrs James: Are you confident that the quality of answers would be maintained if the speed of reply became a department's priority?

Chris Bryant: The concern of a minister is whether it answers the question and is accurate, whether it tells not just the truth but the whole truth and nothing but the truth and whether in any sense it could be misleading because it points in a wrong direction. There was one question that I answered inaccurately and had to be corrected. Often ministers are entirely reliant on the facts that are put in front of them by their civil servants.

Q70 John Hemming: I think it is known that I am concerned about the issue of unsatisfactory answers. Generally this means the occasions when people do not answer the question. I did a round robin test of different departments by asking them about red boxes. In itself it was a relatively trivial question, but it identified that some departments answered the question and others avoided it. When you compare and contrast that with freedom of information there is an appeals process under that mechanism but no formal appeals process for written parliamentary questions. If you really want to get an answer and people will try to resist it the trick is to ask a written parliamentary question and a freedom of information question. If the WPQ does not provide the information you can take the freedom of information through the appeals process which is subject to deadlines and timing. What would you regard as an unsatisfactory answer to a question?

Chris Bryant: To make the position clear in relation to freedom of information, if the department has the information and it knows that it will have to give it under a FOI request it should give it in a parliamentary answer - full stop.

Q71 John Hemming: But they do not.

Chris Bryant: They should.

Q72 John Hemming: How do you make them do it?

Chris Bryant: But there is a difference between that and the situation where they do not hold it but other agencies do. I have written FOI requests to my local police force since I have been a minister to find out statistics, facts and figures and so on, so I am quite conscious that there is a sharp distinction. I am closer to being atheistic than agnostic on the issue of having an adjudication process to decide whether or not a question has been adequately answered. I think that in the end ministers and the government are accountable to the electorate when it comes to a general election.

Q73 John Hemming: You are quite happy to have a system where if you are a citizen you can appeal through freedom of information for a failure to answer a question but basically if they do not answer a written parliamentary question that is just tough?

Chris Bryant: An MP also has the same right as a member of the public. On top of that, the MP has the opportunity orally to question a minister in the Chamber and try to get an adjournment debate on an individual issue. I have already answered three adjournment debates on parliamentary matters to do with correspondence with ministers, questions and so on.

Q74 John Hemming: You say you can try to get an adjournment debate but you do not necessarily get it. You can try to raise business questions and there is a higher probability that you will be called. But you feel that it is entirely reasonable to have a system of government where the powers of members of the legislature to obtain factual information from the executive are weaker than those of an ordinary citizen?

Chris Bryant: They are not weaker because they have exactly the same powers as an ordinary citizen. On top of that they can exercise a series of other powers. What I am hesitant about is that even if that is not the best of all possible worlds I do not see how you can create a better one because I am not sure what adjudication system you have. Even if you had a system whereby a Member could say he was unhappy with a previous answer and therefore he would ask another question the enticement would be for every single question should end up becoming that kind of question. I do not think that would provide greater truth for Members.

Q75 Chairman: You made a very interesting statement a moment ago on which we would all agree. You said that if ministers held the information they should always give the same information in answer to a question as they would to a freedom of information request. I think there is evidence that that is not happening. The ministerial guidance or code refers to the key elements in a minister's job of openness and accountability. I think that it refers to debate but not written questions. Do you think there is a case for putting this beyond doubt by having a reference to written questions and saying that ministers should always give whatever information is in their possession?

Chris Bryant: I have a desperate hope that I am about to be handed a copy of the ministerial code of conduct from which I shall be able to provide a complete and adequate answer in a timely fashion, but I do not think I am in that position. I will just have to busk it by giving my understanding of the position. If I am incorrect I shall write to you. My understanding is that there is an expectation written into the code. The ministerial code refers to "all dealings with Parliament", so it does not differentiate between one form of dealing and another. If you are asked a question in the House in the middle of a debate you should be helpful, honest and accurate, just as you should be in answering a written parliamentary question.

Q76 John Hemming: How do you enforce that?

Chris Bryant: There is an assumption that we are all honest. I think that in politics that is a good premise from which to start. As to whether or not ministers have been adequate, enforcement is through the electoral system, that is, the ballot box.

Q77 John Hemming: In essence, you are saying that if departments through their ministers refuse to answer written questions it is up to the electorate to chuck them out at the next election?

Chris Bryant: If a minister has misled the House either in a written question or in any other way-------

Q78 John Hemming: I am not talking about misleading the House but just not answering questions. Refusing to answer a question is not misleading; it is just saying, "I am not going to tell you."

Chris Bryant: I look through the answer book every day. An awful lot of answers are provided. I know that we are focusing on those areas where Members are not satisfied with the answers they have received and that sometimes a question is worded in a way that seeks to trip up a minister rather than necessarily to elucidate the world. In those moments when ministers catch a whiff of politics in the air the temptation is to answer with politics.

Q79 John Hemming: To take the example of tax credits, if people's annual returns are lost in the post they have to pay back all of those tax credits. Your boss accepted at business questions that that is the case, but the department steadfastly refused to give any indication about how many people are affected by it or how much the government saved by asking people to repay money merely because their annual returns were lost in the post. That is the sort of scrutiny of the executive that a written or oral question is in place to achieve. Yet the failure to have any system of appeals means that basically Parliament is powerless compared with the executive.

Chris Bryant: But I am not sure to whom you would appeal. Do you appeal to the Speaker, in which case you put him in a completely invidious position?

John Hemming: You appeal to a departmental Select Committee. You can do that now but codifying it has merit. You can say that the first step is a pursuant question to say you do not like the absence of an answer; the second step is to go to the departmental Select Committee. You can do all of this at the moment. There is merit in saying: why not do this? When you have a point of order the Speaker allows you to ask the question again, which is futile. It is really a matter of having a system that guides you potentially towards an adjournment debate. That is delivered on the basis of a Select Committee considering that a particular question has not been sufficiently answered and there should be an adjournment debate on it.

Q80 Chairman: If we can provide you with examples of where ministers have given away less in answer to a parliamentary question than they have in answer to a FIO request would you be prepared to write to them pointing out that they are not really following the spirit of the ministerial guidance?

Chris Bryant: It would be helpful to see instances. Quite often I hear people talk of instances and then I never see them. We knew when the Freedom of Information Act came into force that it would pose a challenge to the relationship between that legislation and parliamentary questions and, for that matter, correspondence with MPs and the public, so it is important to get this right.

Q81 Ms Clark: What guidance is available to departments on answering questions, for instance on timeliness, content and how questions should be handled? Would it be possible for the government to publish that guidance?

Chris Bryant: We do several things. First, the Leader of the House regularly writes to ministers to impress on them what the rules are and how they should answer questions. I think that on each occasion we have done it we have placed that in the Library of the House. Similarly, before Prorogation last year either I or the Leader of the House - it was one or other of us - wrote to ministers again. We said it was important that they did not use Prorogation just as a means of letting questions fall off the order paper. I do have one question. An ordinary member of the public would not understand why a question is put on the order paper and disappears at Prorogation. We understand about parliamentary sessions and all the rest of it, but I just wonder whether there is a more rational system we can develop to deal with that. On top of that, I meet parliamentary clerks - I have met them once and will meet them again - to make sure they have a real understanding of how important questions are to Members and that the ministerial code itself is pretty clear.

Q82 Sir Peter Soulsby: Does the guidance include a description of what categories of questions will be automatically blocked? Is there clear guidance on that?

Chris Bryant: I must write to the hon Member on that one; I do not know the answer. As I said earlier, when round robins appear there will be an attempt made to provide a co-ordinated response so that it looks a bit more joined up.

Q83 Sir Peter Soulsby: It is quite important to understand whether there is clear guidance on what will be blocked, whether it is applied fairly and whether there is widespread understanding amongst Members as to what the categories of questions are likely to be blocked.

Chris Bryant: It is a fairly limited category. As to disproportionate cost, there is a very clear understanding of it; it is now £750. The way that is worked out is pretty clear. That guidance is sent round to all parliamentary clerks whenever we change it.

Q84 Mr Gale: The Committee understands that there is a government proposal for creating a co-ordinated electronic system for handling written parliamentary questions and answers across departments so that they are co-ordinated with the Table Office. Can you shed any light on how much progress has been made on that?

Chris Bryant: Some.

Q85 Mr Gale: That is not a full parliamentary answer.

Chris Bryant: No, but I knew you would ask a supplementary because you would not be satisfied with it. The truth is that we are building towards having a full business case. We want to do it. We have been consulting each department and the House authorities to see how it would be most effective, but in essence we want to make sure that we save money, are able to provide a more efficient service and that the end result for individual Members is more effective, but at the moment we have not finalised the business case for it.

Q86 Mr Gale: Do you have any sort of timescale in mind?

Chris Bryant: No, because we have not finished the business case.

Q87 Chairman: Minister, thank you for your time. I am sorry it has been a long day due to divisions in the House, but we appreciate hearing your views on issues which very much touch the heart of our report. When we come to make a decision in due course you will have helped us to arrive at a position which we hope will be more enlightened than it would have been without your contribution.

Chris Bryant: I am not quite happy with that answer. People have raised the issue of timeliness of ministers' answers, and it would be quite nice to have a timely report.

Chairman: We have been waylaid in our deliberations, but I can assure you that it is now the second item on our agenda after looking at the interleafing of Bills which I believe you asked us to do.