Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)|
TUESDAY 21 MAY 2002
300. Moving on to other possible ideas, not
ones I am necessarily personally pushing but just exploring, one
of the options which has been mentioned by a number of people
is perhaps the opportunity to have a slot daily where topics could
be raised at short notice as well as the ordinary questions. Is
that a possible alternative to shortening the period of timing?
There are issues which are going to be ongoing issues on which
a lot of questions that come out are relevant still. It is only
the fact that we have spoken particularly about perhaps foreign
affairs where things are happening in the world fairly quickly
and it can be very obvious that it has been two weeks since questions
were tabled. If instead there was a slot of 20 minutes, say, on
Foreign office questions, for example, where those issues could
be raised, topical issues, as well as the ones which have been
tabled some period before, what is your view on that?
(Ms Irwin) I had not thought about it in quite the
way you have suggested. In previous evidence you have had the
suggestion has been made perhaps of a topical session after Question
Time as some sort of halfway house between Question Time and private
notice questions. I am sure this is something the Committee would
want to seek the views of Mr Speaker on, but one could envisage,
let us say, Foreign Office questions going on to 3.15 and then
there being a slot for something tabled that morning or, say,
the previous day on the issue of the moment. I know Mr Cook talked
at some length when he gave evidence about the effect of the summer
recess on Foreign Office questions in particular and the number
of events in the world that can happen between tabling and answering.
I would have thought it would work that way except of course that
it would reduce the opportunity every week for what we might call
the ordinary oral questions to be answered and that is a matter
for Members to consider.
(Mr Phillips) I just wondered whether you had in mind
a slot that was always there that in a sense had to be filled
or whether you had an opportunity which would be used only if
there was a topical issue; because the two different approaches
would have to be dealt with quite differently, would they not?
301. I am thinking of something which would
be more on a regular basis. The criticism has been, and, as I
say, Foreign office questions are perhaps where it is most acute,
that there can be some major stuff going on in the Middle East
and there is not a question on the Middle East in the first 15,
which happens. That does not help either in terms of back bench
Members holding the Government to account or the Opposition holding
the Government to account, nor in terms of how we as a Parliament
appear to the outside world because everybody else is talking
about the Middle East and we are talking about Africa, say. There
is a mismatch there which I think it would be helpful if we could
try and address.
(Ms Irwin) The only argument against doing that within
each question period when the minister would be there - but that
is perhaps part of your thinking, so it would be relatively convenient
would be that it would reduce the opportunity for Question Time
as we know it now unless there was an extension of the period
302. Meg has touched on having a reserved period
within Foreign Affairs or Defence questions or whatever questions
it might be for topical questions. There is the thought also that
there might be a specific period after the normal questions to
have a topical question session, say, twice a week and this could
well be a matter of discussion between Government and Opposition.
The Opposition may well give up what we are doing today, two or
three supply day debates, in order to have guaranteed, twice a
week, a 20-minute or half hour slot for the Opposition to ask
topical questions. Do you think that that would be more acceptable
than the scenario which Meg Munn is painting, ie, having a slice
of the normal Question Time devoted to topical questions within
that sphere of questions, Foreign Affairs, Defence, whatever?
(Ms Irwin) First, it probably is not for us to say
what would be more or less acceptable, though I am fairly sure
that in this field this is something the Committee will want to
have discussions with the Speaker about. My immediate thought
is that it would reduce the pressure on the Speaker to allow private
notice questions if there was a regular accepted slot for topical
events. Then one needs to think what sort of a system it would
be, assuming that notice was given of them, which I think would
be essential to get the minister there, briefed. We would obviously
work with whatever system the House recommended. One would need
to specify a minimum period of notice, I think, perhaps the previous
day, at a set time. One would need to think about the rules for
questions. Would one have the same rules as for all other questions?
I imagine, if they were strictly topical, that most of them would
take the form of something like, "If he or she will make
a statement about ", so that probably would not be
difficult. If there were many applications there would have to
be some criteria for selecting them. You would either say that
the Opposition has this slot every week or there is a period of,
say, 20 minutes, half an hour, during which topical questions
may be asked and then it is all right if, say, you only get three
in. But if there were a dozen applications as, let us say, during
the foot and mouth crisis there might have been lots of different
angles to foot and mouth where Members wanted to ask a topical
question, somebody would have to select and I suppose that somebody
might well be the Speaker with a bit of advice. I do not know
if, when the Committee was in Edinburgh, you had any discussion
about the selection of First Minister's Questions there.
303. We did.
(Ms Irwin) There the Presiding Officer selects the
questions and they publish a set of criteria which I can pass
on to the Committee if you have not got them already.
304. And generally, if my memory serves me correctly
on that very successful visit that we paid to the Scottish Parliament
nearly a couple of weeks ago, the two main Opposition parties
get slots one and two in the First Minister's questions. I am
not sure then how the rest fare but we do have the evidence that
has been given to us. Six questions are selected. Preference is
given to topical questions and questions suitable for supplementary
questions. Reasonable political balance between the parties in
their share of question is maintained over time. Questions from
the Opposition party leaders are taken first and second, as I
have implied, but otherwise diary questions on the line to ask
the First Minister when he last met X are avoided. Unnecessary
duplication of questions already randomly selected for Question
Time is avoided, and, subject to the above, account is taken of
individual Members' previous record of selection for Prime Minister's
Question Time which seems to be eminently fair.
(Ms Irwin) I think some such set of criteria could
be established if you needed criteria for topical Question Time.
If you did not I think there would have to be some means determined
between the usual channels of providing the opportunities for
other parties, but I think it is either selection or the usual
Chairman: We do not want to put you in a difficult
305. My final question, in terms again of looking
at the different options there might be around opening up opportunities
or doing things in different ways, is perhaps an idea that departmental
ministers might have a Question Time in Westminster Hall at some
point, or even that there might be a different type of Prime Minister's
Questions in Westminster Hall, again with perhaps a selected group
of Members. Do you have any views on that over the selection of
Members for such a thing or how easy that would be to set up a
system to deal with that?
(Ms Irwin) I would not presume to suggest how to select
a group of Members to question the Prime Minister, but I do notice
that he is going to appear before the Liaison Committee.
306. All 34 of them.
(Ms Irwin) I think it would be possible to have Question
Time outside the Chamber. We have one sort of Question Time outside
the Chamber already which is the European Standing Committees
where, after making an introductory statement, the Minister is
then subjected to questions without notice for a period before
the debate begins. I think those are generally reckoned both by
Members and by ministers to be successful occasions. Grand Committees,
as Roger prompts meScottish, Welsh and Northern Irelandall
have a Question Time possible and it is a matter for negotiation
before each meeting of the Committee, I believe, whether there
is going to be a Question Time. If there is, the Table Office
accepts questions up to a date, indeed questions in advance. We
take questions over a number of days (so perhaps my earlier suggestion
is not as novel as all that) for Question Time in the Scottish
Grand Committee. There is not a quota and on the determined day,
which is announced in the Order Paper when the date of the meeting
is announced, we have a separate shuffle for that to determine
the order in which questions are asked.
307. Anything else to add, Roger?
(Mr Phillips) No. Helen's answer was very full.
308. Without digressing, it was one of the issues
that was discussed in the last Parliament, the Scottish Grand
Committee, the Welsh Grand Committee and the Northern Ireland
Grand Committee Question Time. It may be one of the areas that
each of the regions in England may wish to look at because we
feel that that is quite a successful mechanism to ask about local
issues. The question was, in relation to topical days, are we
to pose any move towards an Opposition day? If you work out the
figures, the Opposition get far too many questions as it is. It
is a fact. They get far too many questions based on the number
of MPs that are here. Therefore, to have a further Opposition
Day where Labour MPs are merely cut out of the circle would be
totally wrong. I would agree with topical days to talk about a
topic, but I would not agree with an Opposition Day. One other
point. There were many good things that we saw in Scotland. It
was an enlightening visit and I will come on to the electronic
part now. One of the things which was a major disadvantage was
that on the day that we were there the Leader of the third Opposition,
Conservatives, did not make it because of the funeral on that
morning, and if the Deputy Leader had not had a question in the
first six the Presiding Officer would have had to find a mechanism
to allow him a path to get in to speak on behalf of the Opposition.
They do have their own problems in relation to that and it is
one which they picked up from us, that that just would not have
happened down here, so it is maybe one they can take back and
have a look at. That is just an observation.
(Ms Irwin) I was just looking up the Standing Order
about the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs while Mr Hamilton
was speaking because I could not remember whether it had provision
for Question Time. It does not, though it does have provision
for questions after a statement. One could certainly envisage
a similar sort of Question Time in the Regional Affairs Standing
Committee to that in the other Grand Committee.
Chairman: To clarify the remarks made by David
Hamilton, the point that I put about topical questions, not unlike
perhaps the system in the House of Lords, is that the subject
would be chosen by the Opposition and the people who got in would
be Government and Opposition backbench Members. It would not be
exclusively Opposition Members, very similar, of course, to what
goes on currently in the House of Lords which is well thought
of by many people in the House of Commons. This is some of the
evidence that we have taken in questions that we have put already,
and if such a proposal came forward it would clearly reduce the
number of supply days that the Opposition has, ie, they would
barter a different procedure for the number of supply days. This
has been put forward in some of the written evidence that we have
had. It is a way of trying to make the House of Commons more relevant
and that clearly is one of the major objectives of our inquiry.
309. At the present time we have 481 written
questions (each day) as opposed to back in 1997/98 when we had
252 questions. If we were talking in terms of the electronic tabling,
and the recent increase in the number of questions being tabled,
how significant is the increase? What are the reasons for that?
Is the trend likely to continue and is it having a detrimental
effect on the ability of the Table Office to process questions
and advise Members? I made the point earlier on that I was in
there today and the queue went right to the door, so I left rather
early. Does that create a major problem for you?
(Ms Irwin) The queue is usually of Members wanting
to table oral questions, although I think sometimes a Member bringing
in an oral question may want also to talk about other questions
at the same time or questions on which we have indicated there
is a problem. There has been a very marked increase this session.
We have just been looking at numbers going back further and I
think we have supplied them for the Committee's information. There
have been other years in which there have been a lot of written
questions, never as many as in the last year. The figures I have
here are for sessions but not for financial years which are figures
we have already given you. In election years we have got up to
52,000/56,000 written questions. In a year which was not an election
year, let us say, 1994-95, there were 44,994 written questions,
of which slightly more than half were ordinary written. One cannot
tell whether the number of questions is going to stay very high.
It very much depends on Members. It does have an effect on the
work of the Office and I think we are perhaps coming on to electronic
questions. One of our, I would not say worries but one of the
things we are anticipating if electronic tabling is allowed is
that the numbers may go up yet again and we will have to take
steps to address the resource implications. It might be helpful
if I say that I have already sought authority for an additional
clerk in the Office for the coming session, for a variety of reasons,
not least of which is to help with the implementation of any recommendations
that may come out of this inquiry or because of changes in our
printing arrangements which are currently ongoing, and because
if some sort of e-tabling is allowed I would envisage that that
would increase the workload.
310. I will stick with the manual questions
at the present time. I notice that one Member of the House has
asked 3,300 questions to date. I think we should have a department
just for that alone. The issue is, what are the arguments for
and against imposing a quota on the number of written questions
which can be tabled each day. If there are to be quotas, should
these apply to all written questions or only named-day ones, or
should they apply on a daily, weekly, monthly or sessional basis?
What are the administrative implications of such a quota being
(Ms Irwin) Most complaints about Members relate to
named-day questions and the delays in answering them. I would
guess, and as Members you are much better able to answer this
than I am, that most Members would resist an overall quota on
the number of ordinary written questions that a Member might ask.
We observe that all questions get answers and are treated very
seriously by Government departments in answering them. The question
of a quota really arises about named-day questions and in particular
questions put down for the earliest named-day, when we have talked
about how we could handle a quota which is not always straightforward.
We would find it quite difficult to manage a quota that went over
a long period of time, like a year or a month, because the POLIS
system on which we depend for a lot of our managing of data is
not set up to do that and so we would have to set up some additional
system in the Office and it would I think be quite labour intensive
to do that. A weekly or daily quota would be quite easy. We could
manage quotas which were numerical. Quotas which were a percentage
of anything would be really quite difficult to keep track of.
311. Would you, in answering David Hamilton's
question, perhaps be prepared to share with us what you consider
would be a reasonable daily and weekly quota for named-day questions?
(Ms Irwin) I think it is hard to see why more than
one or two questions in a day are so urgent that they need an
answer on the earliest named day. Then of course something really
big might come up, so the quota would probably have to be more
312. Are you going to help us with precise figures?
I do not want percentages. I want figures, ie, straightforward
(Ms Irwin) I am going to cop out. Perhaps Roger can
(Mr Phillips) I am just going to remind you, Chairman,
that of course some people who table questions are spokesmen for
their parties and may be preparing for a debate, and so to impose
on everybody the same quota and for us to find a number would
be to enter into something that is beyond our qualifications because
it depends on what you are preparing for. If you know that two
weeks from now there is going to be a debate coming up and you
are a party spokesman, you may well quite validly need within
a week to have a whole raft of questions answered. Any system
would have to be able to cope with that.
313. Let me act as Devil's advocate. Would you
say five named-day questions a day would be adequate, ten named-day
questions a day would be adequate?
(Ms Irwin) Five would already be way in excess of
the actual named-day questions tabled by all but perhaps a handful
314. But it is the handful of Members that abuse
the named-day question process.
(Ms Irwin) About 50 per cent of questions are put
down for named days. The proportion varies from year to year but
it has been pretty steady at about 50 per cent since the named-day
system was introduced.
315. The question really is, is there a small
number of people that put in such a large number of questions
that it significantly affects the overall figure?
(Ms Irwin) Yes, there certainly is. Do you have any
numbers about named-day questions, Janet?
(Ms Hunter) I do not on the named days. I do not think
any of the top six that I have there would do that. Roger might
want to come in.
(Ms Irwin) Members who have tabled the most questions
this year account for about 15 per cent of written questions overall.
Could we look easily and see how many of those are named days?
(Ms Hunter) No.
(Ms Irwin) It is not statistically maintained but
we could do you a snapshot.
Chairman: It would be helpful if you could do
that. I am merely seeking to respond to some of the evidence that
was given to us by civil servants who indicated that in their
view there were a number of named-day questions which really there
was no reason for them to be named days. There was no urgency
and it did of course create considerable problems for the civil
servants and I think I can understand that.
316. To what extent do you distinguish in your
statistics between the first available named day and other named
days? It was my habit as a spokesman to give ten days' notice.
Had that been an opportunity I would have given longer notice
but I was not prepared frankly to lose a question by not making
it a named-day question because the chances are then that some
two months later you are still getting answers to the question.
I am still receiving answers now to questions that I tabled when
I was a defence spokesman at the end of last year. It is not just
a question of there being an urgency. There are other reasons.
(Ms Irwin) We have already given the Committee some
figures on these. Twenty three per cent of written questions tabled
were tabled for the earliest named day in 1994/95. Last year it
was 26 per cent tabled for the earliest named day. Coming back
to what you said earlier, Mr Chairman, it is very difficult sometimes
to see why one question is put down for the earliest named day
as compared with another which a Member regarded as an ordinary
request, but there are some which are clearly regarded as urgent.
(Mr Phillips) To say what is an abuse and what is
not is very difficult for us, of course, but it is certainly true
that many Members automatically ask for the first named day. That
is an instruction that we are not allowed to take except orally
from a Member when they turn round and say, "What is the
first named day? I will have that one." Whether that is an
abuse, that is to say it is not actually really urgent, and that
it is that they just want in some way to get their question up
in the queue because they think it will be lost otherwise, is
a matter for you to judge. I think a large number of the questions
that are effectively named day questions are put down by Members
because they have that habit. It is certainly true that the sense
of urgency and the named day system has been broken. I think the
statistics will show that.
317. The reason we are pressing this matter
is that we do not want the question process to be abused and we
want Members, when they do get an answer, to get a proper and
full answer, not just a holding answer which is to virtually everybody
most unacceptable. Therefore, if a named-day question is required,
it should be necessary because of a debate, whatever it is, that
that Member wants that information for. If there is not a specific
purpose for getting it on a named day one should rely upon the
normal written question procedure.
(Mr Phillips) The other thing that occurs about a
ration of course is that if you did impose a ration you would
have to be very strict, I assume, about deciding what constituted
one question, because of course at the moment a written question
can have quite a few questions within it, which is another common
theme: for example whether a question was five questions or one
is something which we would need guidance on.
318. With regard to the rules governing the
contents of the questions the Table Office have the job of enforcing
the House's rules on the content of the questions. In your experience
do the Members observe the rules? Unless there is a level of self-discipline
by Members it is very difficult. Do you get animosity or any problems
when you delay questions because you consider them to be in breach
of the rules?
(Ms Irwin) Perhaps I might start and Roger, who deals
with Members face to face all the time, can come on. Members will
know that if a question is held up by the Office because we consider
it is in breach of the rules, I have to authorise as head of the
Office the delaying of the question. Therefore, a Member who disagrees
violently with the Office when a question is held up has a first
and obvious place to come and complain and that is me. No Member
has come to complain to me about a question being held up in the
12 months and a bit since I became head of the Office.
319. Is that to do with you?
(Ms Irwin) No, on the contrary, I think it is to do
with the Clerks in the Office in whom Members generally have confidence.
Roger deals with the difficult conversations every day so perhaps
he can amplify that.
(Mr Phillips) After 20 years' service I am still surprised
at how politely we are dealt with by Members, and I am very grateful
for that. It is of course difficult. All our conversations really
are based on specific questions and so most of our conversations
are about why this should be against the rules and so on. It is
our duty to explain why the rules are there. I do not think, and
I was very interested to pick this up in the evidence before,
that many Members disagree with the rules in principle. They may
be frustrated, quite reasonably, about their application, but
I think there is a very central question here which is extremely
important, namely, what do you want questions to be for, because
most of the rules that we apply boil down to the fact that they
are either for getting facts or pressing for action. Pretty well
everything that we do arises from those two principles. I do not
get much feedback from Members that in principle they disagree
20 Note by witness: This answer refers to formal
complaints which would need to be examined in detail and possibly
referred to the Speaker. There is every day, of course, much informal
discussion, including with the head of the office, about the orderliness
of individual questions. Back