Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
I am especially grateful for the opportunity to discuss an issue that I believe to be fundamentally important to Parliament: how we hold the Government to account for their actions, specifically through written parliamentary questions. Of course, you and I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Governments have never been keen on telling Parliament what was really going on, despite the ministerial code.
There is a famous story about a senior Minister, lost in his car somewhere in a dense fog in the highlands of Scotland with his permanent secretary. The figure of a crofter looms out of the fog and the Minister’s driver winds down the window and asks the crofter, “Where are we?” “Why,” replies the crofter, “You’re in a car in the highlands, lost in the fog.” The permanent secretary leans across to the Minister and says with pride, “That, Minister, was a perfect parliamentary answer—correct in every particular, but telling you nothing you did not know already.”
Sadly, the techniques used by Ministers to tell one nothing have become cruder in recent years. The answers that they provide are increasingly late, inadequate or simply spectacularly unhelpful—often, I fear, deliberately so. If that trend continues, there is a genuine risk that Parliament will be even more marginalised in our society than it is already, as people who really want to know the answer to questions opt to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 instead of looking to Members of Parliament to use parliamentary questions—another nail in the coffin of our effectiveness.
A constituent once berated me, saying that she wanted me to do something—“not just words, but actions”, she demanded. Words are the Back Bencher’s only weapons in the fight for our constituents, and they are often best deployed in written parliamentary questions, which is why we must protect their integrity.
My speech seeks to do three things. First, it will illustrate the worrying deterioration in the quality of answers given by Ministers by drawing on my recent experience, although I know that other Members have similar stories to tell. Secondly, it will express serious concern about Members’ tendency to ask unnecessarily large numbers of questions—that is certainly part of the explanation for the declining quality. Thirdly, it will offer three simple solutions to the volume problem, in the hope that Ministers and Departments will respond by offering more timely and helpful replies.
When I applied for the debate, I considered applying for an hour and a half in Westminster Hall. I now find myself with the luxury of two hours on the Floor of the House—an unexpected bonus. If I had known that that windfall would come my way, I would have sought to say more about holding replies, named day questions, questions asked near Prorogation and a host of other matters that are relevant to written parliamentary questions. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) says from a sedentary position that he will do that. Those matters are genuinely important, but I want to focus on quality and quantity.
In recent months, I have noticed a serious deterioration in the quality and timeliness of answers that Ministers provide to my questions. A question that I asked the Home Office about police mergers was answered six months late to the day. It was tabled on 15 November 2005 and due for answer on 17 November. It was eventually answered on 17 May this year. I could detect no sense of irony in the Minister’s long-awaited reply, which began:
“The House will be kept up to date about the detailed plans for all areas as options for each are refined.”—[Official Report, 17 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 1047W.]
At least the Government have taken my advice and delayed the decisions on the merging of police authorities, so at least it was worth waiting for.
There are other questions to the Home Office, flowing from my correspondence with constituents, to which I have not received replies in an acceptable period, including four questions about foreign prisoners at a prison in my constituency, two of which were tabled on 26 April and were due for answer on 2 May, and a question on guidance to staff escorting deported foreign nationals, which was tabled on 3 May with the answer expected on 8 May. I have even followed up the latter with a chaser question asking when the Minister will reply, which was tabled on 8 June with the answer expected on 13 June, but I have still had no reply. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will tell the Leader of the House that I appreciate the obvious concern that he has expressed about the delays in answering questions, especially by the Home Office. The Leader of the House gave a particularly helpful response recently connected with a point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), and we appreciate the concern that he has shown.
The problem is not only the Home Office. I have also had strong words with Health Ministers about the inadequacy of an important reply that really called into question the point of tabling questions at all. Earlier in the year, I asked two questions about the NHS colorectal screening programme. Bowel cancer is a disease that has killed two close family members, so I was more than irritated by an answer that simply ignored my question. I asked the Secretary of State for Health the following question:
“why the NHS colorectal screening programme will not now start on 1 April; when she expects the programme to start; and if she will make a statement”.
I also asked about the funding for the programme. The answer was bewildering and suggested that my question had not even been read:
“The Government have stated their commitment to a national bowel cancer screening programme, for which funding has been agreed. On 30 January 2006, the new Health White Paper “Our health, our care, our say: a new direction for community services” reaffirmed that the programme will be rolled out from April 2006.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 1170W.]
I knew that the programme would not be rolled out then, as I happen to have a friend who is closely involved in the issue and who briefed me in great detail about the delay in the roll-out. The answer did not even begin to address my question, but blandly assured me that the programme would be rolled out.
To be fair to the Minister involved, a strongly worded letter of complaint received a sympathetic reply, but letters from Ministers are not on the record. Nor should Members have to rely on letters to Ministers to chase parliamentary questions. I strongly suspect that, like many others these days, the answer was the product of an unwelcome innovation—the centralised parliamentary answering unit—and not of the officials actually charged with the policy. More and more, that unit provides answers to Members’ questions without proper reference to those in charge of developing and implementing policy. It is those officials who develop and implement policy who should normally draft the answers that go to Ministers for approval, because it is those officials who know what is happening on the ground.
On another question to the Department of Health, I recently waited three months to be told that it did not collect the information—an amazingly long time to produce that reply. I was amused by the response to a third question, just this week, on the serious cuts to my local health service, especially in palliative care beds—it was a named day question, given the urgency—which bizarrely included a holding reply and a totally inadequate substantive reply on the same day. I do not know what was going on with that.
The straw that broke this particular camel’s back was the insensitive and totally inappropriate grouping of important questions after this year’s Budget about the precipitate abolition of the home computing initiative. I shall not reopen that debate, but that initiative was a matter of profound importance in my constituency, which is home to a large independent computer manufacturer offering computers under the scheme. I had serious reservations about the principle of abandoning the scheme, and about how that was being done. I think that the scheme should have been phased out and not just abandoned, as there were important implications for the Government’s digital inclusion strategy.
Generally, I have the highest regard for the Paymaster General, but her response to my questions on the subject genuinely shocked me. It was her subsequent refusal on two separate occasions to reconsider her totally inappropriate answers that drove me to seek this debate.
Ten of my questions—all asked in a genuine spirit of inquiry—were arbitrarily grouped together, without any regard for their content. They were dismissively answered in an omnibus reply but, sadly, that omnibus conveyed scarcely any of the passengers invited on board. My 10 questions were published in the Official Report on 3 May 2006, at column 1719W, and were grouped with questions from other MPs. A total of 30 questions from eight MPs—six Conservative and two Liberal Democrat—received just one reply.
Intriguingly, the luxury of time today has enabled me to notice that there was one additional question on the home computing initiative that day. It could have been grouped with the others, but was not. I do not want to make a party political point, save for the small observation that that ungrouped question happened to come from a Labour Member. I do not know how that could have happened, but there we are: perhaps he was asking about a matter that the Government were anxious to emphasise, whereas they did not want to discuss my concerns, such as those that had to do with the level of consultation with the industry before the decision was taken.
Eight of my questions were not answered at all in the omnibus reply. One was answered partially, and precisely one—and only one—was answered fully and properly. I needed the answers to be able to find out what was going on so that I could deal with the industry and my constituents, and the Table Office fully shared my concern about the extraordinary way that my questions had been grouped. That is almost unprecedented, but the office was a great help in enabling me to ask two follow-up questions.
My follow-up questions were answered in the same inadequate manner. In one, I asked about grouping decisions and the provisions of the ministerial code. I received the following answer:
“The questions concerned were grouped to enable a full, substantive statement to be made in the House.”—[Official Report, 16 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 831W.]
A week later I asked a further question about the considerations taken into account when decisions about grouping were made, and I received a restatement of the previous answer, citing a “full, substantive statement”. In fact, it was no such thing: instead, I am forced to conclude that it was a pretty blatant attempt to avoid giving me information that would probably be available under the freedom of information legislation.
As I say, I like the Paymaster General, and in fairness to her I must say that a letter from her happened to come in the post this morning—I am sure that the timing is accidental. I can only regard the letter as conciliatory, as it invites me to work with the Government on the development of a new digital inclusion strategy. I am grateful for that acknowledgement that the precipitate abolition of the home computing initiative created a hole in the Government’s strategy. That should not have been allowed to happen, but normal relations have now been resumed.
I want to say something—briefly and, I hope, not too pompously—as Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee. It is a little foolish of the Department of Trade and Industry, which I think shares my concerns about the abolition of the home computing initiative, not to have replied at all to my four questions—three in March and one in April—on the subject. If I were at the DTI, I should reply to questions from the Select Committee Chairman more promptly than that.
Does my hon. Friend realise that his account demonstrates a worrying change in the culture of the civil service when it comes to answering parliamentary questions? When he was in Whitehall—admittedly that is some years ago now—was not the view taken that hon. Members were responsible for phrasing questions succinctly and crisply to elicit specific information, but that it was the duty of the Department to give full, factual and accurate responses, and not to try to conceal information in the way that he has described?
I am grateful for that point, with which I agree. I am about to offer the Government a case for the defence, because there are issues that the House needs to address, too. In the particular case of the home computing initiative, I think that there was a deliberate attempt to withhold information, but other answers have a more innocent explanation so far as the Government are concerned, and we must look to ourselves for a significant share of the blame, some of which we all must share.
Four years ago, the Procedure Committee conducted a survey of Members’ views on questions and received 167 responses. Broadly, it concluded that the system was generally thought to be pretty effective, but that the speed of answers was not sufficient and there was a problem with the quality of many answers. I submit that those problems have got considerably worse in the four years since then.
The Select Committee on Public Administration has also been monitoring ministerial answers and their quality for several years, but I see no evidence that that important work is having the effect that it ought to have.
Let us put our own House in order, however, before we tell the Government what to do. Members of Parliament are tabling too many questions—far too many questions. This has no doubt led to many Ministers feeling, quite fairly and legitimately, swamped and unable to deal with the deluge in sufficient detail and with sufficient speed. It also leads, I suspect, to the setting up of centralised answering units in Departments, which are an extremely unwelcome development.
The use of the questions procedure has grown significantly. Perhaps some historical perspective will help. In the Session of 1847 there were 129 questions—an average of about one a day. I think that they were all oral questions, as the principle of written questions had not then been established. I have a lengthy exposition at my disposal on the development of the number of questions asked, but I shall cut straight to the more relevant, recent dates. The Table Office has helpfully provided me with figures for the questions tabled in each financial year since the millennium. The House, of course, operates its Sessions over a different year, but these figures are for the financial years because that is the basis on which the House of Commons Commission works, and they are useful.
There were an average of 302 questions each day in 2000-01; there were 460 in 2001-02; there were 463 in 2002-03; there were 472 in 2003-04; there were 456 in 2004-05; and there were 596 in 2005-06. Those figures include orals, which account for between 20 and 30 a day. There is a different procedure for orals—the shuffle, in which only those that come out on top are printed—and orals are a constant, and a small proportion of the total. The figures give a measure of growth—from 300 to 600 over that period.
Those figures are described in the House of Commons Commission annual report as
“dealt with by the Table Office each day”.
They represent questions that appear on the Order Paper, so refer to orderly questions. For questions offered to be tabled, including those that are “carded”—the procedure by which a question challenged at the Table Office will bring the Member a card asking him or her to go to discuss it with the Clerks—the figure for 2005-06 was 656 per day. The overall trend is sharply up. At the end of that year, the Table Office was receiving 33 per cent. more questions every day than it had just 12 months previously.
I have not done my research in detail, and I shall not name and shame anyone this evening, but it seems that the increase is caused by a relatively small number of Members. For example, on 15 June last year, of the 367 ordinary written questions that appeared in the blue pages of the Order Paper—not including 73 named-day questions and 25 orals—some four Members accounted for 174, or 47 per cent. of the total. It is not always the same four Members, of course, but I understand that there is a pretty strong pattern identifying 20 or so Members who make a significantly greater use than the rest of us of written questions.
What are the reasons for that increase in question numbers? First, it has become too easy to ask a question. The Procedure Committee found that there was overwhelming support for electronic tabling of questions: something like 74 per cent. of those who responded were in favour, with 24 per cent. against. I say, however, that popularity is not always a good guide to propriety. Although questions may be received only if a Member signs up for e-tabling and uses the dedicated system, when a question comes to the Table Office by that route there is no way of determining whether there really is a Member at the other end. Strictly speaking, of course, a Member will use the system personally and not give his log-in details or his password to anyone else. But we live in the real world, and we know what really happens.
The use of e-tabling has increased sharply. At present, 310 Members are signed up for the system. In May, 176 Members tabled one or more questions by that method and the top tabler tabled 197 e-questions. Over the whole year 2005-06, the percentage of all questions e-tabled was 29.6, but the proportion is increasing, and hit 40 per cent. for the first time in February 2006. E-tabling has made things too easy.
I shall be even more controversial by saying that another reason for the increase in questions is pure and simple laziness. There has been a significant change in the character of parliamentary questions. More than ever, they are used for acquiring large chunks of statistical information or general knowledge, not to inquire into aspects of Government policy, which I consider to be their prime purpose. One might think that a Library, a website or a reference book would have provided the Member with an answer more easily and much more cheaply.
Some Members do not first check whether the information is already in the public domain; Departments provide a great deal of information online; I have reservations about their use of websites—but that is the subject of another debate. Members do not need to ask parliamentary questions to find the information but, without betraying any confidences, I can tell the House that I have heard Members engage in exchanges, often robust, with Table Office staff about their right to ask questions, after they have been called in because their question was carded. I have also seen Members happily throw away significant numbers of carded questions without a second’s thought. Obviously, their commitment to those questions varies—probably in inverse proportion to their authorship. A question drafted by a Member has more emotional capital invested in it than one drafted, and tabled, by a researcher.
When I asked how many carded questions drew a Member into the Table Office to discuss them, I was really surprised by the reply. Detailed records are not kept so the figure is only a guess, but the order of magnitude is right: the Table Office estimates that only about 30 per cent. of questions carded as not being in order and needing to be discussed are actually followed up by the Members who tabled them. The other 70 per cent. just lapse and go into the wastepaper basket. Not much commitment there, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I shall make an enemy with my third accusation. Why are we so obsessed with volume? It is a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, and the danger of performance indicators. I put much of the obsession down to a desire on the part of some MPs to provide tangible evidence that they have been working. Some MPs table long lists of questions in an attempt to appear active, just as some Members table and sign large numbers of early-day motions to pretend the same thing. We all know that early-day motions are usually parliamentary graffiti, and many written questions are not much better these days. Researchers are often drafted into helping with the task of giving the appearance of usefulness. The questions are then submitted, with no scrutiny at all from the Member, on pre-signed forms, and dropped into the box outside the Table Office or tabled electronically.
Chief among the villains is a well-meaning website, www.theyworkforyou.com, which provides numerical rankings of MPs’ parliamentary activity, referred to as “performance data”. For example, to choose a Member at random, the website includes the revelation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has received answers to 35 written questions in the last year—323rd out of 644 MPs. It also states that he has attended 36 per cent. of votes in Parliament, coming 628th out of 644 MPs. Those are hardly high scores, although I suspect that they are much higher than those of one or two members of the Cabinet—I name no names—but they are certainly not an accurate reflection of the work done by the Leader of Her Majesty’s official Opposition. Those activities are not the best use of his time.
More obscurely, the website lists such bizarre things as how often my right hon. Friend
“has used a three-word alliterative phrase (e.g. ‘she sells seashells’)”.
He has used such a phrase 208 times in debates in the last year, placing him 119th out of 644 MPs.
Such websites do, to some extent, help people to engage with politics, but it is entirely misleading to imply that an MP’s performance can be judged simply in terms of the numbers of questions asked, votes participated in or even alliterations uttered. Numbers are a very crude indicator of effectiveness. One good question is better than 100 bad ones. Indeed, often one short question—particularly in oral questions—is better. The single word “Why?” can often floor a Minister much more effectively than anything else. However, we are now in an arms race in which what can be measured will always count for more than intelligent analysis of what has been achieved. That is very worrying.
At the risk of making lots of enemies, may I suggest that the media play a part in that? The other aspect is the publication of Members’ allowances. A number of media organisations do the crude sum of dividing one’s allowance by the number of times one has spoken or the number of questions one has tabled. In that way, they work out a value-for-money indicator. If that is how we are judged, Members will be driven to focus on quantity, not quality.
I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend has made a valuable additional point. We have to be extremely careful about that. I see the Deputy Chief Whip on the Government Front Bench. He is not allowed to participate in our debates or to ask written parliamentary questions, so he scores zero on all those things, but he is a very effective Member of Parliament. He has more access to Ministers and more influence than I do, and can probably achieve as much or more for his constituents. However, that is all entirely invisible. On the performance indicator that my hon. Friend has just identified, the Deputy Chief Whip would do extremely badly, but that would be a monstrously unfair representation of his contribution in the House.
The problems with asking too many questions are very simple. I do not want to repeat myself. My main concern is the long delays in answering questions, as they stack up in Departments, and the reduced quality of the answers that inevitably flows from that. Interestingly enough, a witness before the Procedure Committee, a former colleague of ours, Andrew Bennett, said:
“We have gone for quantity rather than quality. There is a major problem that some junior ministers spend all their time rushing around...here there and everywhere. They do not have time to think about the answers, particularly to written questions, so they just sign off whatever the civil servant puts in front of them. There are far too many questions and it would make a big difference if there were fewer but there were far better answers to them.”
The answer is not the artificial rationing of questions. If the questions matter, they should be asked and there should be no arbitrary limit on them. The trick is to make sure that they do matter. Effective scrutiny and effective defence of our constituents depends on our unfettered ability to ask the questions that must be asked to get to the bottom of an issue, whatever that issue may be. There have been occasions—at the time of foot and mouth disease, and when there was a proposal for an asylum centre in my constituency, which raised interesting questions—when I have asked large numbers of questions. An arbitrary cap would have inhibited my ability to serve my constituents properly.
There is also the question of cost. We must acknowledge that questions are an expensive business. The business of holding the Executive to account is important and merits spending money, but such a tool should not be used irresponsibly. Five years ago the average cost of answering a written question was estimated to be £129 and that of answering an oral question £299. Asking questions is an expensive business, and we must be careful how we use the tool.
I have indulged in the luxury of more time and have made my points at greater length than I might otherwise have done. Let me turn to what I suggest are three possible remedies. The House has a less legitimate right to complain about inadequate answers if individual Members are abusing the system. I am clear that many answers are inadequate, and I am clear that many Members are abusing the system. I am also clear about what needs to be done, although other Members may have different suggestions to deal with the menace that I have identified. I propose three simple measures to reduce the number of questions tabled, in the hope that as a result, Ministers will feel able to pay more attention to their replies.
Although my remedies are procedural, it is worth emphasising that, as I said earlier, it would help if we thought a bit more carefully about where we could find things out. Training in both the sources of information available and the purpose of parliamentary questions would help. Parliamentary questions are not a short-cut research tool, but a vital part of the politician’s armoury to hold the Government to account. My three proposals will not be popular with all Members, but they are important. They are based on the principle that if a thing is worth asking about, it is worth making a bit effort to ask about it.
First, we should end the electronic tabling of questions—at least while the system is examined for abuse. We know that it is being abused. Our individual convenience should not come ahead of the integrity of the whole system. True parliamentary modernisation is not about making things easier for Members or the Executive, or even using new technology for its own sake “because it is there”. It should be about making Parliament more relevant. The loss of e-tabling may be regretted by the anoraks and nerds, but it should be welcomed by all true parliamentary democrats.
My second proposal is that we should require all questions to be tabled in person by Members, not their staff. I repeat that if a question is worth asking, it is worth making the effort. The proposal would be a form of rationing through which those who made the effort would get the reward. There would be no more dropping parliamentary questions in the box outside the Table Office. Members of Parliament would actually have to go through the door in person and hand their questions to the hard-working and helpful Clerks who frequent the office. Members might find that their questions were improved in the process if they sought a bit of advice from the Clerks.
If we could table questions when the House was not sitting, the proposal would require the Table Office to be staffed for at least part of the summer recess. As I have the luxury of more time, I will make my next point at more length than I had intended. I do not favour a return to September sittings, for a range of reasons that are outside the terms of the debate, but the House should find it easier to hold the Government to account during the recess. One way of achieving that would be to allow Members to table written parliamentary questions during the recess.
I am aware of two Select Committee recommendations on this matter, although there are probably others. The third report of the Procedure Committee in 2001-02, entitled “Parliamentary Questions”, said:
“We therefore recommend that with effect from 1 September each year, Members should be permitted to table written questions…this change should be made irrespective of whether the Government’s proposals for September sittings of the House are adopted.”
It also said:
“during recess periods…the Table Office should be open every Thursday during specified hours”.
Much more recently, the Modernisation Committee made exactly the same point, albeit slightly finessed, in a report on sitting hours that was published on 11 January 2005. It said:
“Since there will be no September sitting in 2005, we propose that there should instead be a two-week period during which questions for written answer may be tabled and answered and we urge the Leader of the House to bring forward a Motion to give effect to this proposal.”
Those sound ideas would help us to do our job during the recess, so I commend them to hon. Members, and to the Deputy Leader of the House. I realise that they would require the Table Office to open for limited periods, so there might be a question of expense, but it would be worth adopting such a procedure.
My third proposal is very simple: we should change the question forms that we have to sign so that Members’ signatures need to be entered at the absolute end of the question on the page, not at the bottom of the form. That would end the practice of signing blank forms, and ensure that Members at least looked at the questions that they were tabling, even if they had been written by someone else. Perhaps it is not too ambitious to hope that Members might start writing questions themselves, which would be wonderful.
None of us would leave a book of signed blank cheques lying around the House, or even our home, but Members are doing something similar in terms of their right to scrutinise the Government, which they are treating lightly, as they also treat the expense of answering questions. My proposal would be a simple but powerful device to ensure that Members’ researchers would no longer be able to bombard the Order Paper with unnecessary questions.
I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to use the luxury of additional time, but I will now conclude. I have outlined three simple and practical proposals that could restore integrity to the whole process. If Parliament cleans up its act, we will have a right to look to Ministers to do the same thing by improving the processes for the answering of questions in their Departments. Who knows? Then I might even get some better and more timely answers for my constituents.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) for securing this timely and thoughtful debate. I want to dwell on one or two of the issues that he did not raise. He was quite right that there have been several problems with late answers.
My hon. Friend did not mention questions that are tabled for answer on a named day. I receive an increasing number of holding answers to such questions. If one has asked a detailed and complex question that cannot be answered fully in a short time, it is perfectly reasonable to receive a holding answer, as long as a full answer arrives in a reasonably short time. However, I am disturbed that questions that require simple statements of fact or Government policy that ought to be easily available—not the sort of things that are available on a website, but information that it should be pretty straightforward for a Minister to give—still receive a holding answer. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) tabled such a question to ask the Government to lay out their strategic objectives in the middle east. Given that we have close on 10,000 troops there, it should have been reasonably possible for the Foreign Office to lay its hands on a comprehensive answer, but he instead received a holding answer, which seemed inappropriate. Perhaps the situation arose because of the points about volume that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire made. The answers to those sorts of questions need to be approved by a Minister, and if there is a significant number of questions it is simply not possible for even the basic ones to be answered within the deadline. The quantity is definitely affecting the quality.
My hon. Friend also made the point that with the advent of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we have to be very careful about how we use parliamentary questions to make sure that Ministers look to the answers to parliamentary questions as the pre-eminent method of transmitting information to Members, as Mr. Speaker has on a number of occasions made clear that they should. We should not be able to get that information more quickly or more comprehensively by another route. We know that newspapers make lots of freedom of information requests. Indeed, at some point it may be worth having an Adjournment debate on how that legislation is working. I suspect that some of the things that my hon. Friend said about parliamentary questions probably apply to freedom of information requests. We need to make sure that Parliament, not the Freedom of Information Act, is the central method of holding the Executive to account.
I agree with my hon. Friend to some extent about being careful about the costs that we incur, although looking at it from an accountant’s point of view, I am always very nervous about the quoted cost of answering questions. Unless there is an increase in the number of staff—with Departments rushing out and hiring staff specifically to answer questions—most of that cost is a matter of allocating overheads.
I would argue that if civil servants are busy answering questions, they are probably not inventing costly Government policies. One could argue that tabling lots of questions and tying up the Government in that way is saving taxpayers’ money rather than incurring a cost. If we look simply at the accounting side of the matter, there is resource involved in answering questions, even if it is just time. The biggest cost is probably not a financial cost; if we put Departments under pressure to answer a volume of questions that are not worth answering, we take away valuable time that Ministers and civil servants ought to be using for thinking about policy and about implementing policy. Perhaps, rather than focusing purely on the cash cost, we should consider the reduction in the quality of government that we are getting.
The potential solutions laid out my hon. Friend are very valuable. After some thought, I think that his e-tabling solution is worthy of consideration. Coming from an IT background, I am always reluctant to get rid of a technological solution, but forcing Members to table questions in person may be advantageous, as Table Office staff are able to look at the questions. We could perhaps allow e-tabling during recesses. As a new Member, I have found no problem visiting the Table Office to table my questions.
To expand on a point that my hon. Friend made in passing, I have found the quality of the Table Office staff to be very high. They often improve the question, and it is useful for a Member to discuss with them exactly the point that one is trying to get to and the information that one is trying to get. They, with their great experience, are often able to suggest ways of drafting a question so that one is more likely to get the information that one is after. Members who solely use e-tabling or have questions deposited in the box, and do not interact with Table Office staff, are missing out on a valuable resource available to them. Perhaps if they used that resource, and questions improved, it would make it more difficult for Ministers to give poor answers, as some of those loopholes left in the questions would be closed.
My hon. Friend’s suggestion of forcing Members to sign immediately after the question, or some solution to force Members into personal interaction, is incredibly valuable. I was very surprised by the information that he gave about the small number of carded questions which are followed up. I know that when I table questions, I actually want the answer, whether for constituency reasons or for Front-Bench responsibilities. If I receive a card from the Table Office, I make it my business to present myself there fairly sharply to clear up the problem with the question, discuss it with the staff and ensure that it is tabled. Frequently, if questions are not answered, I have to table questions chasing them up. Usually, when I table questions, the answer matters, either to a constituent or as part of the formulation of Government policy and the process of holding the Executive to account. That is our responsibility. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about TheyWorkForYou.com and the way in which its measurement of the effectiveness of a Member of Parliament in a performance league table puts Members under incredible pressure. If they do not undertake a volume of work, their performance is criticised—that applies more to new Members than experienced colleagues, who are more relaxed because they have more experience in the House.
That league table, however, is indicative of a wider problem. Many of our constituents are professionals who work in public services. They say that many professional people—and I hope that Members of Parliament consider themselves professional people—whether they work in the public or private sector believe that they operate in a target culture, in which management attempt to categorise all their work with easily measurable performance indicators. Government bear wider responsibility, as they try to measure public servants’ performance in professional, complicated jobs with simple performance indicators, so we can hardly complain when others judge us with similarly ill-thought-through measures that do not fully comprehend a Member of Parliament’s role. In a wider sense, therefore, we only have ourselves to blame.
Finally, I endorse my hon. Friend’s support of the Procedure Committee’s recommendations about the way in which we hold the Executive to account in the recess, particularly the summer recess. We have a constant battle explaining to the press and our constituents that we do not have long summer holiday. The House may not be sitting, but we still have many things to attend to. We receive letters from constituents and we attend engagements in our constituencies. We can use the time for thinking, researching policy or doing things that we do not have time to do when we are under heavy day-to-day pressure. However, we are supposed to hold the Government to account in the recess. We could introduce a pilot measure, at least to allow questions to be tabled in September. I accept that there would be logistical problems for the Table Office if we permitted questions to be tabled throughout the recess. Table Office staff work incredible long hours when the House is sitting, and they are entitled to a holiday. It would be sensible not to allow questions to be tabled in August, but the opportunity to do so would be welcome in September. As the House is not sitting, we may have to use a measure such as e-tabling, given that it is physically problematic for Members whose constituencies are far from London to come to the House. However, it is certainly worth a trial with certain constraints to see how the proposal works and to reinforce for Members of Parliament the message of quality versus quantity.
My hon. Friend has done the House a valuable service by holding this debate, and I look forward to the response from the Deputy Leader of the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) on securing this debate on the issue of written parliamentary questions, and on the thoughtful way he presented his case. However, he will forgive me if I do not agree with every detail of his analysis.
As well as expressing concern about the speed and quality of answers he has received, the hon. Member expressed wider concern about what he regards as a problem in the operation of the system for tabling written questions. He suggested that there was a link between that problem and some of the difficulties he has experienced securing satisfactory responses to his perfectly legitimate parliamentary questions. I will deal with the wider issues in a moment, but in respect of any problems that he has encountered securing answers to individual questions, may I emphasise, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has made clear, that the Government attach a high priority to the obligations on Ministers to respond properly to written questions? The Government fully recognise the important role played by parliamentary questions in contributing to the accountability of Government to Parliament. That accountability lies at the heart of our constitutional arrangements.
Paragraph 1.5 of the ministerial code states:
“Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and to be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies”.
The code continues:
“it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament…Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament”.
The Cabinet Office guidance backs that up, setting out the deadlines for responding to parliamentary questions. Since taking up his post, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been at pains to underline the Government’s commitment in this area. He has raised the matter directly with Cabinet colleagues, and he has responded to concerns raised on the Floor of the House, most recently on 14 June following a point of order.
Of course, there will be times when hon. Members do not feel that the response that they have been given is up to the standard that they want. Where hon. Members are dissatisfied with the response given, various remedies are, of course, open to them. They can correspond with the Minister, table further parliamentary questions and engage in other procedures of the House, including, of course, Adjournment debates such as this one. They can also report their dissatisfaction to the Public Administration Committee, which reports regularly to the House. The Committee has completed a number of reports on the quality of answering, and it takes representations from individual hon. Members into account in its comments. We must strive to ensure that the original answer is satisfactory and that hon. Members feel no need to engage with any of these follow-up paths. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire has drawn the House’s attention to answers that he has received recently from three Departments, and I will certainly take up his points with those Departments.
Let me turn to the issue with which the hon. Member dealt at some length and which he and I believe the whole House needs to consider carefully—whether the dramatic rise in the number of written questions, particularly those tabled by researchers and volunteers, is contributing to a decline in the quality of answers. It is in the interests of both Government and Parliament that the system works well. The more effective the tabling procedure, the more effective will be the accountability. The procedure works best when the questions tabled are penetrating and factual, and the answers are as accurate as possible.
The hon. Member has rightly pointed out that that creates obligations on both sides. He has highlighted the concerns of many hon. Members that so many written questions are being tabled that the quality of the questions is diminished and that the quality of the answers comes under threat, too. The hon. Member has given some graphic statistics, covering both written and oral questions, and I can underline his essential conclusion by giving the figures for written questions alone. In the 1997 Parliament, around 200 written questions were tabled on each sitting day. In the 2001 Parliament, that rose to 350 questions tabled each day. And in this Parliament, since 2005, the figure has risen further to 474 questions tabled a day. Clearly, since the number of written questions has more than doubled in less than a decade, this will have some effect on the time Ministers and officials have to devote to preparing and authorising the answers.
As the hon. Member has said, the Procedure Committee last looked at the matter in 2002. The then Leader of the House, Robin Cook, was asked whether he thought that
“there is an erosion in the quality of the answers people get to those written questions”.
Because of the increase in the number of questions, he gave the unequivocal answer, “yes”, and he said that when the number of written parliamentary questions was significantly lower than it is now. He believed that pressure on the system was such that the overall level of answering declines, so that it is not only those who have caused the increase, unwittingly or not, who suffer, but all hon. Members who suffer.
The hon. Member has been as constructive as he has been critical. He has criticised e-tabling, which was introduced in 2002. As the hon. Member has described, it is popular, but it is open to abuse. The use of electronic means for conducting our affairs is something that we are all used to, and it is absolutely right that we should be looking for ways to improve the efficiency with which we conduct our business in this place.
The hon. Member has posed the essential question: is e-tabling making the tabling of questions by researchers too easy? Is it threatening the required link between a question and the hon. Member in whose name it stands? That was certainly a concern at the time that e-tabling was introduced. The Procedure Committee noted that, in essence, there was a choice between a “strong” authentication system—such as a Member’s House security pass—before a question could be sent, or a “weak” authentication system involving a written authority and protocols. On balance, it thought that the House would prefer the weaker model, but proposed that it should be experimental, and that the Speaker should have a power to act if necessary. The House opted for the weaker system, but an increasing number of hon. Members believe that there is a case for reviewing the situation. Of course, the issue of how far the Member tabling a question is really involved in the process can arise with questions tabled in hard copy. The Table Office is aware of hon. Members who, in effect, pass on pre-signed pads of question forms for their staff to use.
The second issue of concern raised by the hon. Member is whether Members are asking for information readily available elsewhere. That concern, too, has been raised in past discussions. Robin Cook told the Procedure Committee in 2002 that
“there are…an awful lot of questions which go down…asking about matters which are easily in the public domain. To be frank, when I was in opposition I found it more useful to wander along the library and ask for information than to try and put questions to the Government…I got the answer in more convincing detail and, sometimes, quicker than when I tabled a question to the minister. Since those days the internet has exploded in terms of the availability of information.”
That latter point is important: masses of information is available both in the House of Commons Library and on the internet from both Government and other websites, which would answer many of the questions tabled. If Members’ staff cannot easily identify where to look or what they need, the House of Commons Library could not be more helpful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) rightly paid tribute to the work of the Table Office, which perhaps I should have done at greater length in my speech. The Minister is making an important point. The Library is an incredibly powerful resource, which Parliament still probably under-uses.
On a personal note, I have always found the Library to be the gem of this place and the real adornment. I agree with the hon. Member.
The then Leader of the House, Robin Cook, made several important points that reflected his thoughtful style and prescience about embracing new technology, but also pointed out that that needs to be considered in practice.
The hon. Member referred to the pressure that some Members feel to be seen to be tabling lots of questions, or at least more questions than their parliamentary neighbours, and he mentioned websites that promote that effect. Clearly, we have colleagues who are more easily swayed by such league tables than others. As I think that he indicated, however, Government accountability is not about crude numerical performance measures, and nor is that of individual Members. It is not a contest in that sense. It is about improving the performance of Government and about helping to establish whether that performance is satisfactory or how it might be improved.
The hon. Member made several proposals about how the situation might be addressed, which were echoed eloquently by his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper): ending the system of e-tabling; requiring all parliamentary questions to be handed in by a Member to the Table Office; and/or requiring a Member’s signature at the end of the question as it is handed in, rather than at the bottom of the form, to help preclude the use of pre-signed forms.
Let me be frank: I do not want to be seen—the Government do not want to be seen—as seeking to clamp down in any way on Members’ ability to scrutinise the Executive. Members have different perspectives on what is important and how they wish to pursue their work, or on how to use their staff. That is absolutely right and proper. But the Government agree with the hon. Member that the volume of written parliamentary questions is causing difficulties. In practice, as the Leader of the House pointed out today, in many ways, the Government are now subject to wider scrutiny, from even more directions—both parliamentary and non-parliamentary—than was ever the case in the past. It is certainly not for the Government to seek to impose changes on the House in this regard. It is healthy that the concerns expressed this evening have come from an individual Member—an Opposition Member, indeed—and his colleagues, and not from the Executive.
I have drawn the hon. Member’s concerns to the attention of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). He chairs the Procedure Committee, which last examined the issue four years ago under other chairmanship. The right hon. Member is minded to ask his Committee to consider the hon. Member’s proposals, and will write to him after he has studied them more fully. That, in turn, could pave the way to the tabling of questions when the House is not sitting. A review by the Procedure Committee could allow a proper assessment of the views of other Members to establish the extent to which the hon. Member’s concerns are shared, and the extent to which Members are prepared to consider changes in practices that will involve co-operation on all sides. Let me make it clear again that the objective would be better scrutiny, not less scrutiny, of the Executive by the House.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends for giving us an opportunity to discuss the issues more fully.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Six o’clock.