Ministry of silly questions
Parliamentary debates give MPs the chance to hold government to account. But not all lines of inquiry are worth pursuing, as Mike Bonnet discovers
Tuesday 31 May 2011
The interrupted and infamous question almost asked by John Hemming in the House of Commons wasn't the only significant query raised in Parliament last week. As the Speaker reprimanded the Liberal Democrat MP for "flouting" a court order, the repercussions of which could drastically change media-privacy law in this country, a matter of equal importance raised by Life Peer Lord Jay of Ewelme was finally resolved: the fate of Albert, the stuffed anaconda who resides in the library of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Lord Jay, who has sat in the Lords since 2006, submitted a written question to the House on 9 May concerning the Government's plans "for the future of the stuffed anaconda in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office library". And just shy of two – no doubt sleepless – weeks later, the Government responded and it turned out that the anaconda had a name.
The Minister for the State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Howell of Guildford, replied: "Albert, the 20ft-long stuffed anaconda, has graced the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) library for more than a century.
"He remains proudly in place, just as he did throughout the noble Lord's distinguished career in the FCO, and continues to be held in great affection by FCO staff. We have no plans for Albert other than to clean and stuff him from time to time."
If his intention was to ask the strangest question heard in Parliament, Lord Jay has some competition. Last July, Labour MP John Spellar, who by some twist of fate is now shadow Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, asked the Secretary of State for Health: "whether he plans to ban the sale of (a) tea and coffee with sugar and (b) cheddar cheese sandwiches in hospitals". The Government responded tersely – and somewhat bemusedly – with "no".
Former Conservative MP David Amess also fell foul of the House in 1997, when he asked a question in the Commons about "cake", the fictional drug that featured in the satirist Chris Morris's spoof documentary Brass Eye.
Yet all of these questions pale when compared with the eccentric questioning of the European Commission President from former Dutch Liberal MEP, Florus Wijsenbeek.
In 1998, Mr Wijsenbeek, who was apparently concerned about the fate of shoes that were being washed ashore, enquired whether the commission was aware that "in a single winter 68 left shoes and 39 right shoes were washed up on the Dutch island of Texel and 63 left and 93 right shoes were washed up on the Shetland Islands?", before continuing: "Does the commission consider this a fair distribution and is it prepared to provide a fair allocation of shoes between each member state?"
Somewhat disappointingly, though not altogether surprisingly, the commission's response was negative. Undeterred, Mr Wijsenbeek's other claim to fame is being the subject of an official reprimand by the College of Quaestors, the body responsible for maintaining discipline among MEPs, for repeatedly riding his bicycle through the parliament building in Brussels.
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