An enormous waste of time, money and breath

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The Independent Online
STANDING in the Commons gallery, staring down at dissident Tory and Labour MPs making obscure points of order to delay the Maastricht Bill, I was approached by a puzzled newcomer to the Westminster press corps. A recent arrival from Washington, he kept asking absurd questions: What were these people doing? Why were they doing it? Wasn't it all a waste of time? Why was no one stopping them?

After a bit, my brilliantly technical- sounding explanations stumbled to a halt. Being a complete ignoramus, he had hit an important truth. At one level, the filibustering and delaying tactics are a nonsensical pantomime, unfit for grown men and women. But since the Government has not got the courage to put the Maastricht issue to a referendum, there has to be an exhaustive debate about the treaty somewhere. Despite the baffling procedural warfare that criss-crosses it, the Commons chamber is clearly the place.

Yet, as the Maastricht debate crawls on, hogging the chamber day after day, it seems likely that it will provoke some more general debate about how seriously we take Parliament - how well, as an institution, it is doing. Some such debate is urgently needed. It functions well enough as a system for processing legislation (though some would disagree). But as the elected body that keeps the executive under scrutiny it is a dismal failure.

Take the most regular and public expression of that scrutiny, the oral questions to ministers, one department a day. The cost to Whitehall of answering these questions is a matter of some debate but is probably in excess of pounds 720,000 a year. It certainly consumes a phenomenal amount of energy in government departments, and takes up the first hour of business most working days. Yet talk to any minister about it and he, or she, will admit it is largely a waste of time and money. The word doddle is not infrequently used.

Why? First, because the Speaker wants to be 'fair' to backbenchers, they are rationed to a single question. When a minister evades it, which is laughably easy, the MP (unlike the most junior radio interviewer) has no second bite. Formulaic replies have evolved over the past 20 years or so, which ministers quickly learn, to block information and kick embarrassments into touch. And, for a stumbling minister, the bulging file produced by the Civil Service is available - though, as the Tory parliamentarian John Biffen has written: 'Often the copious briefing material is of little practical value. Ministers clutch their official folders much as a toddler clasps his teddy bear. The briefs are a much-needed boost to morale.'

Parliamentary questions originally started because MPs used to chat across the chamber, casually asking ministers what they were up to. This became so disorderly that it was formalised and slowly evolved into today's ritual. Once, doubtless, it was a testing experience. But the executive has learnt how to cope and it has degenerated into party knockabout. Tedious bouts are written up by lazy reporters whose stories begin: 'There were angry scenes in the Commons . . .'

The sessions, in short, have ceased to be a useful part of the Constitution and have become merely decorative. In a recent Commons report on these questions, it was notable that ministers were keen to praise them. 'An extremely important mechanism,' said Malcolm Rifkind. 'Very effective as a platform for open political debate,' said Kenneth Clarke. That ministerial praise, if nothing else, should provide conclusive evidence that the sessions ought to be terminated. It usually takes about a hundred years for anyone to recognise that some aspect of Commons procedure has become obsolete. But it is now obvious that oral questions, as presently organised, should be abolished.

What, though, would the Commons replace them with? In its own funny way, Westminster has already hit on the answer, but in a tentative form that has been virtually unnoticed so far. Most weeks, on a Wednesday morning, two obscure committees that consider European legislation meet for sessions which begin with a short statement, followed by an hour of open questioning. Ministers find them hell: 'The most testing experience I have had in government,' says one victim.

These sessions were introduced only last year. Unlike the better-known select committee hearings, no civil servants are allowed to sit beside the minister, nor does the committee tip the department off about lines of questioning. Any MPs are allowed to turn up, so that experts on whatever subject is being discussed (next week, the EC aid budget) can arrive with sheaves of questions. There is time for plenty of supplementary questions, before the committee turns to debating. Because the MPs are homing in on detailed points about EC directives, often affecting particular constituents, there is virtually no party point-scoring.

As EC legislation becomes more important, there is no doubt that such sessions will become more frequent and better known. But there is no reason why this formula should be restricted to EC business. If each cabinet minister attended similar committees once a fortnight, made a short statement on the department's recent work, and took the flak, the Commons would have clawed back quite a lot of its relevance.

There is a little democratic revolution here, just waiting for the interest and energy to make it happen. Backbenchers are neither so powerful, nor so respected, that they can afford to let it slip by.