I'm very glad you asked me that particular question . . .

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The Independent Online
LET'S not get carried away by this MPs-asking-questions- for-money horror story. Let's keep calm. Let's look at the facts.

1 MPs are allowed in certain sessions to direct questions at ministers, and even sometimes the Prime Minister.

2 Some, perhaps most, of these questions are planted on the MPs by the party leadership.

3 None of the questions ever gets a straight answer.

4 Except for planted questions.

5 This is because ministers are well briefed by their civil servants to flannel around any awkward questions.

6 So if by some chance there is a good and pointed question, there will not be a good and pointed answer.

7 That is why it is called Prime Minister's Questions, and not Answer Time.

8 There are lots of questions . . .

9 . . . but no answers.

10 The only thing remotely resembling an answer you will ever get comes when the Leader of the Opposition asks the Prime Minister how he justifies such- and-such an action, and the Prime Minister says: 'This comes well from a party which, when it was in power, committed itself to . . .' and then reads out the damaging quotation he has been given by some hack researcher.

11 In other words, Question Time produces very little in the way of questions and not much in the way of answers, and might have been abolished years ago were it not that it is unaccountably popular in America, where it is apparently watched late at night by people who are fed up with the other wacky talk shows.

12 So it might be alleged that the whole questions procedure brings discredit on the institution of Parliament, giving as it does the appearance of democracy, but the reality of a well-rehearsed pub conversation.

13 So to suggest that these two MPs are bringing Parliament into disrepute by being prepared to ask certain questions in return for money seems outrageous, as what we are talking about is already in disrepute.

14 And it is hard to see how it can be more discredited by paid questions than it is already by questions planted on the MPs by their own leadership.

15 Indeed, there is a chance that if MPs are paid by outside agencies to ask questions, the standard of question might go up.

16 Though considering what happens when politicians get together to ask and answer questions, this is doubtful.

17 Take, for example, Any Questions and Question Time, which were doomed from the start because they are populated mainly by politicians, who come on to peddle their party line and score points off each other, but not to answer the question.

18 And, which is worse, havebrainwashed the public into asking the same idiotic questions that politicians want to be asked, so that people week in week out are heard to ask: 'Does the panel approve of the signal workers' strike action?' or 'Do you think the Post Office should be privatised?', and nobody ever asks any interesting question.

19 Whereas there was a time when the members of panels were asked odd and appealing questions, such as 'What do you think of folk music?', or 'What do you dread most in the next world?'.

20 Which means somewhere along the line we have forgotten how to ask our own questions and have floated into asking the questions expected of us.

21 A process which can be dimly espied in the way Desert Island Discs has changed from the old days when Roy Plomley would have a genial drifting conversation with his guests to today's version, when you always feel that Sue Lawley is grilling the guest and trying to get them to own up to something, usually the desire to be Prime Minister.

22 So paying MPs to ask questions is very unlikely to lead to anything worse, and quite likely to lead to something better.

23 All of which ignores the point that however good the questions are in Parliament, they are unlikely to get a straight answer.

24 And what I would like to see happening is private individuals and companies being allowed to pay ministers and the Prime Minister to give straight answers.

25 Which, considering how much money the PM gets from the taxpayer, is what is meant to be happening already.

26 But isn't.

27 I seem to have strayed from the subject.

28 What was the question?