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3 April 2000

Too many words, too much wind

Quentin Letts reminds back-bench MPs that brevity is the best way of making a government minister lo

By Quentin Letts

Some babies suffer terribly from wind. They screw up their little faces and wail until the airlock is thumped out of them.

It is the same with parliaments. Some are prone to the most frightful bouts of gas. There is now firm evidence that the current House of Commons is gustier than its predecessors. It needs a firm thwack on the back to clear the problem.

The long-windedness is particularly evident in the daily, hour-long Question Time in the Commons, statistics for which have fallen my way. Figures for the 1998/99 session have been compared with those from the last parliament, when John Major was prime minister. They show that there has been a 15 per cent drop in the number of supplementary (ie, follow-up) questions put to ministers.

In the Major years, ministers answered an average of 17 initial questions per hour of Question Time, followed by 45-50 supplementary inquiries. Thanks to verbal diarrhoea that is now down to 14 initial questions and 35-40 supplementaries.

Madam Speaker looks on in frustration. In her distinguished parliamentary career, Betty Boothroyd learned that the greatest weapon available to the backbencher is brevity. A brisk question, plunged in like a short-handled dagger, is more effective than any long, statistic-packed, clever-clever inquiry.

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If you can limit your question to, say, ten words, the minister on the government front bench barely has time to catch his breath, let alone dig around in a fat folder for an evasive answer. Brevity is the enemy of bluster. Brevity is what ministers most fear.

It was brevity that did for John Prescott last year when, infamously, he was asked by Sir Michael Spicer (Con, W Worcs) about the withholding tax. Sir Michael was up and down so fast that Prescott’s front-bench neighbours did not have the time to whisper a prompt in his ear. Our esteemed Deputy Prime Minister did not know what to say. He was left looking a proper turnip.

Alas, the Spicer touch is all too rare. The occasional veteran will show how it is done. Tam Dalyell (Lab, Linlithgow) is brilliantly brief. Peter Brooke (Con, Cities of London & Westminster) and Dale Campbell-Savours (Lab, Workington) are good at it, as is Martin Bell (Ind, Tatton), whose experience in television news taught him not to waste time. But elsewhere in the Commons, the standard of interrogation is pretty dire. Research shows, I’m afraid, that Labour women are generally hopeless, but there are young Tory men, too, who could do with a brevity chip being inserted into their brains.

Boothroyd is becoming agitated about the inability of many MPs to limit themselves to a few words. She fears, rightly, that it is wrecking the efficacy of the Commons.

“I should like to run seminars on how to ask and answer questions,” she said recently. “Backbenchers should take it on themselves to sit in the tearoom at lunchtime and go through their questions so that they are precise and do not ramble.”

She sympathised with Christopher Chope (Con, Christchurch) after a minister, Ian McCartney, stretched out his answers to avoid taking questions further down the order paper. “I am disappointed daily by how few questions are reached,” said an irritated Speaker. And last Monday, she chided the popular Ann Cryer (Lab, Keighley) for a question of inordinate length, while Edmonton’s Andrew Love (Lab/Co-op) wittered on for so long that Boothroyd did us all a favour and cut him off mid-flow.

The Prime Minister is a prominent culprit. When Tony Blair took office, he changed the format of Prime Minister’s Questions. Instead of 15 minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he takes 30 minutes of questions on Wednesdays. Blair has often boasted that he takes more questions than previous prime ministers. In fact, the total has dropped by 10 per cent. The number put to him by back-bench MPs is down by 20 per cent.

One reason for this is that William Hague, as the leader of the opposition, uses his full allotment of six questions a week (something that recently had Labour MPs tapping their wristwatches). Hague is good in the Commons and would be foolish not to take up his quota. Another reason is that the Liberal Democrat leader now has two questions a week, whereas formerly it was one. But Blair’s own loquaciousness is also at fault. You have only to look at Hansard to see how yarny he can be.

Were Boothroyd ever to run those seminars, what could they teach the raw parliamentarian? First, please, would be a ban on MPs congratulating new ministers on their appointment or on some policy change. Such effusions are pointless. At moments of national sorrow or natural disaster, the House could also do without every obscure, pea-brained MP pompously conveying his “sympathy to the victims at this tragic time”.

Another sign of a Commons drudge is an MP who repeatedly mentions his constituency when putting questions. This is done in the hope that the local rag will report the great orator’s remarks. Prime culprits here are the Tory David Amess (who legged it from Basildon to Southend West before the 1997 election) and Labour’s Helen Brinton (Peterborough). National politics should aim higher. The Speaker’s seminars might also forbid MPs beginning their questions with: “Is the minister aware . . . ?” This is a bogus format designed to allow the MP to make a mini speech.

True, piercing, analytical questions are vital to the parliamentary system, and the Speaker is right – although she faces a huge task. If the current abuses persist, the Commons might as well pack up and go home.

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