The format of Tynwald question time is in the spotlight.
Speaker of the House of Keys Steve Rodan, as chairman of the Tynwald standing orders committee, is seeking views after comments that the current procedure is unfair to ministers and backbench members alike.
If we can, for one moment, stop the bleeding of our hearts at the unfairness our poor politicians face in so many ways, we should consider if they have a point. As the ministers answer questions in blocks, the ones at the head of the queue always end up busier than those further down the line. So Chief Minister Allan Bell and Treasury Minister Eddie Teare are always busiest.
Mr Teare, bless him, has confirmed he doesn’t mind having to answer lots of questions, but he is worried some questions by backbench MHKs, destined for other ministers, aren’t getting a look in.
You see, question time has two and a half hours allocated to it in Tynwald, which only sits once a month. (We should point out that on all other Tuesdays, the House of Keys and Legislative Council sit and questions can be tabled in the branches.)
Anyway, it turns out 150 minutes is often woefully inadequate to cater for the volume of questions. Or perhaps, if we’re accurate, to cater for the number of answers, the amount of grandstanding and general time-wasting that sometimes would not look out of place in a nursery school – except the government closed them, if you recall.
At the last sitting, only 22 of the 35 questions tabled for oral answer were answered.
So, here are some suggestions as to how we could address the situation. Some are more serious than others and some are more achievable than others.
Appeal to the good sense of politicians. There are 33 members of Tynwald. There are 10 ministers. So in actual fact if all the non- ministers gave a little thought about whether all their questions were necessary, it may cut down on the volume. Similarly, if all the ministers got straight to the point with their answers, we might save some time. We can dream, can’t we?
Limit the time for follow-up questions. It’s a standard ploy to not actually seek the most important information with the question tabled formally in advance and included on the question paper. Instead, a member often has a follow-up question planned (mainly because he/she already knows the answer to the initial question) and hopes for greater dramatic impact if he/she appears to have acted quickly on their feet in response to the initial answer. So if only five minutes’ further discussion was allowed from the end of the initial answer, members may perhaps be more inclined to get straight to the point with their first question. (To the argument that other information may come to light that can then not be debated, it could be fairly replied that the ministers will still be in the next sitting of the House of Keys or, and I know this is amazeballs to consider, members could try talking to each other outside of a sitting of Tynwald if it is that urgent).
A time limit would also give rise for an opportunity to increase the visual appeal of Tynwald with a massive egg timer being placed behind the president’s chair. It would help progress the appearance from the current tableau of stuffed suits sitting in a rather exclusive club that has come straight out of a P. G. Wodehouse tale.
Limit the number of questions per member. Start with a maximum of two and then, when the more somnambulant parliamentarians do not place any of their allocation, open it up to the more rabid inquisitors on a first-come, first-served basis. Again, remember that these members have opportunities to ask questions in the branches of Tynwald, too.
Hold question time at the end of the sitting. You might find some of the more spurious questions disappeared if there was a danger members would not be home in time to watch Made in Chelsea.
Stop broadcasting it live on the radio. See how much waffle would disappear if members realised that everything they said would be subject to the editor’s knife, rather than going out across the airwaves uninterrupted. Or, alternatively….
Make them listen to every minute of every sitting. Trust me, none of them listens to it all while they’re sat there. Nobody could.
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