Lord Kamlesh Patel has revealed the secret of what the civil service consider to be a “good” answer to a Parliamentary Question. In his speech seconding the Motion for an Humble Address (the formal Parliamentary response to the Queen’s Speech always proposed and seconded by back-benchers from the Government side), he recounted his experiences on becoming a Whip (he has since resigned) and his desire for training, in particular on the arcane art of answering Parliamentary Questions.
This is what he said:
“I had to learn a great deal as a Minister in the Whips’ Office. …. The first is that you have to answer a lot of parliamentary Questions, often on subjects about which you know little. I take this opportunity to thank noble Lords for their forbearance and patience with me during the times when this was abundantly clear to them.
I can assure noble Lords that, despite their doubts, I sought guidance and advice about answering parliamentary Questions. Surely, I thought, there must be some sort of guidance—a course, an induction programme, perhaps, that I could go on. Early on, I sought advice. “No, you do not need a training course on this”, I was told, “you just need to learn a few golden rules”. I was told a story that perfectly illustrated what the golden rules were. Let me share this with noble Lords.
A Minister and a senior civil servant are being driven to some remote government establishment. The car begins to travel deep into the countryside, it is getting late, and the fog closes in. The car gets slower and slower and finally the driver, dimly seeing a passer-by, rolls down the window and shouts, “Where are we?”. Back comes the answer, “You are in a car in the fog”. The civil servant immediately jumps up and says, “Do you realise, Minister, that that is the perfect answer to a parliamentary Question? It is short, it is absolutely true and it tells you nothing that you did not already know”.”
So now we all know ….