22 JUNE 2002, Page 30

Brief encounters

From Mr Dennis L. Bird Sir: Peter Obome (Where is Black Rod's killer memorandum?', 15 June) writes that 'the Independent newspaper revealed how civil servants have been told to compile dossiers on MPs in order to assess their motives before answering parliamentary questions'. He seems to think that this was an innovation introduced by the Blair government, but this is far from the case. Andrew Roth, editor of that indispensable reference book Parliamentaty Profiles, recalls that in 1959 he was regularly astonished by how well civil servants had briefed their ministers on MPs' interests. That is, and always has been, the duty of civil servants.

Although the civil servants must not show any party-political bias, they have to be highly politically aware of the background to a PQ. They have to brief ministers on who is asking the question, and in particular why this MP or peer is asking this question at this time. It is essential to do so, in order that ministers can give impromptu answers to unscripted supplementary oral questions.

As a principal working on the Urban Aid Programme from 1968 to 1973, and then as a senior lecturer on Parliament and Government at the Civil Service College for the next 17 years, I was concerned in these

matters. I ran one-day courses for officials on how to prepare the replies to PQs; I stressed the need to explore so far as possible the MP's motive. Was it to embarrass the government? Was it to gain personal publicity, or to further the interests of a pressure group or commercial company? Was it a constituency matter?

Such attention to detail often paid off. I remember an innocuous-seeming oral question in my Urban Programme days. My astute executive officer discovered that the questioner had an interest in legal-aid centres. These formed only a small part of Our work, but nevertheless we included a paragraph on them in the dozen or so Notes for Supplementaries. That was indeed what the question was about, and our minister was able to give a full and well-informed reply — much to the surprise of his interlocutor.

Dennis L. Bird

Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex