We are pleased to welcome BBC Question Time to The Hawth on Thursday 22nd January. This long-running programme has become essential viewing for many people interested in politics. It is good to see the show coming toCrawley which is the most marginal parliamentary seat in the country with the incumbent MP having a majority of just 37 votes. I do not know who will be appearing on the programme but I am sure that there are many possible contenders.
Question Time has sometimes been derided for its concept of a representative audience. That is not a view that I share. I have seen audiences who genuinely appear to represent the feelings of the times. Politicians from parties that are currently unpopular get a reception reflecting the fact and that seems fair enough.
Politicians have a reputation for not always, or not ever, giving a direct answer to a question. We sometimes lapse into the habit of answering the question that we would have liked to have been asked. I am sure that can be really irritating to an audience and it is a practice that we should try and avoid. Ultimately we have an obligation to respond in an open and honest manner.
There is the dilemma that a direct question can pose if it requires a “yes” or “no” answer. An unqualified “yes” or “no” is often inadequate and potentially embarrassing as it would be given without supporting reasoning. Therefore an answer might start with the reasoning followed by the direct answer but that can sound evasive and lose an audience before you get to the actual answer. Answering in a direct way up-front can have the disadvantage that the first response might be so unpopular that any reasoning is drowned out in a chorus of disapproval.
The subtleties of answering questions and how to do so are part of a politician’s tool kit along with its other contents, which some people might refer to as dark arts. Locally we provide the means for public questions to be asked, notably at Full Council andCabinet. This is as it should be, showing transparency to the outside world beyond the town hall.
Sometimes questions in these forums can be challenging, off-putting and make us wish that we were somewhere else. A question might be too personal, for the questioner themselves, to be responded to in public. It might probe areas ofinformation that are commercially confidential at the time. A question could totally flummox the person it is being asked of. It could be really supportive of the person required to respond. Okay, I realise that last example is a little less likely.
On 22nd January I hope that we will see the full variety of question-and-answer techniques at play. Enjoy the show.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
7th January 2009