Each day in the Commons begins with an hour of oral questions. Every department turns up on a rota roughly once a month.
MPs submit questions prior to a deadline few days before and if you are drawn out of the hat your question is then on the order paper for that day. When your question is reached, the minister reads out a prepared answer and then you get to ask a supplementary question, which must relate to the question you tabled. Other MPs can also ask supplementaries on your question, but again they must be related to the original question.
Sometimes you have to push your luck.
Last week was education questions, and I am trying to raise at every opportunity the dreadful cuts to Cheshire West schools budgets – £4.2 million in this year alone. No schools in Chester are immune and all are looking at staff cuts.
Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames had put down a question on schools funding in his area, West Sussex and a quick bit of research showed that the new funding formula had given that area an increase of 1.9%. I wanted to contrast that with our cut of 1.7% – when we are already £400 per pupil below the national average.
But as I stood up to catch Mr Speaker’s eye, he insisted that I stick solely to West Sussex: clearly he knew the trick I was up to, and wouldn’t allow me to mention anywhere else in the country, such as Cheshire West & Chester. Rules are rules!
Well with those restrictions I stumbled through my supplementary question, asking why West Sussex was being treated more generously than “other areas I could mention,” and I got a cheer from fellow MPs for the effort.
But there is a serious side to this terrible business. The government’s new schools “fair funding formula” provides neither fairness nor funding. In two years’ time we will be down £6.4 million a year, which means teachers will be cut, class sizes will rise and attainment in Chester will fall. I am leading a debate next week on this subject, and am meeting the Schools Minister shortly afterwards.