Written Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Privy Council – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 22nd October 2002.

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Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South 2:30 pm, 22nd October 2002

To ask the President of the Council if he will make a statement on plans to allow hon. Members to table written questions during the recess.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Secretary (Privy Council Office), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

If the House agrees to a parliamentary calendar without a three-month summer recess, there will be less need for questions to be tabled and answered during the recess. The Government and the House authorities have already co-operated this year to ensure that questions tabled shortly before the House rose for the summer were answered during the recess.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

If one effect of the modernisation proposals is to shorten the period in which we are not permitted to ask questions, to that extent I welcome them. I accept that, hitherto, it has been axiomatic that the House needs to be sitting for us to ask questions, but I wonder whether that is necessarily always so in relation to written questions. In recesses, Departments remain Departments and continue to function, and Ministers remain Ministers. Is it possible to find some mechanism whereby we can ask written questions, at least, when Parliament is in recess? Writing letters does not have the same effect as asking parliamentary questions. Could the Minister consider at least a weekly bulletin of questions during recesses that could be tabled and answered?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Secretary (Privy Council Office), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I shall certainly take away my hon. Friend's suggestion, but I ask him to acknowledge that the Government have made significant improvements in the way that the system operates. As he himself says, Members are still free to write letters to Ministers during the recess, and it is expected that those Ministers will reply within 15 working days.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Has the Minister read the report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee on parliamentary questions? As he will agree, it has a majority of Government Members, as have all Committees. In particular, has he read paragraph 101, which states:

XWe . . . recommend that with effect from 1 September each year, Members should be permitted to table written questions. We recommend this change should be made irrespective of whether the Government's proposals for September sittings of the House are adopted"?

The view of the Procedure Committee is perfectly plain. It has looked at this matter on our behalf and has recommended very strongly that there should not be a blanket ban on the asking of questions throughout the summer recess, whatever its length might be. Why is the Minister apparently ignorant of the contents of that report, and if he is not ignorant of them, will he please tell us that he is going to do something about it?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Secretary (Privy Council Office), Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am not ignorant of what is in the report, which I have read, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will be pleasantly surprised when he sees the Government's official response to it tomorrow. However, it is also within the Government's prerogative not to accept all the recommendations of a report from a Committee such as the Procedure Committee. For the reasons that I have already given, we believe that the most sensible way forward is for the House to approve the changes in respect of September sittings, so that we can halve the time during which Members are unable to table questions.