Written Parliamentary Questions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:57 pm on 28 June 2006.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:57, 28 June 2006

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Peter Luff for securing this timely and thoughtful debate. I want to dwell on one or two of the issues that he did not raise. He was quite right that there have been several problems with late answers.

My hon. Friend did not mention questions that are tabled for answer on a named day. I receive an increasing number of holding answers to such questions. If one has asked a detailed and complex question that cannot be answered fully in a short time, it is perfectly reasonable to receive a holding answer, as long as a full answer arrives in a reasonably short time. However, I am disturbed that questions that require simple statements of fact or Government policy that ought to be easily available—not the sort of things that are available on a website, but information that it should be pretty straightforward for a Minister to give—still receive a holding answer. My hon. Friend Mr. Simpson tabled such a question to ask the Government to lay out their strategic objectives in the middle east. Given that we have close on 10,000 troops there, it should have been reasonably possible for the Foreign Office to lay its hands on a comprehensive answer, but he instead received a holding answer, which seemed inappropriate. Perhaps the situation arose because of the points about volume that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire made. The answers to those sorts of questions need to be approved by a Minister, and if there is a significant number of questions it is simply not possible for even the basic ones to be answered within the deadline. The quantity is definitely affecting the quality.

My hon. Friend also made the point that with the advent of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we have to be very careful about how we use parliamentary questions to make sure that Ministers look to the answers to parliamentary questions as the pre-eminent method of transmitting information to Members, as Mr. Speaker has on a number of occasions made clear that they should. We should not be able to get that information more quickly or more comprehensively by another route. We know that newspapers make lots of freedom of information requests. Indeed, at some point it may be worth having an Adjournment debate on how that legislation is working. I suspect that some of the things that my hon. Friend said about parliamentary questions probably apply to freedom of information requests. We need to make sure that Parliament, not the Freedom of Information Act, is the central method of holding the Executive to account.

I agree with my hon. Friend to some extent about being careful about the costs that we incur, although looking at it from an accountant's point of view, I am always very nervous about the quoted cost of answering questions. Unless there is an increase in the number of staff—with Departments rushing out and hiring staff specifically to answer questions—most of that cost is a matter of allocating overheads.

I would argue that if civil servants are busy answering questions, they are probably not inventing costly Government policies. One could argue that tabling lots of questions and tying up the Government in that way is saving taxpayers' money rather than incurring a cost. If we look simply at the accounting side of the matter, there is resource involved in answering questions, even if it is just time. The biggest cost is probably not a financial cost; if we put Departments under pressure to answer a volume of questions that are not worth answering, we take away valuable time that Ministers and civil servants ought to be using for thinking about policy and about implementing policy. Perhaps, rather than focusing purely on the cash cost, we should consider the reduction in the quality of government that we are getting.

The potential solutions laid out my hon. Friend are very valuable. After some thought, I think that his e-tabling solution is worthy of consideration. Coming from an IT background, I am always reluctant to get rid of a technological solution, but forcing Members to table questions in person may be advantageous, as Table Office staff are able to look at the questions. We could perhaps allow e-tabling during recesses. As a new Member, I have found no problem visiting the Table Office to table my questions.

To expand on a point that my hon. Friend made in passing, I have found the quality of the Table Office staff to be very high. They often improve the question, and it is useful for a Member to discuss with them exactly the point that one is trying to get to and the information that one is trying to get. They, with their great experience, are often able to suggest ways of drafting a question so that one is more likely to get the information that one is after. Members who solely use e-tabling or have questions deposited in the box, and do not interact with Table Office staff, are missing out on a valuable resource available to them. Perhaps if they used that resource, and questions improved, it would make it more difficult for Ministers to give poor answers, as some of those loopholes left in the questions would be closed.

My hon. Friend's suggestion of forcing Members to sign immediately after the question, or some solution to force Members into personal interaction, is incredibly valuable. I was very surprised by the information that he gave about the small number of carded questions which are followed up. I know that when I table questions, I actually want the answer, whether for constituency reasons or for Front-Bench responsibilities. If I receive a card from the Table Office, I make it my business to present myself there fairly sharply to clear up the problem with the question, discuss it with the staff and ensure that it is tabled. Frequently, if questions are not answered, I have to table questions chasing them up. Usually, when I table questions, the answer matters, either to a constituent or as part of the formulation of Government policy and the process of holding the Executive to account. That is our responsibility. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about TheyWorkForYou.com and the way in which its measurement of the effectiveness of a Member of Parliament in a performance league table puts Members under incredible pressure. If they do not undertake a volume of work, their performance is criticised—that applies more to new Members than experienced colleagues, who are more relaxed because they have more experience in the House.

That league table, however, is indicative of a wider problem. Many of our constituents are professionals who work in public services. They say that many professional people—and I hope that Members of Parliament consider themselves professional people—whether they work in the public or private sector believe that they operate in a target culture, in which management attempt to categorise all their work with easily measurable performance indicators. Government bear wider responsibility, as they try to measure public servants' performance in professional, complicated jobs with simple performance indicators, so we can hardly complain when others judge us with similarly ill-thought-through measures that do not fully comprehend a Member of Parliament's role. In a wider sense, therefore, we only have ourselves to blame.

Finally, I endorse my hon. Friend's support of the Procedure Committee's recommendations about the way in which we hold the Executive to account in the recess, particularly the summer recess. We have a constant battle explaining to the press and our constituents that we do not have long summer holiday. The House may not be sitting, but we still have many things to attend to. We receive letters from constituents and we attend engagements in our constituencies. We can use the time for thinking, researching policy or doing things that we do not have time to do when we are under heavy day-to-day pressure. However, we are supposed to hold the Government to account in the recess. We could introduce a pilot measure, at least to allow questions to be tabled in September. I accept that there would be logistical problems for the Table Office if we permitted questions to be tabled throughout the recess. Table Office staff work incredible long hours when the House is sitting, and they are entitled to a holiday. It would be sensible not to allow questions to be tabled in August, but the opportunity to do so would be welcome in September. As the House is not sitting, we may have to use a measure such as e-tabling, given that it is physically problematic for Members whose constituencies are far from London to come to the House. However, it is certainly worth a trial with certain constraints to see how the proposal works and to reinforce for Members of Parliament the message of quality versus quantity.

My hon. Friend has done the House a valuable service by holding this debate, and I look forward to the response from the Deputy Leader of the House.


Sam Smith
Posted on 29 Jun 2006 6:05 pm

This annotation has been removed

Sam Smith
Posted on 29 Jun 2006 6:06 pm (Report this annotation)

"In a wider sense, therefore, we only have ourselves to blame."

Which is part of the reason behind the creation of the site http://www.mptables.com - rating MPs by any two criteria you like (that we have data for).

The tables may or may not make much sense for the edge cases. But the published league tables for hospitals may or may not make much sense at the edges either.