Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Ministerial Answers to Parliamentary Questions

– in the House of Commons at 3:38 pm on 22nd January 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn— (Chris Mole.)

Watch this
Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website

Hide

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 3:58 pm, 22nd January 2009

I am grateful not only for the opportunity to raise an important matter, but for the elongated time in which to do so, although I assure the Deputy Leader of the House that I do not intend to filibuster. If I had any such intention, I would have filibustered on the previous item of business.

I raise the matter in a spirit that may sometimes be critical, but which is also intended to be constructive, as I hope the Deputy Leader of the House will accept. Let me take him back to 1997, when the Labour party assumed office. At that time, there was revulsion in the country at some of the unsatisfactory and unwelcome practices and the unnecessary secrecy that occurred under the previous Government. The revulsion against that method of government was no small contributor to the significant majority that Labour enjoyed in 1997, or indeed to the significant increase in the number of seats that the Liberal Democrats gained at that time.

As a reaction, after that seminal election, we saw the introduction of a more open method of government. We saw, for example, the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and the amendment of practices relating to parliamentary questions. A small example relates to the number of questions that can legitimately be denied an answer on the basis of commercial confidentiality. An analysis of the number of times that that reason was used under the Conservatives before 1997 can be demonstrated by a steadily rising graph, but that graph drops dramatically after 1997 when the Minister's Government came to power. I have to say, however, that the graph has subsequently risen to the level that it had reached under the Conservatives. It is difficult to imagine that there were fewer matters of commercial confidentiality in 1998 than at any other point, and there is rightly a suspicion that the number of times when that excuse, or reason, for not giving a full answer has been given is related not simply to the existence of commercial confidentiality but to the difficulty or expediency involved in not giving an answer for political reasons.

Similarly, the Minister will know that another reason for not answering a question is that to do so would incur disproportionate cost. That is a perfectly legitimate reason when properly deployed. However, it was over-deployed and misused under the previous Conservative regime. When I was a researcher in this place, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I recall that one Labour MP, who was fed up with that particular excuse being used by the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, asked her on how many occasions in the previous 12 months she had answered a question using the formula, "This question could be answered only at disproportionate cost." She answered: "This question could be answered only at disproportionate cost."

Watch this

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Well, someone in No. 10 had a sense of humour at that time.

The issue of openness is crucial for democracy. We touched on it in the previous debate about MPs' expenses. After all my years in politics, both nationally and in local councils, my strong view is that being open and accountable for our actions is not only a requirement for all of us but also leads to better government. It is in the interests of the ruling party or parties for there to be openness. Sometimes, it does not seem that way, but in the medium to long term, that is undoubtedly the case.

I am sorry to say that, over the past 11 years, there has been some slippage in that openness, accountability and willingness to answer questions frankly. I suspect that that is not unusual in a Government. The longer they are in power, the more they feel responsible for themselves and the more they feel an obligation to hide things. It is perhaps a human reaction, but it is also a wrong reaction, because once they hide something, they then have to hide the fact that they have hidden it, and there begins a vicious circle that can end up with a Government becoming defensive and not releasing information that should properly in the public domain, even though they had started out in a different vein. As the Minister will know, some of the most damaging stories about a Government, of whatever colour, relate not to what has been concealed but to the fact that it has been concealed. I suggest to him, in the abstract, that being open is in the interests of the Government as well as of the public and of the country.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a trend, in that questions that would previously have been answered are no longer being answered. In about 1998, I asked the former Department of Transport—or perhaps it was the Department of Energy, in those days—about the carriage of radioactive material by air. I asked how many flights carried radioactive material, and I was given a specific figure. When I asked that question again recently, I was told that those figures were not collected. I cannot believe that in the past 10 years, the Government have decided not to collect those figures, but that is what I was told.

The answers to questions can be misleading. A Plaid Cymru Member in the previous Parliament asked how much nuclear waste was carried by air, and he was told that none was carried in that way. When he mentioned that to me, expressing his surprise, I told him that I happened to know the trick: he needed to ask about spent nuclear fuel. If he had asked about that, he would have had a rather different answer. It was quite clear that he was asking that question for the purpose of determining the safety and environmental implications of carrying such materials by air. The answer that he was given might have been technically correct, but it was totally misleading. I do not believe that that is a proper way to proceed.

Back in 24 April 1998 and on this very spot, I held an Adjournment debate entitled "The Prime Minister's Press Office". It was a Friday afternoon—I remember it very well, because the House was empty and the Press Gallery was full—and it was about the activities of Mr. Alastair Campbell. I suggest to the Minister, with all due humility, that that debate—what I said as well as what was said in response on behalf of the Government—makes quite interesting reading today. I said on that occasion that just because the Government have levers available to pull, and just because they have people who are very good at pulling levers—as they did that year with Alastair Campbell; he was exceptionally good at his job, whatever one thinks of him—it did not mean that it was in the interests of the country to pull that lever as far as it would go. Neither was it in the interests of the Government to do so. I said that the Government have to exercise some self-restraint and sometimes have to accept that information needs to be released, even though it is not in the short-term interests of the Government to do so. That is part of the democratic system. If we move away from that, we will be in some difficulty. There are examples, I am afraid, where we have moved away from that, although there are also examples of good practice to set against it.

The principles of freedom of information, which the Minister and his party accepted in passing the Freedom of Information Act 2000, include the public's having a right to information about the activities of public bodies, most notably the Government and their agencies, along with local councils and other such bodies. That was a sea change brought in by the Government, which I very much welcome. By definition, the Government also accept that material that the public had a right to should be released, irrespective of whether the Government wanted it to be kept secret, if the reasons for doing so were not ones specifically set out in the 2000 Act relating to matters of national security and so forth. In other words, the Government accepted the principle that material would be released as a right, even if it were harmful to the Government's own political interests. That was a very brave and correct thing to do. However, it does not seem to me that the principle in that Act has been followed through in the practices of all Ministers when they answer parliamentary questions.

I would be pleased if the Minister were kind enough to answer one particular question, which is whether for legal purposes Ministers regard parliamentary questions as effectively freedom of information requests. In other words, do they make the same assessment of whether information should be released as they would have if the information had been requested in a freedom of information request? Alternatively, are MPs entitled to more information in their parliamentary answers than such requests would generate—or, indeed, less? What is the exact relationship between a freedom of information request and a parliamentary answer?

As I said, there are examples of good practice as well as bad practice in government. I am not attempting to smear every Government with the same brush. I refer the Minister back to a question I asked in 2001 that received considerable coverage at the time. I asked the Home Secretary

"what representations he has received on the applications by G. P. Hinduja and S. P. Hinduja for British citizenship"—[ Hansard, 18 January 2001; Vol. 361, c. 351W.]

from the Member representing Hartlepool at the time—now Lord Mandelson. That question was answered properly and in full by the Home Office Minister at the time—under instructions, it turned out, from the present Justice Secretary. At least partly as a consequence, the then Member for Hartlepool had to resign his ministerial office. If I asked such a question in similar circumstances today, I just wonder whether the answer would be as full and open as that one was, or whether some formula would be applied to prevent the information—legitimately asked for and provided on that occasion—from coming out. I hope the Minister can assure me that it would, but I am going on to explain why I believe such answers are not being provided these days in the same way.

I said that there is a patchwork of answers across government in terms of ministerial responses. That is quite true. Let me say that the present Justice Secretary, for example, has always been absolutely straight down the line, whatever Department he is representing, about answering parliamentary questions, irrespective of whether they are detrimental in the short term to the Government. He regards it as his duty to provide answers to parliamentary questions, and I pay tribute to him for it.

Some Departments regularly produce proper information. During my time in the House I have found that the Ministry of Defence, for example, has almost invariably provided proper answers to parliamentary questions, and, on the occasions when it has not done so, has correctly stated why the answers cannot be provided in the form that the Member has requested. I consider it a proper way of dealing with things to explain why answers cannot be provided, if that is the case—for reasons of commercial confidentiality, for instance, or because an answer might threaten relations with another country. There are legitimate reasons why answers sometimes cannot be given and, as I have said, the Ministry of Defence generally either answers questions in full or gives the responses that I have described. So there is good practice in Government but, I am sorry to say, there is also bad practice and that, unfortunately, is the nub of the issue.

The worst practice, I am afraid, relates to the Prime Minister, and to the answers that he signs off to parliamentary written questions addressed to him. I should like to think that the Prime Minister was not personally responsible. I should like to think that it was a matter for the spotty apparatchiks who occupy the back of No. 10 and draft the answers for him.

Watch this

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The Minister says they are not spotty; presumably that means that they are indeed apparatchiks.

I should like to think that the Prime Minister was not primarily responsible—after all, he is a very busy man—and that he merely signed the answers off. However, I received a straight answer when I asked the Prime Minister

"whether it is his practice personally to approve replies to written parliamentary answers in his name."—[ Hansard, 24 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 922W.]

The Prime Minister gave the very clear one-word answer "Yes." We must therefore assume that he does accept responsibility for parliamentary answers in his name.

The Minister may be interested to know that I have produced a little dossier for him. I will hand him a copy at the end of the debate. It is entitled "Why won't the Prime Minister Answer the Question?" I hope that that is a question that the Minister, at least, will answer.

The ministerial code, published in July 2007, states:

"Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands."

There is nothing wrong with that: it is a perfectly proper policy to set out and adhere to. Of course, if we do not like the way in which Ministers respond, we can complain to the person who enforces the ministerial code—but, unfortunately, that is the Prime Minister as well. I am not sure to whom one should complain if the Prime Minister is interpreting the ministerial code. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what the mechanism is for dealing with that particular difficult scenario.

In May 2007, in a speech launching his bid to become leader of the Labour party, the Prime Minister said

"government must be more open and accountable to Parliament".

He was reacting against what were perceived to be some of the excesses of the previous regime under Tony Blair. The Minister may recall that that particular motif—that particular approach by the present Prime Minister—was well received, and contributed in no small measure to the popular support that he enjoyed during the early part of his time as Prime Minister. Unfortunately, it has not been carried through in terms of written parliamentary answers.

I have conducted an analysis. The Minister may consider it a small analysis, but I have asked the Prime Minister 23 written parliamentary questions in the last 12 months.

Watch this

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I am glad the Minister knows. I do not know whether that means that he is responsible for the answers, but I think it fair to say that only 17 per cent, of them—four out of 23—have been answered in any way satisfactorily, while 83 per cent, have not been answered properly at all. That is not good enough.

I hope the Minister will not either attack me personally for doing that work or pretend that everything is all right, because it is not. The Minister has a good record in the House for being independent and fair-minded. I hope he will recognise that there is a problem, and that it is in his interests as well as those of Parliament to try to deal with it.

How are these questions not answered properly? What techniques are used? Sometimes the Prime Minister will provide irrelevant information: he is asked one thing, but his reply bears no relation to the question he was asked. Sometimes he provides information that is so vague that it cannot be used in any shape or form. Sometimes he answers the bit of the question he likes, and leaves unanswered the bits that are more difficult to answer. These techniques may be well established—perhaps they are not unique to this Prime Minister and have been employed by other Prime Ministers, and also by other Ministers. I do not wish, therefore, to pretend that the this Prime Minister is a lot worse than any other, but these are not techniques to be proud of, and nor do they bear close scrutiny. I hope that he and the Deputy Leader of the House will recognise that it would be better if proper answers were given to parliamentary questions.

Watch this

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from his list of techniques, may I draw his attention to two others, which he may have partly covered in what he has said?

One particularly disturbing technique is to refer the Member who has asked the question to some extremely obscure page of a website or to say that the material requested is available in some huge volume of Government statistics. That is of no help to anyone. However, in fairness to the Leader of the House, I should say that she has at least stamped on the practice of referring Members to previous answers without enclosing a copy of that answer, and that addition at least makes things more convenient for the hon. Member concerned.

Watch this

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The hon. Gentleman makes some relevant points, and I am grateful to him for adding colour to the case I am making. It should be added, however, that although we may now have the previous answer enclosed, it sometimes bears no relation to the question.

Let me give the Deputy Leader of the House a couple of examples. They are by no means the most important examples, but they are typical of the problem. I asked the Prime Minister on what date he last travelled by rail on official business. I do not think I have to justify my questions—I am entitled to ask questions if I wish to do so—but the reason I asked that question was that I speak for my party on transport matters. The Government have made a virtue of their climate change activities and have rightly introduced a Bill to tackle climate change, and I wished to discover whether Ministers were adhering to their statements in their personal behaviour. It was not an unreasonable inquiry, therefore, and, in fact, I asked every Minister that question. Of 22 Departments, including the Prime Minister's office, who were asked that question, 18 have given me a precise date on which the Minister last used a train—and most of them travelled by train quite recently, so this is a good news story for the Government as most of them at least are helping to stick to their climate change targets by trying to use the train wherever possible. I am therefore happy to put out something positive about the Government on this occasion, because that is what my questions produced. Two Ministers have not yet responded—they have given holdings answers—and two have refused to give the information. Who are they? They are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

What did the Prime Minister say? He could have given a simple, short answer by actually saying when he last travelled by train: "12 December 2007" or whenever it was. Instead, he said this:

"I travel, making the most efficient and cost-effective arrangements, including by rail. My travel arrangements are in accordance with the arrangements for official travel set out in chapter 10 of the 'Ministerial Code', and the accompanying guidance document, 'Travel by Ministers'."—[ Hansard, 31 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 550W.]

Why did he not answer the question?

I raised another issue in the light of activities before the parliamentary recess in July. Unfortunately, by releasing a huge number of statements on the last day before the recess—as, sadly, has become traditional—the Prime Minister was breaking the ministerial code, as it explicitly states that a large number of statements should not be released on the last day before the recess. I can give the Deputy Leader of the House chapter and verse for that if he wishes.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

There were half the number of last time.

Watch this

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

From memory, I think there were about 30, but certainly a huge number of written ministerial statements were issued in July on the last day before the House broke up. I therefore asked the Prime Minister

"what steps he took to ensure that his release of written ministerial statements on 22 July 2008 did not constitute a breach of section 9.3 of the Ministerial Code; and if he will make a statement on the application of the code to written ministerial statements issued on that date."

What did the Prime Minister say in reply? He said:

"The information was published when it was ready."—[ Hansard, 10 September 2008; Vol. 479, c. 1806W.]

Are we being asked to believe that by happy coincidence all these statements came to fruition on this one particular date? Had they been ready a day later, presumably we would not have had them, but it seems that, happily and coincidentally, they were all ready on the last parliamentary day before the summer recess. I do not think that is the case. I have asked the Prime Minister subsequent questions to pursue that, but I have received no satisfactory answers.

We must also consider the matter to which I referred tangentially in response to the intervention by Dr. Lewis: the practice of being referred to a previous answer. When we receive answers of that type, we think that when we take a stroll back through Hansard the information that we want will be there—unfortunately, we find that it is not there.

I asked the Prime Minister

"on what date he last met Tony Blair."—[ Hansard, 13 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 232W.]

I do not have to justify the questions that I ask in this House, but as the Deputy Leader of the House may wish to know why I asked that perfectly legitimate question, let me say that I did so because Tony Blair apparently plays a leading role in sorting out the middle east but seemed rather invisible in that role. In order to understand how this country and this Government were approaching the middle east crisis, it was important to know what relationship there was between the Prime Minister and his predecessor. It has not always been a very good relationship, by all accounts, so I wanted to elucidate whether that relationship was affecting British relations and policy in the middle east.

I was referred back to a previous question of mine and, therefore, to the previous answer. I shall not bother reading out the previous question, but the previous answer was as follows:

"Information on official and charity receptions held at Downing street will be published in the usual way following the end of the financial year."—[ Hansard, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 819W.]

I did not ask about official and charity receptions; I asked the Prime Minister when he last met Tony Blair, so why will the Prime Minister not answer the question?

When an hon. Member presses the Prime Minister, they receive the final formula, which tries to shut down the exchange—"I have nothing further to add." I asked the Prime Minister

"if he will make it his policy to ensure that there is a parliamentary debate before any decision is taken on whether to allow the US Administration to use Diego Garcia in any planned strikes against Iran."

I hope that hon. Members accept that that was a legitimate train of inquiry. The Prime Minister could have said that the Government had no plans to allow the US to use Diego Garcia, or he could have said that there would be a parliamentary debate or that there would not be a parliamentary debate. All those would have been legitimate answers.

What did the Prime Minister say? He said:

"We are fully committed to a negotiated solution and are working to ensure that this difficult issue will be resolved through diplomacy. The Government always ensure that any use of their bases is in accordance with international law."—[ Hansard, 19 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 577W.]

I am very pleased about that. That is a reasonable statement of the Government's policy, but it does not answer the question that I asked. I therefore asked him

"for what reasons he did not state whether he would ensure a Parliamentary debate before any decision is taken on the use of Diego Garcia by the US Administration.

He replied:

"I have nothing further to add"—[ Hansard, 29 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 591W.]

That was a second opportunity to answer the question, but he refused to take it.

There are lots of other examples that I could cite, but I will not trouble the patience of the Deputy Leader of the House by reading out every question to which an inadequate answer has been given. Reading those out would take a great deal of time. I am sorry to say that reading out the adequate answers could be done rather more quickly, although I am not going to do that either. Perhaps he ought to think about the consequences of poor answering practices for when he is in opposition, as his party will be at some point, whether after the next election or at some other future point. He may be happy to establish a rule whereby proper parliamentary questions are not given proper parliamentary answers, but that will set a rather dangerous precedent for him for when he is in opposition. He may find out at that point that being smart in government is not so smart when he faces that tactic in opposition, so it is in his interests to reform this practice.

It is not clever or smart to refuse parliamentarians proper answers to legitimate questions asked in this House. Mr. Speaker has regularly made it clear that he expects proper answers to be given. I know that he has no control over the content of answers, but he has indicated the proper role of Members of Parliament in asking questions; indeed, he has facilitated this debate.

I hope that the Minister accepts that we have a right to ask questions, and to have them answered, even if the answers are embarrassing to the Government or cause them political difficulties. That is not the judgment that should be made, but it is made, not in all Departments but in No. 10. The judgment that should be made is whether the information requested can be released without compromising our security, causing problems with commercial confidentiality, incurring disproportionate cost or causing problems with allies. Those are legitimate reasons for not answering questions, and they should form the test. Unfortunately, the test is increasingly whether a question will cause political embarrassment, which is a misuse of power. I hope that the Minister will do his best to recognise that the issue is serious. If he does not want to admit that today, I hope that he will consider it and try to ensure that answers to parliamentary questions are rather better than they have been recently.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 4:25 pm, 22nd January 2009

I congratulate Norman Baker on securing this debate and on the assiduity with which he asks questions.

I wholeheartedly agree that openness is good, and not just for the Opposition. I come to this debate not worrying about whether we shall be in opposition, but as someone who believes that openness is good for government. The same principles apply whether one is on the Opposition Benches or is a Government Back Bencher. I believe that our Parliament has more robust means for ensuring that than almost any other legislature that I know. We have oral questions, which are unpredictable, particularly with the innovation of topical questions, and that has applied to the Prime Minister ever since we have had Prime Minister's questions, which have been open and effectively topical questions. Our system is not followed in many other countries in Europe or other common law countries, where there is a much inferior system of parliamentary questions. I have sometimes been galled to see other parliamentary systems where speeches in debates do not have to be delivered for them to appear in the written record. Speakers may send them in by e-mail if they were not called, and there is no means of intervening to ask the thrusting question that might make a dramatic difference to the debate.

We have a strict system of written questions, both ordinary and named day written questions. Although we do not manage to answer every named day written question on the right day, every Department does so with the vast majority of those questions, and the vast majority of ordinary written questions are answered within a week. That is so different from most other legislatures in the world that we should be proud of it. We also have a strict regime for correspondence from the public to Ministers, and from Members of this House and of the other place.

We have a robust system but, as the hon. Gentleman says, we must ensure that it works. That is why the Cabinet Office ensures that the ministerial code, to which he referred, is clear. It states that

"it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister."

It continues:

"Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest which should be decided in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000".

That is precisely the sort of issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned at the end of his speech, and I think we wholeheartedly agree thus far. In addition, the House has always believed that it is contempt of the privilege of Parliament not to be honest in dealings with the House.

The hon. Gentleman said that he has asked 23 parliamentary questions—I am not sure whether they were named day or ordinary written questions—in the past year to the Prime Minister, and I know that he has asked questions elsewhere. One of his complaints—he did not make it in this way, but this is how I would have made it—is that sometimes the Prime Minister's answers have been a little abrupt. On one occasion, the hon. Gentleman received a simple "Yes" in answer, and on another, the answer was more succinct than he might have liked—although, on my reading, it did answer the precise question that he had asked.

Dr. Lewis also referred to the practice—adopted not only by the Prime Minister, but by other Ministers—of referring Members to previous answers. The Leader of the House has made it clear that we do not think that that is an appropriate way to answer a question. It may be acceptable if the reply would have to be excessively lengthy, because the previous answer had been lengthy; if the previous answer had been recent, and so was readily available; and if a copy of the original answer was provided to the hon. Member asking the question. However, by far the best practice is to provide the full answer again, even if that means saying, "As I said in my answer on such and such a date", and then repeating that answer. That is what we are striving to achieve in every Department and I do not see why we should make any distinctions.

The hon. Gentleman says that many questions are not answered satisfactorily. He said that he had asked the Prime Minister specifically about when he had met Tony Blair, but the question that the hon. Gentleman asked on 15 October 2007 was:

"To ask the Prime Minister (1) which (a) hon. Members, (b) former hon. Members and (c) Peers who are not members of the Labour Party he has invited to Downing Street since becoming Prime Minister...(2) if he will publish a list of all those he has invited to Downing Street since becoming Prime Minister."

To which question the Prime Minister replied:

"Information on official and charity receptions held at Downing street will be published in the usual way following the end of the financial year."—[ Hansard, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 819W.]

That is a legitimate answer, because that information is published on a regular basis and it makes sense to have it all in one regular publication, rather than to respond to individual requests.

Watch this

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I should have said in my remarks that I welcome topical questions as a good innovation. I do not have a problem with the publication once a year of information on "official and charity receptions". However, the question on Tony Blair was subsequent to that and referred back to that answer. I have had no guarantee that we will learn whether the Prime Minister has met members of the Labour party in Downing street or not. That question has not been answered yet.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The point is that the list will be made available annually, and there is an issue about announcing whether someone is or is not a member of a political party. I do not think that everyone who goes through the door of No. 10 has to provide their membership card or, indeed, prove that they are not members of a political party. I remember that a few years ago, during the Labour party leadership ballot that Tony Blair eventually won, someone rang us from Cardinal Archbishop Basil Hume's office to ask whether he could vote in both the membership section and the trade union section. I said that I did not know that he was a member of either, but in any case he was allowed to vote in both sections. We do not always know who is a member of the Labour party, because they can be hidden round corners—

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Well, I would hesitate before handing out a membership card to one of the holy trinity.

The hon. Member for Lewes also mentioned the question about train travel. I am glad that the vast majority of Ministers have been able to reply directly. It has been a standing view of all Prime Ministers that they never comment, in advance or retrospectively, on any travel arrangements. One often sees the Prime Minister getting on a train on television, but the security advice is that he should not comment on his travel arrangements.

I want briefly to put the matter of parliamentary questions in context. Although I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that we have a very robust, vigorous and active system of asking parliamentary questions, I merely point out that in the years shortly after I was born, in 1964 and 1965, only 46 parliamentary questions a day were asked while in the previous Session 445 questions a day were asked. That completely changes the system.

One thing that has made it much easier for Members of Parliament—and sometimes also, I suspect, for MPs' members of staff, although perhaps I am being unfair—to table questions is the facility online that asks whether they want to ask the same question to another Minister. They just have to click "Yes" and another Minister is asked the same question. I know that there are round robin questions, because they end up being asked of the Leader of the House's office where they are wholly inappropriate. A number of times I have had to answer a question with the words "None," "Not at all," and "Never" because the round robin question has been rather more enthusiastically "robinned" round than is appropriate.

I do not want to restrict the number of written parliamentary questions, but I am cautious because a time might come when we could weigh down Ministers; they end up signing off the answers. I know from my experience that I signed an answer off and it turned out that the information that I had been provided with by the House authorities was completely inaccurate by a factor of nearly 100. I had to submit a changed answer a couple of weeks later. Sometimes the system is held up by Ministers because they have a job to do, and 445 written parliamentary questions is a lot. Last year, for the sake of completeness, there were 73,357 written parliamentary questions.

Watch this
J

It is outrageous to use security as an excuse not to answer the simple question "When did you last travel by train".

Submitted by John Byng

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I produce all my own questions and table them myself at the Table Office—I do not e-table. I agree with the Deputy Leader of the House to the extent that I feel that the system is being undermined by the capacity of research assistants to table questions that the Member for whom they work has not even seen. I worry about that. If the Deputy Leader of the House wanted to clamp down on that aspect of things, I would not object.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Indeed. I do not want to clamp down too heavily on that, but it is an abuse of the systems of the House. Any question that is tabled in the name of an hon. Member should have been tabled by an hon. Member. The e-tabling system is there to facilitate hon. Members, not to enable their staff to do their job for them. That is an important principle.

The Procedure Committee has been carrying out an inquiry and will eventually report on the whole question of written parliamentary questions. I am keen to try to ensure that wherever possible we abide as strictly as all hon. Members would want with the ministerial code and with the spirit and letter of the rules of this House. Sometimes we fall short, either because Ministers have been away, which has meant that an answer has not been provided as swiftly as it might have been, or because they have glanced rather cursorily at the answer and it has not been as full as it might or indeed should have been. The requirement is that an answer should be truthful, and that does not mean just a partial truth. It means the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The hon. Gentleman raised two other points on which I want to comment. The first was the issue of written ministerial statements and the fact that there were a large number in July. He referred to the point that I made from a sedentary position, which was that there were many fewer. I was actually referring to the Christmas recess, when there were many fewer because I specifically wrote to Ministers to try to ensure that we did not have a large number of written ministerial statements on the last day.

There is always a double bind for Ministers. If they do not produce something by the recess, no statement is made to the House at all until the end of the recess. That is a large gap. At the same time, to provide a written ministerial statement at the last minute—particularly if it is of hefty substance—means that Members do not have an opportunity to have a come-back. One thing that we have done that I think is right is to make it possible for Members to table questions during recesses, and especially over the summer months. We have also put in place a system for the answering of named day questions during the recess as well—something that was sadly lacking for many years.

Incidentally, I can tell the House that I had been hoping to get the 4.45 pm train from London to Cardiff this afternoon. The one at 4.15 pm would have been better, as that costs the taxpayer only £166 as opposed to £266.

Watch this

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is first class, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether freedom of information inquiries and ministerial answers are connected. I am gazing wistfully towards my private office staff for the answer to that, and am afraid that I shall have to write to him with the answer, although I note that the ministerial code refers specifically to the Freedom of Information Act.

I turn now to the disproportionate costs threshold, which currently stands at £750. There is pretty clear guidance from the Cabinet Office on this matter and it makes it clear that, where information is refused on the grounds of disproportionate cost, there should be a presumption that any requested information that is readily available should be provided. Therefore, although it may be impossible to provide a full answer without incurring disproportionate costs, any elements of the question that can be answered should be answered.

The disproportionate cost threshold is calculated to be eight times the average marginal cost of answering written parliamentary questions. The marginal cost is the direct cost of the time spent by civil servants preparing the answer for a written parliamentary question or producing the necessary facts and figures. It excludes the standing costs of parliamentary branches and Ministers' offices and the fixed cost of staff accommodation. I hope that the hon. Member for Lewes is fully enlightened by that paragraph, because I am not sure that I am.

I have just been handed a response to the question about the connection between freedom of information legislation and ministerial answers. However, I am unwilling to risk reading out something that I do not fully understand twice in one speech, so I shall confine myself to replying to the hon. Member for Lewes by mail. If he is not satisfied with my answer, I have no doubt that he will table a written parliamentary question.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

Watch this