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Order for Second Reading read .

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 21 April .


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading [ 17 February ].

Hon. Members: Object.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Debate to be resumed what day? No day named.


Order for Second Reading read .

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 14 July .


Order for Second Reading read .

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 14 July .

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Order for Second Reading read .

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 17 March .


Order for Second Reading read .

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 17 March .


Read a Second time .

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.--[ Mr. Heald. ] Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment .

Motion made, and Question , That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 75 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, without amendment .


Order for Second Reading read .

Hon. Members: Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 17 March .



That, in respect of the South Africa Bill [Lords] , notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.-- [Dr. Liam Fox.]



That the Speaker shall--

(1) at the sitting on Wednesday 8th March--

(i) put the Question on the Motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Howard relating to the draft Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order 1995 not later than Seven o'clock; and

(ii) put the Question on the Motion in the name of Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew relating to the draft Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 not later than Ten o'clock; and

(2) at the sitting on Thursday 9th March put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Tony Newton relating to Broadcasting not later than one and a half hours after their commencement.-- [Dr. Liam Fox.]

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Two Bills have been given a Second Reading today, and one has been given its Third Reading. The two Bills are now due to go into Committee. The Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill has the Government's support. It would

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be hypocritical of the Government, therefore, not to assist in terms of ensuring that the Bill goes into Committee.

There is a queue of Bills waiting for their Committee stage at the moment. Is there anything that you can do, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to assist hon. Members so that Bills such as the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill and the Carers (Recognition and Services) Bill make progress?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings, but the answer is no.

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Parliamentary Questions

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Dr. Liam Fox.]

2.35 pm

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight the increasing inconsistency in the way in which Ministers choose to answer questions put to them by hon. Members.

My concerns about the subject were raised initially when, in January this year, I tabled a series of questions to the Department of Transport concerning safety on the London underground. They were simple questions, asking for information on the number of broken escalators on the Northern line and how many lighted cigarettes had been discarded at Baker Street. Most importantly, they were questions that the Department of Transport had answered in some detail on two occasions the year before.

On this occasion, however, I received the somewhat curt response that these were now operational matters for London Underground. I received no explanation for this answer, and I was not told when these matters had ceased to be the responsibility of the Department of Transport, or why. Ministers had made no statement to the House and had given no warning, yet suddenly, someone had made the decision that safety on the London underground was no longer a matter of ministerial responsibility.

The London underground carries more than 700 million passengers annually. In the forthcoming financial year, London Transport will receive almost £900 million of taxpayers' money, the bulk of which will be spent on the underground network. Yet Ministers apparently feel free, on a whim, to wash their hands of responsibility for such a major part of our capital's transport infrastructure.

It is no wonder that Ministers in this Government so desperately cling to office, come what may. Who would want to give up a job that allows one to turn up at work, unilaterally to change one's job description and to take less managerial responsibility, yet still to earn the same salary, and then to receive a pay rise at the end of the year? Increasingly, that is the avenue being pursued by Ministers faced by questions that they perceive to be awkward or tiresome. What is left is a gaping hole where responsible and accountable government once stood.

Over the next three years, the Department of Transport is set to cut the London Transport budget by more than £250 million. That is a ministerial decision which will have a direct impact on service quality, on jobs, on fares and on safety expenditure. Who is to be answerable for the consequences of that budget cut? Will it be the Ministers who make that decision? It seems not, because they will have shifted the burden of responsibility from themselves to the already hard-pressed shoulders of the staff and management of London Underground.

As the London Evening Standard said on 1 February 1995: "What else do we go to the trouble of electing Members of Parliament for, if not to represent our interests in these matters?"

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What do we have Ministers for, if they regard a matter as important as the safety of the travelling public as something beneath their responsibility?

Ministers are not just attempting to avoid responsibility through their increasingly inconsistent responses to the questions put to them by the House. Last month, I tabled another question to the Department of Transport, this time on the subject of fees paid to consultants assisting with the Government's deeply unpopular attempt to privatise our railways.

On 14 February, I received the response that information about fees paid to individual contractors had become commercially confidential. I then tabled another question, asking at what point and for what reason that information had suddenly become so sensitive. The Minister's response arrived on my desk on 22 February. It said: "Information about specific fees paid on individual commissions has always been commercially confidential."--[ Official Report , 22 February 1995; Vol. 255, c. 191. ]

That was somewhat surprising, given the answer that had been given just seven months earlier by the Minister's Department to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). That answer provided very detailed information about specific fees paid on individual commissions. It informed him, for example, that Linklaters and Paines had been paid £5.6 million for privatisation advice, that KPMG Peat Marwick had been paid £3.3 million for privatisation accountancy and taxation advice, and that Coopers and Lybrand had been paid £2.3 million for advice on privatisation access charges.

I do not know which is more worrying, that Ministers have attempted to cover up the extent to which individual firms are profiting from the soaring costs of rail privatisation, or that we have Ministers so incompetent that, when they attempt to hide things from this House, they do not even bother to check the answers given by their predecessors less than seven months before.

Serious issues arise over the attempt by the Department of Transport to withhold information from this House. The Government have spent more than £20 million on asking consultants for advice about their flawed privatisation proposals. That £20 million has come from the pockets and pay packets of the taxpayers of this country. The people of this country have the right--I believe, the absolute right--to know precisely where their money is going.

They have a right to know how much of their money is going in consultancy payments to firms such as Hambros, which has donated more than £360,000 to the Conservative party since 1979 and whose chairman is a Conservative party treasurer. They have the right to know which portion of their pay packet is being given to firms such as Shandwick, which has donated more than £25,000 to the Conservative party over the past 15 years as payment for advice on how to break up and sell off our rail network. Indeed, they have the absolute right to expect their elected representatives to call Ministers to account when they believe that their money is being wasted or misused.

Let us remember what we are talking about: tube systems and railways, which are not matters of national security, vital though their well-being is to the nation's

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future. We are seeking answers about the future of the 4.40 to Paddington, not the future of the nuclear weapons programme, yet we receive responses which talk of operational matters and commercial confidentiality. That language should be found in the pages of John Le Carre , not in the mother of parliaments, but it has entered the dictionary of almost every Government Department, and the vocabulary of almost every Minister.

We now face a situation in which the Secretary of State for Social Security, for example, will set up the Child Support Agency and then refuse to answer questions on its performance, or impose the heinous habitual residence test, but with no mechanism for collating detailed information on numbers of individuals left destitute by its implementation. The Minister with responsibility for prisons, the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), privatises a jail and then refuses to answer questions on the consequences.

Ministerial accountability is at the heart of our parliamentary democracy. If Ministers, or even Prime Ministers, do not like the questions posed to them by this House, they should respond with better answers, but if Ministers are allowed to evade the questions posed them by this House, they have ceased to become accountable to those who they govern. When government ceases to be accountable, democracy ceases to be democracy, and becomes dictatorship. 2.43 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampsteaand Highgate (Ms Jackson) on pursuing this matter with enormous skill and some invective. She has put powerful points which not only deserve an answer but have a very ready answer.

The title that the hon. Lady chose for this debate was a rather disarming one: "Ministerial Inconsistencies in Response to Parliamentary Questions". I approached the task of responding with some trepidation as I did not want anyone to get the impression that I intended to develop a spirited and cogent defence of the right to be inconsistent.

The hon. Lady has raised an important point, and a large and powerful part of her speech related to questions that she had put previously to my hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads about consultants engaged by the Department of Transport in connection with rail privatisation and to my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London about operational matters. I will come to those points in a moment.

I want first to consider the general question of commercial confidentiality because the hon. Lady branched out into the generalities towards the end of her speech. I hope that the hon. Lady would agree that there are difficult issues here and it will often require careful judgment to decide whether a particular piece of information should or should not be made public. There is a genuine, and unavoidable, tension between the duty of Government to be as open as possible about the information that they hold and the duty to protect information which they hold in confidence.

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The Government gave that point careful consideration when drawing up the "Code of Practice on Access to Government Information" which has been in force since last April. It was a point that was discussed when the House considered the Right to Know Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and I know that the hon. Lady made a contribution to that debate.

Everyone who has considered the question would agree that it is difficult to arrive at hard and fast rules which can be applied in any obviously mechanical way. The question one has to ask is whether this particular information would be of commercial value to a firm's competitors and whether it would otherwise be unobtainable by them. Where the answer is no, there should be no problem about providing the information in answer to a parliamentary question, or indeed to anyone else who asks.

If, however, the answer is yes, it is right to pause before releasing the information. It simply would not be right, unless there was a strong public interest reason for doing so, to prejudice a firm's legitimate commercial interests or to prejudice fair competition between contractors--thereby, I believe, prejudicing the Government's position and ability to negotiate.

With that important caveat, it is the Government's aim to provide as much information as possible. I should like to quote briefly from the guidance issued to Government Departments in connection with the code of practice. Copies of the full guidance are available in the Library. In the context of competitive tendering for goods and services provided to Government, the guidance states:

"The aim is to increase accountability and transparency where possible . . . At least the following information should normally be made public:

the identity of the succesful tenderer

the nature of the job, service or goods to be supplied

the performance standards set

the criteria for award of contract

the winning tender price, or range of prices paid."

I shall refer next to the two particular points raised by the hon. Lady. Obviously, I understand her point about inconsistency. It is true that there has been a change in the way in which the Department of Transport views its response to operational questions. However, whereas Ministers hitherto have been prepared to stretch a point and answer certain questions on operational issues on the basis of advice from London Transport, they no longer consider that an appropriate way of working.

I believe that Ministers are right. In addition, I am not misquoting the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee report when I say that it understood the difference between day-to-day operational strategy and policy. What the hon. Lady is asking for sounds like accountability, but it is really a replacement for accountability: it would be a pretend accountability. For day-to-day operational matters, the people who operate the service must answer for any shortcomings that the hon. Lady or any other hon. Member may wish to identify. Transport Ministers are responsible for the overall policy and financial framework within which LT operates, to which the hon. Lady has referred, but not for day-to-day operations. Therefore, questions about operational matters, which are the responsibility of LT,

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should be addressed directly to it. Ministers will continue, despite what the hon. Lady said, to answer questions on policy issues, including health and safety.

The hon. Lady referred to consultants engaged by the Department of Transport in relation to rail privatisation. In preparing for this debate, I have of course taken the opportunity to read the hon. Lady's exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts), the Minister for Railways and Roads. My hon. Friend decided that information about fee rates paid to individual consultants--or information which could lead to those rates being deduced--should not be disclosed.

There are two reasons for that. First, such information could be used to the disadvantage of the Department in its efforts to obtain best value for money. Consultants are selected by competitive tender, and disclosure of the fee rates of successful tenderers could encourage what in effect would be a cartel by setting a going rate for consultancy advice. Secondly, the release of information about fee rates could prejudice the legitimate commercial confidences of tenderers and contractors and put them at a disadvantage in their other business activities or in future tendering exercises with Departments. In the highly competitive world in which consultants operate, those are not trivial points.

The hon. Lady objected to an apparent inconsistency in the way in which my colleagues from the Department of Transport have answered questions on this subject, and she referred in particular to a question asked by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) in July 1994. That question asked for the value of payments made to date to individual consultants advising the Department of Transport on rail privatisation. The hon. Lady's recent question asked for the information provided to be updated, but in his reply my hon. Friend declined on the ground of commercial

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confidentiality. The hon. Lady has every right to ask, but I hope that what I have said explains why that judgment was made. My right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Transport took the view that providing a regular updating of information about payments to individual consultancy firms could enable competitors to deduce specific information about fee rates by relating the level of payments to specific periods. It would then not be too difficult for competitors to make a reasonable estimate of the level of fees which contributed to the value of the payments, or the fees paid for individual commissions providing very specific advice. I have no doubt that that was not the hon. Lady's intention when seeking the information--I do not suggest for a moment that it was--but it is a possible consequence and, for the reasons that I have given, a consequence which would not be in the public interest.

That is not to say, of course, that one should deny the hon. Lady or the House information on what is being spent on consultancy services. There was a distinct flavour in the latter part of the hon. Lady's speech that, somehow, we were seeking to do that. It is quite clear that that is not what we would seek to do. My right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Transport are very ready to provide information about the overall costs of the consultants engaged--as, indeed, my hon. Friend did in his answer of 14 February--either in total or on an annual basis.

These are difficult matters and it is right that an hon. Member should question the Government about them, but I hope that the House will understand that it is common sense and good for the taxpayer and for the good running of Government that we should proceed in the way that I have outlined.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Three o'clock.

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