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Mr. Redwood: Why do so many Secretaries of State refuse to answer the simplest factual questions? For example, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government, and the Regions for the proportion of freight that went by rail and the proportion that travelled by road in May 1993, May 1997 and May 2001. The answer was that the figures were not available. Can we genuinely believe that?
Mrs. Roche: As the Speaker and the Table Office would tell the right hon. Gentleman, he should persist. When I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1992, I frequently received inadequate replies. The right hon. Gentleman, as an experienced former Minister, knows that if the figures do not appear in the precise form that he requested, they are not available. Perhaps he should reconsider his method of asking the question.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The point that he made shows that it is important for Members of Parliament not only to read the answers that they get, but to understand them as well.
The introduction of Westminster Hall means that Back Benchers and Select Committees set the agenda. This has improved accountability and is part of the modernisation programme. Select Committees' powers to hold the Government to account have been vastly increased. Before, they had three prime-time debates on the estimates, and those remain. Instead of six Wednesday morning debates, the Liaison Committee now sets the business for two Thursdays out of every three in Westminster Hall.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Given the Minister's enthusiasm for accountability and for Select Committees, and given the manifest involvement of the Treasury in all aspects of transport policy, does she think that the non-appearance of Treasury Ministers in front of the Select Committee is helping accountability?
Mrs. Roche: Treasury Ministers are accountable to Parliament and to the Select Committees on matters for which they are responsible. If we were to take the hon. Gentleman's question to its logical conclusion, Treasury Ministers would have no time to run the affairs of Her Majesty's Treasury because they would be dealing with every other Department's business.
What is the Tories' attitude to the House and to accountability? Let us look more closely at the views of the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). We all had the opportunity to read his memorandum of 14 September this year to his Conservative colleagues. From it we discovered how deep his respect for Parliament really ran. He urged his party to frustrate the workings of the House with "trench warfare". What respect is he showing for Parliament and the House by writing in those terms? I am really shocked. [Interruption.] I am trying to keep a straight face, but it is very difficult.
Given the right hon. Gentleman's views on private Members' business, it seems that his elevation to the Front Bench has not appeased what I can only describe as his bizarre lust for blocking sensible pieces of legislation on the ground that they ought to be Government Bills. The right hon. Gentleman presents himself as a doughty defender of the legislature over the Executive, and is keen to defend Back Benchers' rights, just so long as they do not do anything as foolish as to propose any legislation. I remember, for example, the great dismay in the Jewish community when he wrecked a very sensible private Member's Bill that would have meant that Jewish women trapped in religious marriages could have escaped from them. His actions caused great offence.
Dr. Lewis: Lest the Minister think the relationship too cosy, may I remind her that during the Government's first year in office I came second in the ballot for private Members' Bills, and introduced a Bill to improve conditions for people who suffer catastrophic mental breakdowns and need institutional care? The Government wasted five hours of precious parliamentary time talking the Bill out. Let us keep a sense of reality in regard to the Minister's claims for the Government's attitude.
We should consider other actions that were taken during the Conservative years. In July 1996, following a discussion at a policy unit seminar chaired by the then Deputy Prime Ministernow Lord Heseltinepermanent civil servants were asked to find
Mr. Collins: The Minister, quite properly, compares her party's record with that of the Government whom I supported. Will she now tell us on how many occasions during the 18 years of Conservative government the parliamentary ombudsman found that the Government had refused point-blank to publish answers to parliamentary questions, despite being asked to do so by the ombudsman? The Minister knows why I ask the question: I do so because that has happened under the present Government in the last couple of months.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): If we are talking about accountability on the part of Governments, including the last Government, we should bear in mind that some of the biggest scandals and cover-ups, some of the greatest secrecy, were perpetrated by the Conservatives. They covered up the BSE scandal, and the export of arms to Iraq. [Interruption.]
Mrs. Roche: It is no use the Conservatives trying to drown out my hon. Friend's excellent remarks. She is absolutely right. The Conservatives can try to dish it out, but they certainly cannot take it: that is their great problem.