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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.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You very wisely advised the House

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last week that if hon. Members did not receive a satisfactory answer from the Government, they should persist and ask the question in a more simple, straightforward and factual way. I would have thought that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) had just given an example of the most succinct, factual and simple question possible. Does it puzzle you, as it puzzles me, Mr. Speaker, that we have yet to receive an answer from the Government?

Mr. Speaker: I could not express an opinion on those matters.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs. Roche: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley).

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): There is a factual answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question. In 1993, the Conservative Government did not collect those figures.

Mrs. Roche: I am grateful—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should not get so excited.

Mrs. Roche: These university reunions always get people going, Mr. Speaker.

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.

On parliamentary questions, in a normal Session, some 400,000 questions are answered, and that is certainly evidence of our accountability to Parliament.

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.

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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.

Mr. McLoughlin: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: Of course I shall give way to the Conservative Deputy Chief Whip. How wonderful to have an all-speaking, all-dancing Deputy Chief Whip!

Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful for the compliment. Will the Minister now assure us that the Government will not block any private Members' Bills in future?

Mrs. Roche: We will conduct our legislative programme in the normal way. We will also ensure that we give private Members' legislation every consideration. It is very important that we do so.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) rose

Mrs. Roche: Another old university friend! How could I resist?

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.

Mrs. Roche rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the House that we are not discussing private Members' Bills; we are discussing information. Perhaps we should return to the terms of the motion.

Mrs. Roche: Of course the hon. Gentleman's Bill was important, and I am sure that the Government listened to what he had to say, but it is also right for other legislation to be discussed properly.

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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 Minister—now Lord Heseltine—permanent civil servants were asked to find

That is best remembered as "recruitment of cheerleaders". I will take no more lectures from the Conservative party on cynical news management.

Subsequently, the then Cabinet Secretary said that such action was not appropriate for civil servants, and the request was withdrawn.

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.

Mrs. Roche: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a reply off the top of my head, but I am sure that he will obtain one if he consults the Library.

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.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Roche: Of course, but then I must make progress.

Mrs. Winterton: As the Minister believes in open government, will she encourage this Government to hold a full, independent public inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic?

Mrs. Roche: As the hon. Lady will know, two inquiries are in progress and public consultations are taking place.

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