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Mr. Kilfoyle: Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of how the last Conservative Government disported themselves, does she recall that I tabled more than 800 questions in a very short period to elicit information from them on who sat on quangos, how much they were paid and how they were appointed? Does she recall that on many occasions the then Ministers refused point-blank to answer? It was down to me to find
Mrs. Roche: It is. I take as my text not only what my hon. Friend has said, but what the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) said; from the quotation, I think it was in business questions:
The Government attach the highest importance to the duty of Ministers and civil servants to be as open as possible with Parliament and the public. What I really found unacceptable in the speech by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was the attack on our civil service: it was an underlying current throughout. I regard our civil service as the best in the world. On the civil service's behalf, I resent attacks on it.
Mr. Collins: Will the Minister give way?
Mrs. Roche: I want to make some progress. I have been generous with interventions.
There is a recognition within Departments that communication has a vital role to play. The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, has said:
The Government are putting in hand arrangements for wide consultation in advance of the introduction of the legislation. In the meantime, a clear published framework for civil service activity in the form of the civil service code and other key guidance documents set out for Parliament and the public the framework within which the civil service operates.
Mention is made in the motion of correspondence, although it did not feature greatly in the speech by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. The Government attach the highest importance to the prompt and efficient handling of hon. Members' correspondence.
Mrs. Roche: I shall not give way. I want to make some progress.
All Departments report regularly on their performance on replying to correspondence from hon. Members. The overall volume of correspondence has gone up year on year since 1996. Although the volume has increased, the overall record on replying has improved.
All Departments set a target for answering correspondence. The most recently published figures show that during 2000 around 8,000 more letters were replied to within the target times set by Departments than in 1999, an improvement in overall performance of 4 per cent.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Will my long-standing acquaintance and friend give way?
Mrs. Roche: As one can take knowing someone for a long time only so far, the answer is no.
At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale rightly raised the issue of his past form. As he said, he was the Conservatives' director of communications from 1992 to 1995, after which he became a special adviser. Very fortunately for Labour Members, he is also no stranger to spin. Although he has just quoted The Guardian, he has been described by The Observer as the
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale will also recall that, in 1993, before he became a Member of Parliament, the Home Affairs Committee decided to hold an inquirywhich hon. Members will recallinto the very important subject of party political funding. He described the decision to look into that matter as "an impertinence". I think that, at that stage, he was at Conservative central office. The point is that someone who now poses as the shadow Minister responsible for the Cabinet Office believes that it is impertinent for a Select Committee to examine an issue of such great importance for parliamentary democracy and accountability. It is amazing that he has had the gall to come here today.
Mr. Turner: Will the hon. Lady give way?
In all fairness to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, I should say that we do not disagree on everything. During the 1995 Conservative leadership campaign, he briefed that the leadership campaign team of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) looked like escapees from "Ward 9 at Broadmoor".
Mr. Turner: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Mr. Turner: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that the motion and the Government amendment to it are on public information[Interruption.] The speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): If the Minister had not been in order I would have stopped her. The hon. Gentleman's point is a matter more for debate than for the occupant of the Chair.
Mrs. Roche: I am of course tempted to give other examples[Hon. Members: "Go on."] My problem is that, although some of my right hon. and hon. Friends press me to do so, I am kinder than they are[Hon. Members: "Oh."] It may get me into dreadful trouble, but I cannot give more examples. The record and the previous convictionsor the lack of themin this sphere of accountability speak for themselves.
In this debate, we are faced yet again with the sight of Conservative Members trying to persuade people that they have changed. Today, they have moved a motion on accountability, correspondence, record keeping, and all sorts of things, but did any of those things feature significantly in the opening speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale? Of course they did not.
The British people know which party tried to destroy the national health service and which party genuinely believes that it should be publicly funded and free at the point of use. Conservative Members do not want to debate those issues. Everybody knows who gave us boom and bust, two massive recessions, record unemployment and bankruptcies, and that after nearly five years of Labour government, we now have the lowest unemployment, interest rates and inflation for a generation.
The people know which party gave us the poll tax and tried to destroy local government, and which party has devolved more and more power from the centre.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale had the cheek to talk about the state of our railways. I am always amazed when Conservative Members talk in that way. They know why the railways are in the state that they are in. They know that the Conservative Government took a national rail system with assets built up over half a century and rushed through a botched privatisation before the 1997 election with poorly drafted and ill-conceived legislation. They were a dreadful Governmentthat much is obviousbut we also know, after five years, that they are a dreadful Opposition.
Once again, I have some sympathy there. We know, from our own experience in the party of which I have the honour to be a member, that it takes a long time to understand the ways of opposition and become effective at it. I wish the Conservatives very many years in which to become more effective.
The true test of accountability in any democracy is the judgment of the electorate. The British people have made their judgment on the Conservative party in two successive general elections, as well as the recent Ipswich by-election.
The Conservatives could have chosen to debate issues of the utmost concern to the British public and the electorate, but instead they chose to table a motion that is ill conceived and without merit. I invite the House to reject it completely.