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Westminster Hall

Thursday 21 March 2002

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Ministerial Accountability and Parliamentary Questions

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Select Committee on Public Administration, Session 2000-01, HC 61, and the Government's response thereto, Session 2001-02, HC 464.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Pearson.]

2.30 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I am delighted to introduce this debate on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions, a subject that should be of wide interest to Members across the House. The debate is based on the Select Committee's second report of 2000-01, which we published in January 2001, and its fourth report of 2001-02, which was published in December 2001 and contains the Government's response.

I shall outline the background to the report, and therefore to today's debate. In the mid-1990s, our predecessor, the Public Service Committee, of which I was privileged to be a member, produced a major report on ministerial accountability and responsibility that was connected with the Scott inquiry. It resulted in the House's 1996 resolution on ministerial accountability, which is now in the ministerial code—an important statement on the responsibilities of Ministers to the House.

That report proposed also that the Table Office should provide a memorandum each year listing the questions that had been blocked by Ministers—that is, not answered—and that when questions were blocked, Ministers should cite the appropriate provisions of the code of access to Government information in their refusal to answer. We said then that the Committee would monitor that system.

The report that we are discussing today is the latest annual report on parliamentary questions and answers, based on a memorandum supplied to us by the Table Office. When we receive such a memorandum, we ask all Departments about their blocked questions. Unfortunately, the replies are extraordinarily slow in coming forward—so slow that the report on the 1998-99 Session could not be produced until January 2001. That delay continues. For example, in May 2001, Departments were asked for information on blocked questions relating to the 1999-2000 Session, but the final reply to our inquiries, which happened to be from the Department of Health, was not received until this week—some 10 months on. It will therefore be a couple of months before we can report to the House on that year.

On the report that we are discussing today, we decided to go beyond our precise remit on blocked questions to explore part answers—Ministers choosing

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to answer those bits of a question that they want to answer and not answering bits that they do not like. That practice has caused Members some difficulty, so we thought it appropriate to extend our questioning to cover that area. We wrote to all Members to ask for their experience of the partial answering of questions, and we are grateful for the replies that we received, some of which are reproduced in our report.

I shall briefly identify the central points raised in the report and say what has resulted from it. We note the continuing failure of Departments to refer to the code of practice in not answering questions, the starting point for our interest. When we brought the matter to the Government's attention through the report, they agreed to re-issue the guidance to officials on drafting answers to parliamentary questions, which clearly states that part answers are unacceptable. We argued further in relation to disproportionate-cost refusals, with which we are all familiar, that any available information should be provided, even if disproportionate cost is given as the reason for preventing a full answer from being given. On that point, the Government again agreed to revise the guidance.

We also proposed that when material is put in the Library in response to a parliamentary question, the Member who asked it should receive the information at the same time. The Government agreed and reminded Departments that it is courteous to provide such information. We deplore part answering questions and recommend that stringent checks be carried out to ensure that it does not happen. In response, the Government restated their commitment to giving full and accurate answers and said that if Members remain dissatisfied, they should raise the issue with the appropriate Ministers.

All that is background, and I shall now talk about general aspects of parliamentary questions. We know that parliamentary questions are a vital instrument in the hands of Members of Parliament. In fact, written questions are probably the most vital instrument of sustained accountability that Members of Parliament have. They are also very much a part of the continuing struggle between Parliament and the Executive and between the Government and the Opposition.

There is a nice story about Lloyd George motoring in the mountains of north Wales. He lost his way and asked a passer-by where he was. The passer-by replied, "You are in a motor car." Lloyd George subsequently commented that that was the perfect answer to a parliamentary question, as it was true, brief and told him absolutely nothing that he did not already know.

I referred to the Scott inquiry as part of the background to the Committee's work. Sir Michael Quinlan, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence from 1988 to 1992, gave an interesting paper to that inquiry, where much argument centred on whether Ministers had given proper, full and accurate answers to Members of Parliament about the supply of arms. Sir Michael's paper related to the practice of civil servants in drafting answers to parliamentary questions, and he said that seeking and giving information in Parliament was

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That means that the form is to bring information to the public domain, but that the prime purpose is, for the questioner, to give the Government a hard time and, for the Government, to avoid being given a hard time. He continued:

That is a useful reminder of the context—the game within which everything goes on.

In the last Session, 16,716 written parliamentary questions were tabled; I am told that they cost £121 each. Members use that device in a variety of ways, and in different quantities. I note from the Order Paper that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is much in evidence as a particularly assiduous asker of parliamentary questions—he tabled 144 on Monday 18 March, no less than 42 per cent. of those submitted. At £121 each, his questions on that day alone cost £17,424. I have told him that I would refer to his record this afternoon.

My curiosity was so stimulated by those statistics that I looked further and pulled up the record for the current Session. The hon. Gentleman has asked 2,619 questions, 6 per cent. of the total, at a cost of £316,899. I am sure that they are worth every penny and that the electors of Buckingham would not swap them for policemen on the streets or nurses in their hospitals.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham would not have to ask so many questions if his original questions received straight answers?

Tony Wright : That is a fine point, but my only quibble is that on Monday alone the hon. Gentleman asked every Department what crèche facilities they provide and what is the cost of criminal damage to their buildings. Perhaps I do not understand the implications, but those do not seem to be pressing issues. I am not making a value judgment; I am reporting the facts to bring context to a discussion on parliamentary questions. However, those are formidable sums and it is incumbent on us all to use that money wisely. If taxes have to rise in the Budget to pay the bill, I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham will be the first to applaud.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is the shadow Chief Secretary? When the Budget is announced, he and the shadow Chancellor will have to make an instant critique of the Chancellor's announcements. Many of those questions go to the heart of Government spending.

Tony Wright : I have no doubt that knowing about crèche facilities and the cost of criminal damage will be integral to the Budget critique advanced by the hon. Member for Buckingham. I look forward to that, as it will be a most interesting speech.

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Parliamentary questions are a key instrument of accountability, which is why they provided a focus for the Committee. We are not concerned with the general arrangement for questions and answers, as that is not our territory but that of the Procedure Committee, whose current inquiry is studying

We are interested not in the general issues but in accountability—that is very much part of the Committee's concerns.

Many hon. Members have come to regard us as an avenue for complaint about unsatisfactory answers. Indeed, we seem to be a general repository for all complaints about questions. In a way, that is flattering, but we have gone beyond questions and become associated with correspondence. Some hon. Members think that the Committee is the place to bring their complaints when they receive delayed or unsatisfactory correspondence.

We are not a standing complaints channel—I should emphasise that that is not our role—but we keep an eye on developments relevant to the work in which we are engaged. For example, in November 2001, the parliamentary ombudsman, who comes under our purview, upheld a complaint from the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) about a Home Office refusal to release information to him through a parliamentary question. The Home Office had cited exemptions under the code, but when the ombudsman found that those did not apply, it refused to comply with the ruling. That is an unprecedented action for a Minister to take.

Another example is an early-day motion tabled in February by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), expressing concern about the time taken to answer parliamentary questions. In addition, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) took a survey, which he kindly sent me, identifying what he believes to be the increasing use of commercial confidentiality as a reason to block answers.

Finally, earlier this month, the Secretary of State for Health replied to concerns about delays in answering parliamentary questions with the statement that there has been

That is clearly a serious matter, which has caused an official to be suspended and an inquiry to be set up. Those examples show the need for continuing vigilance and continuous pressure on Ministers and Departments to ensure that a vital instrument of parliamentary accountability is protected as it should be.

Mr. Speaker made a statement to the House on 28 November 2001, reminding Ministers of their obligations in relation to parliamentary questions. He also directed complainants to the inquiry being undertaken by the Procedure Committee and directed hon. Members to us—that is, the Public Administration Committee. He said that

We have received several complaints since that statement, but many raise questions that go beyond our narrow territory, on which we based the survey and report that we compiled.

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In case anyone thinks that I am not afflicted by the problem, I should mention my attempt to ask a question of the Prime Minister a few weeks ago. I wanted to know whether the 1975 agreement made under Harold Wilson that those in the Government could differ in the context of a referendum campaign might apply now. That is a straightforward question. On 25 January, I asked whether the Prime Minister planned

The answer was:

Inevitably, the hon. Member for Buckingham reappears in our proceedings.

I looked the answer up, but it has nothing to do with my question. The hon. Member for Buckingham asked the Chancellor to

The Economic Secretary's answer is about the five tests—I shall not bore hon. Members with it—but there is no mention of what I asked about.

I took the liberty of asking the Prime Minister again, on 14 February, if he would

The reply states:

That put us back where we started. Mr. Speaker's statement suggested that aggrieved Members could get in touch with the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. Armed with that fact, I immediately contacted myself about the matter, but I did not know what further action to take.

I hope that the House feels that our annual reports perform a valuable function on its behalf, in relation to ministerial accountability. There may now be a case for Parliament to find a mechanism, perhaps one involving the Committee, to take up Members' dissatisfaction with answers that they receive. I invite the Procedure Committee to think on that during its current inquiry.

2.52 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), the Chairman of the Committee, on his comments and on the vigilance that he exercises daily on behalf of so many right hon. and hon. Members. I was interested to hear him refer specifically to the blocking of a reasonable question that he put to the Prime Minister, as I want to draw attention to my experience of trying to ask the Prime Minister a straightforward question in the past month.

The issue goes straight to the heart of our parliamentary democracy, and also relates to the fourth and fifth principles of public life set out by Lord Nolan, which have been adopted in the ministerial code. Those principles deal with accountability and openness. The principle of accountability is:

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The principle of openness is:

For the purposes of the debate, the seventh principle of public life is also relevant. On leadership, it states:

I emphasise—

That brings me straight to the role of the Prime Minister. He issues the ministerial code and commends it to his ministerial colleagues. In his foreword, he says that he

As the Prime Minister recognises, the first part of the ministerial code follows the terms of the March 1997 House of Commons resolution on ministerial accountability. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase said, that resolution is crucial. In his important statement to the House on 28 November 2001, Mr. Speaker said:

He quoted the resolution:

He also emphasised that hon. Members should persist when faced with unsatisfactory replies:

I do not disagree, but I should tell hon. Members of my experience during the past month in seeking to extract from the Prime Minister a straightforward answer on a particular matter.

Hon. Members will recall that the Prime Minister told the House that he regularly corresponds with the Heads of State and Prime Ministers of other countries about the award of contracts to companies with British interests. That is all part of the Mittal affair, as it has come to be known. Hon. Members on both sides of the House followed up that statement by asking the Prime Minister more questions. I asked him

He responded:

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In an echo of what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase told us, I looked up the Prime Minister's 14 February answer and it turned out to be the original answer on which I was seeking further information.

The Prime Minister said on that occasion:

That was no answer to the question that I asked, so I asked another. Each answer apparently costs £121, but the cost cannot be blamed on me—it arises directly from the Prime Minister's refusal to answer the original question.

I asked the Prime Minister

That relates to the report's point about the desirability of Ministers, and the Prime Minister in particular, citing the relevant part of the code when they decline to give information that is requested in a question.

I also put a more straightforward subsidiary question, in the belief that there would be no question of the information not being available. I asked the Prime Minister

Even those with the most elementary filing system know the answer to such a question, and one would not think it embarrassing for the Prime Minister to reply. However, he said:

For those who do not have it in front of them, exemption 1(b) relates to behaviour that would harm the conduct of international relations or affairs.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in evidence to the Committee, the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister quoted the code correctly? The Committee praised their use of the code, although certain other Ministers were not using it.

Mr. Chope : I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of what the hon. Gentleman says. I hope that he, likewise, will not doubt the accuracy of my recent experience of trying to ask the Prime Minister a straightforward question.

I had not asked the Prime Minister to release the letters; I was merely asking about the number of occasions on which he had written, in order to test his earlier statement that he had written regularly.

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Following Mr. Speaker's advice, I asked four more pursuant questions, which I shall repeat in summary to emphasise my dissatisfaction.

The first question was whether information is available on the number of occasions the Prime Minister has written to the Prime Minister of Romania in the past two years about the award of contracts to companies. Obviously, if the information is not available, it is reasonable not to give an answer about it. The second question asked how disclosure of the number of occasions on which he has written to the Prime Minister of Romania will harm the conduct of international relations or affairs. The third and fourth questions asked for the same information concerning the wider issue of the number of occasions in the past two years that the Prime Minister had written to foreign governments in general about the award of contracts to companies with British interests.

Those were obviously a testing set of questions for the Prime Minister, because on 5 March I received a holding reply. However, on 6 March I received a substantive reply, which I shall quote in full:

One does not need a first-class brain to realise that the Prime Minister is not complying with his own ministerial code. Most seriously, he is failing in the duty of leadership and example, as set out in the seventh principle of public life; he is ignoring Mr. Speaker's clear ruling on 28 November, and insulting him to boot.

Following Mr. Speaker's advice, I went to the Table Office to find out how I could get the information that I sought. I was advised that I had pushed things as far as I could and there was no further avenue open to me, other than raising the matter in open debate in the hope that I would be able to shame the Prime Minister into giving me the information. I am increasingly angry at the arrogance and insolence of the Prime Minister.

I tabled four more questions, the first of which asked:

The Prime Minister responded as follows:

I asked:

It seems to me that the Prime Minister himself is in serial breach of the code and is a recidivist. His answer was:

That leaves us with a situation in which the Prime Minister refuses to give information about the number of breaches of the ministerial code, refuses to take any responsibility for Ministers who breach the code—and, indeed, himself refuses to answer the simplest of parliamentary questions, in flagrant breach of the code.

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On 22 November, the Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan):

I hope that hon. Members will accept that the buck does indeed stop with the Prime Minister. However, because he shows such contempt for his own code, it is hardly surprising that other Ministers also show such contempt for it. The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has admitted giving inaccurate information outside Parliament in connection with the Sixsmith and Jo Moore affair. Incredibly, although the ministerial code requires the giving of accurate and truthful information to Parliament, it does not extend that principle to the giving of information outside Parliament.

In order to clear up that conundrum, I asked a question of the Prime Minister. I asked whether he would extend outside Parliament the principles of ministerial conduct set out in the code on the giving of accurate and truthful information. Even that straightforward question was not answered in a straightforward and factual way. He purported to reply by stating:

We knew that. I was asking whether he would extend the principles of ministerial conduct to include the giving of accurate and truthful information outside Parliament as well as inside.

I asked the Prime Minister another question. I asked why Ministers' responsibilities in relation to the public do not include giving accurate and truthful information outside Parliament—another straightforward question. Again, the Prime Minister refused to answer. Instead, he stated:

Norman Baker (Lewes): My experience echoes that of the hon. Gentleman. Some of my questions—to various Ministers, but particularly to the Prime Minister—have been unanswered. There seem to be no sanctions against those who refuse to answer. Indeed, when it comes to accountability, some Ministers increasingly treat Members of Parliament with contempt. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one solution could be for Mr. Speaker to have to the power to ask for those questions to be answered at the end of Question Time at 3.30 pm by the Minister who refused to answer properly in writing?

Mr. Chope : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I was about to ask whether we can do anything about what is happening. The Prime Minister and his wife are both lawyers, and they know very well that when going through law exams, studies of jurisprudence and so on, one learns the principle that there is no point in having a command without a sanction. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman is making.

Self-regulation by the Prime Minister and Ministers is manifestly not working. The Press Council has the power to police the voluntary code that the press adopt

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in relation its conduct. In my view, Mr. Speaker needs to be invested with much greater power to enforce the code, particularly the provisions fundamental to ensuring that the House can fulfil its constitutional role of holding the Government to account.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that one sanction could be public ridicule at the end of Question Time. That might be one way forward, but the number of questions for written answer will always be far in excess of what can be managed at Question Time. Of course, if the Prime Minister were prepared to comply with his own code, the problem would not exist. It seems to me that the Prime Minister is becoming increasingly arrogant—it is almost an art form. He seems to have decided, out of stubbornness and just to demonstrate how arrogant he is, that he will not give reasonable information to Members of Parliament. He attends only 3 per cent. of votes in the House, and now he is not even prepared to stoop so low as to deign to answer hon. Members' questions.

A previous Question Time practice is relevant to the report that we are discussing. Those who had a burning question to ask would, if they were lucky enough to have the chance to ask an oral question, give the Prime Minister advance notice of it. People now give him advance notice of their oral questions, but he takes no notice of it, ignores the point that they have made and gives a superficial brush-off as a response. That is just not good enough. It is in the interests of Government and Opposition Back Benchers alike to ensure that something is done. At the moment, the ministerial code is not worth the paper it is written on.

The Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, talks about vigilance and pressure, and I applaud the vigilance and pressure that he is exercising on this issue, but the evidence that I have—I have quoted just one recent example—shows that we are not getting far. That is grinding the House into a situation in which MPs have to table pursuant questions to every answer, because the answers do not respond to the questions.

I presume that the Government hope that our proceedings today will receive little publicity because the business has been relegated to this forum on the same day as major statements on Zimbabwe and foxhunting in the House. I hope that all hon. Members who are not members of the Executive will prove the Government wrong and expose the contempt in which we are obviously held by the Prime Minister and his increasingly overbearing Government. I hope that this will be the beginning of something, rather than just another debate.

We need commands, and to reinforce them, a police force that can identify failures to comply. We also need some sanctions. I hope that the Committee will introduce some ideas about sanctions in the near future, so that we do not spend the rest of this Parliament being fobbed off as I was recently by the Prime Minister.

3.11 pm

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): With a debate such as this, we can either take it seriously or indulge in party political knockabout of the sort that we have just heard. It is regrettable that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who was making a

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serious point, allowed his speech to degenerate into a personal attack on the Prime Minister. There are some serious points that the Minister needs to answer at the end of the debate, and I hope that we shall be able to tackle some of them.

The report tries to draw out some of those points. The Chairman of the Committee said that the Committee's work went beyond previous reports and looked into some wider issues, including next steps agencies and the fact that parliamentary questions are passed to the chief executives of agencies to answer. Those answers are often included in Hansard, where the full reply of the chief executive is printed, but in relation to the private finance initiative and public-private partnerships, answers are less forthcoming, particularly from chief executives of agencies. That also applies to devolved institutions, as well as to regional development agencies and similar bodies—but I shall not stray into that territory.

The Government must consider how they should provide the information that Members seek. As joined-up government begins to take effect and the Government's modernising agenda moves forward, there are instances of initiatives—sure start is one example—that are overseen by two different Ministers, and that will happen increasingly. One of the problems in tabling a parliamentary question is that one is often referred from one Department to another. The Government must come up with a way of dealing with such cross-departmental questions, rather than hon. Members having to table about 20 different questions, one to each Department, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has had to do. That is one way of doing it, but the Government could find a way of dealing with cross-departmental questions more effectively.

Some bodies, such as the performance and innovation unit and the office of public services reform, technically report to the Prime Minister but also come within the Cabinet Office. How should parliamentary questions about them be answered? I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to that question, because there is a real problem about whether one should ask the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Office about the operational effectiveness of those units.

Then there are regulators, whose role has an independent element. There is a real tension in trying to obtain information when the Government have one policy but the independent regulator takes a totally different view. How should one obtain information in those circumstances?

One of the most frustrating sorts of answer is when the Minister says that he will write to the Member, and a copy of the letter is placed in the Library. That is fine for the hon. Member concerned, but not for the rest of us. There should be a place in Hansard to print letters that are sent to the Library, so that the rest of us can see the answers. That issue needs to be taken forward.

The layout of questions and answers in Hansard could also be clearer. The Table Office has a role to play in reconciling information about questions, when they are replied to and the time taken to reply. The problems to

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which the Chairman of the Committee referred would not arise if the Table Office provided the House with those statistics—perhaps quarterly.

The way in which we table questions is rather outdated, and the sooner we move to electronic tabling, the better. I, for one, am frustrated. When Ministers reply to hon. Members' questions and letters, they still send a hard copy by snail mail, rather than using e-mail. The sooner they take on board the need for change, the better. There are honourable exceptions, but they are still in the minority.

The most frustrating practice on which the Committee commented was that of giving partial answers. I was particularly interested in the evidence from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who said that he had obtained through his Select Committee information that he had failed to obtain in answer to a parliamentary question. The Government should consider that. If information exists, it should be provided in answer to parliamentary questions. Several Select Committees use such questions to obtain answers for their inquiries, yet hon. Members must often use the Select Committees to obtain answers.

I was also interested in the evidence from the Minister responsible for small businesses, who referred to his experience with the

That reflects the frustration expressed by the hon. Member for Christchurch. The hoarding of information is endemic, and a loosening of the reins would prevent a lot of frustration.

I was also interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who was told by a Minister that information about particular funds was not available. When he approached the European Commission, it told him that the funds were available and asked why the Minister had not applied for them. When he asked the Minister why he was not applying for the funds, the Minister went ballistic, because he had not been given the information. There is an issue about Ministers being given the information to enable them to answer questions, just as there is an issue about Ministers giving partial answers.

Finally, the report contains some real pointers to the way forward. The Government have accepted some of its recommendations, but the real test will be whether they are implemented. We must regularly remind Ministers of the need to do that, and the key is to have the statistics available. If we have the statistics and build on the report, much of the frustration over parliamentary questions will be dissipated.

3.19 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and his Committee. I am glad to see that several members of that Committee are present, because the House has set them an ongoing task.

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The situation is deteriorating, as I have seen over 10 years, and from my previous experience. The way in which the civil service, and Ministers, have learned the lessons of the anecdote about Lloyd George is a great tribute to their ingenuity, but it has done nothing for open government.

Reference has already been made to Mr. Speaker's statement, so I shall not repeat it all. Clearly, its most important element was when he said:

The spirit is important, as well as the letter.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): The hon. Gentleman said that he felt that in his experience, the problem had become worse. I accept that he has much more experience in the House than I do, but I have with me the statistics for the percentage of questions blocked and so on. Does he have statistical evidence, as opposed to a feeling in his water, that the problem has worsened?

Mr. Tyler : I do not have statistical evidence with me, but I shall give a few examples of how I feel that the situation has deteriorated since 1992—not only since 1997, if that comforts the hon. Gentleman. The comparison between the situation when I returned to the House in 1992 and that in 1974—old history, I accept—is interesting, and does not do credit to the reputation of an impartial civil service.

I was about to quote Mr. Speaker's statement again. He said:

That is clearly not the standard practice. Ministers will go all round the houses rather than admit why they have not given a straight answer to a straight question. The Committee's fourth report stated:

The Chairman of the Committee said something similar earlier. We all accept that written questions provide a key instrument of parliamentary scrutiny, one that it is the responsibility of every Member of the House to try to enforce and strengthen. We have precious few such weapons, and it is extremely important in holding the Executive to account.

Even in the weasel words of the Government's response to the report, there is the statement:

I emphasise that. The response continues:

That rather begs the question, more helpful to whom? I will come to a specific example in which what happened was "more helpful" to the Government's party interest rather than to the institution of Parliament.

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I want to deal with four specific categories of ways in which the Government seek to undermine the integrity of the questioning process. I also want to draw attention to two serious and recent examples of clear disregard for the recommendations of the Select Committee and the Government's response to it. The first relates to a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for answer on 26 February. The Table Office changed the wording of the original question without warning his office, but as that is not normally the custom of the Table Office, it may have been an aberration. The question read:

On the morning of 27 February—the day after an answer was expected—the Department's press office put out its news release No. 2002/0072, headed, "Fire service to get £53 million in new funding", as an answer to a parliamentary question asked by the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), a Government Back Bencher, rather than an answer to the Liberal Democrat who had asked the question. The question tabled by the hon. Member for South Ribble had not even appeared in the Order Book or in Hansard. It was a put-up job.

On the same day, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath received an answer to his parliamentary question, No. 37886, which was word for word the same as the press release answering the Labour Member's question. After my hon. Friend's office rang the Department's press office, a copy was faxed to it. That listed the Labour Member's parliamentary question as No. 39514—1,628 questions later than that of my hon. Friend. The obvious conclusion is that a convenient Back-Bench Government Member had been found to whom credit could be given for having asked the question.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I am sorry to distract my hon. Friend, but my mind is racing. I wonder who was responsible for the press release—it came from a Department that has had a few other problems with press releases.

Mr. Tyler : My hon. Friend is becoming more cynical than me, even after my long period in the House. I would not like to speculate; clearly the people in the press office are an ingenious and inventive lot. The Order Book for Friday 1 March, which contained the written answers for Wednesday 27 February as the first of two parts, did not include that answer. The second part, which was published a week later, on 8 March, did give it—an intriguing coincidence, and in direct contravention of the advice given by the Committee and by the Speaker, and acknowledged by the Government.

Brian White : Is the hon. Gentleman's real concern the fact that others are trying to claim credit for his party's ideas—a trick that the Liberal party uses up and down the country?

Mr. Tyler : That is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman, who is usually very fair. I hope that, as a member of the

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Committee, he takes a dispassionate view of the problem. If he does not take that issue seriously, he should wait until I come to the others.

A second example concerns an attempt by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) to put a question to Ministers. She tabled a question on 8 February, but it was effectively sabotaged, again by a Government Back Bencher, whose question was tabled four days later in much milder terms than the substantial and detailed answer would suggest. My hon. Friend asked the Deputy Prime Minister, first,


and thirdly,

One would think that those were fairly non-controversial questions. Why not a straight answer? The Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office replied:

The hon. Member for Dartford had asked a completely different question, some days after my hon. Friend. He had asked the Deputy Prime Minister:

In both cases, there was an attempt to set up a patsy planted question in order to avoid having to answer a substantial one, and a congenial Government Back Bencher asked a question that could be put to good use. Again, the Government made a specific announcement but refused to acknowledge who had asked the question.

The next way in which the Government play fast and loose with the questioning system is blocking. The experience of my colleagues in the Liberal Democrat shadow Treasury team has serious implications for everybody in this place. Having had a series of questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) regarding the euro unhelpfully answered by the Treasury, they pursued another route. On 20 October 2000 a member of staff sent a letter to the Treasury asking, under the code of conduct on access to public information, for:

On 6 March, after four months, the request was denied, with the Treasury citing various exemptions to the code. A complaint was sent to the Treasury and a reply was received after three months—we all know that the Department is terribly busy. Again, the request for the information was denied, but at that late stage, the Treasury recommended to the inquirer that any further complaint be directed to the parliamentary ombudsman.

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The complaint was taken up, and after a lengthy investigation the parliamentary ombudsman concluded:

The implication is clear: an ordinary member of the public using the code can get some decent information out of the Treasury, while you and I, Mr. Olner, and other hon. Members, cannot get that information. That is outrageous, because we are the representatives of the public. We are being denied information that ordinary members of the public have a right to expect. I hope that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) will take that complaint seriously.

Even more illuminating, perhaps, are the revelations that followed a detailed request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell to the Treasury under the terms of the Data Protection Act 1998 for all information pertaining to him, such as mail, notes, internal letters, briefings, e-mails and so on. His request elicited some extraordinary facts about the workings of the Whitehall machine. Extracts from the documents supplied to my hon. Friend include examples of e-mails and internal memos between anonymous and supposedly impartial servants of Whitehall that speculate on the reasons for questions being asked, rather than providing the information requested.

One such communication says:

That was written by a civil servant—not, I take it, a special adviser or a Minister. Another sentence runs:

Why should they speculate about that, when it is not the business of civil servants to do so?

There is then an exchange on a neat way in which to block a question. The civil servant writes:

I should say, in parenthesis, that that may have been written by a special adviser, because pedantic was spelled with an "r" after the "e", so I do not think that anyone who passed the civil service exams could have written it. Again, that is a deliberate attempt to set the Minister up to block a question. It is not even a political decision; the decision was made within the Department.

By this time, something about the process may have been getting to the individual concerned. I do not think that the following sort of comment, which shows evident annoyance at a line of questioning, should be permitted in a Government Department. The civil servant says:

sorry, that was a Freudian slip. He says:

That is inappropriate comment from the civil servant, and it appears on the records of a Department of State in Whitehall.

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Interestingly, as soon as The Sunday Times drew attention to the revelations about that extraordinary attitude, the Treasury advised other Departments to destroy such personal records and remove all comments forthwith. This is Enron time—"Let's put it all through the shredder," they said. That is not how we expect the British civil service to operate. Such an attempt to undermine the whole purpose of the data protection legislation is despicable. Even worse is the evidence that career civil servants are being subverted into the political mindset; that is damaging and dangerous, and all hon. Members should be worried on that score. They are servants not of Ministers or of the governing party but of the public. They belong to all of us, and we pay for them.

I have other examples of the ways in which the sort of advice that I have described has been taken.

Mr. Greg Knight : The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of issues that should give us all cause for concern. I want to ensure that he does not unintentionally mislead the Committee by seeing shadows on the wall where they do not exist. Often, when a Minister is given a draft reply to peruse, the civil servant will properly give what he thinks is the reason behind the question, particularly if there has been a constituency tragedy, if it follows an earlier line of questioning from before the Minister was in post. That is a legitimate way for the civil service to behave.

Mr. Tyler : I entirely agree. However, I have a whole series of similar examples to those that I have cited, and they do not fall into the category that the hon. Gentleman rightly describes as proper briefing, which is done to ensure that Ministers give appropriate answers.

I shall move on to the next series of complaints—about delays—that some of my hon. Friends have been trying to get sorted out. On 14 February 2002 my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) tabled an early-day motion whose first line was:

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase, the Chairman of the Select Committee, has already referred to what happened next. It was shown that since the 2001 general election as many as 1,000 unanswered parliamentary questions from the Department of Health were still hanging around.

On 20 February, the Department had the following statement printed in The Daily Telegraph:

That is an understatement.

On 5 March it came to light that a civil servant had been suspended after an inquiry had revealed that false information was being sent out by the Department of Health. The Secretary of State for Health said at the time that evidence had been found of what appeared to be the "systematic falsification" of the handling of

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parliamentary questions. Why did it take so long to discover that?

It is extraordinary that the great Departments of State have no built-in mechanism to check that nothing had happened during those nine months. It reminds me of the rogue traders in the big banks, and the fact that it had not been spotted meant that nobody was in a position to monitor or undertake an internal audit. The Secretary of State for Health was quoted on the BBC as saying that the falsification that had taken place meant that officials and Ministers were wrongly led to believe that Members had received replies to their questions when they had not. There is a big question mark about the efficacy of the system. It needs to be examined carefully.

Others have referred to the fact that commercial confidentiality and disproportionate cost are often used as an excuse for not answering questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has been a dogged terrier in trying to establish precisely how and why those excuses are used. What is so extraordinary—he may want to comment on this if he catches your eye, Mr. Olner—is not only that those excuses are used increasingly frequently, but that Ministers do not always know how often they are used.

The proportion of questions blocked in 2000-01 outstripped even the number of secrets in the Tories' last year in power. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East implied, that might to some extent be the result of more arm's-length government—agencies, privatisations and all that nonsense. That raises other important questions, and I hope that the House will return to them, but it is an ironic twist that most Departments refuse to reveal how many questions they block on the ground of commercial confidentiality. What nonsense.

Although a manual search through Hansard to collect the data to make a graph took slightly over four hours, even with careful double-checking, many Departments claimed that to do the same would still incur "disproportionate cost". One wonders precisely who they are paying to do the job. Perhaps it is the Ministers themselves, because it works out at about £140 an hour. The Home Office was one of the few Departments to answer the question in full. Interestingly, from 1997 onwards there was a steady rise; it was not a dramatic number, but at least the Departments could quantify it.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions provided figures only for the period since the general election, despite the fact that the Department for Education and Skills, whose function also changed in part, seemed able to supply information going back to 1996. Only two Departments, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, responded to the recommendation of the Select Committee. The Committee stated:

That still does not seem to have sunk in.

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Until we have effective freedom of information legislation, such an excuse is pathetic. I have some experience of this. I asked the then Minister of Agriculture in April 2000:

He replied:

The cost would not have been disproportionate because, with a little help from my American friends, all that information was available from the Department of Agriculture in Washington. Every single meeting, all those who had taken part and precisely what subjects had been discussed was available. Citizens of the United States have a right to information that is denied to us, despite the fact that the Government said that they would introduce effective freedom of information legislation. We await that with interest.

Other speakers have referred to the difficulty of finding an enforcement mechanism to ensure that recommendations from the Select Committee, Mr. Speaker and the code are adhered to. I do not know the answer, but we must seriously address the issue, and I hope that the Committee will take it up. It occurs to me that the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration may provide one route, and that his office may act as the examining body, but either the Committee or the Speaker should take a more proactive role.

I believe that hon. Members throughout the House find the present situation unsatisfactory. Although we are grateful to the Select Committee for its regular reports, it will not be sufficient to report on abuses; we must deal with them. That means that we need an undertaking from the Chairman—I hope that he will take this seriously—that his investigations will range further, not only into what has gone wrong, but to see how things can be put right. In the meantime, the Minister must examine the reputation of his Government. I am sure that he is proud to be a member of a Government who set out to be a more open and transparent Administration than their predecessors, but on the basis of the evidence that we have heard this afternoon, he and his Government are failing abysmally.

3.42 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I was interested in the anecdote with a Welsh theme told earlier by the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), about Lloyd George and the motor car. I have had a similar experience when making my nightly phone call to my eight-year-old daughter. I often make the mistake of asking her what she is doing, and she says, "I'm talking to you on the phone." That is another

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example of a perfect answer, which, according to Lloyd George's dictum, is true, brief and tells one nothing that one does not already know.

Although hon. Members may have attempted to, I do not believe that anyone has made a political case in today's debate that it is the Government's active policy to be difficult about answering parliamentary questions. There are problems, which I shall come to, but a case has been made—not a new case—that there is a culture in public administration and the civil service in the UK, for whose work I have much admiration, especially having started to serve on the Select Committee, of withholding information. I would like that culture to be broken. Although it is important that we debate such matters—the Select Committee's work is important— that culture exists in public administration.

I do not think that there is a political case for saying that the Government are deliberately being more difficult than their predecessors about releasing information. On the contrary, an Act dealing with freedom of information has been passed, although it has not come into force. It may not go as far as some, including myself, would like, but it is nevertheless a major improvement on the situation that prevailed in the 1990s and 1980s. We should recognise that and give the Government credit.

We should, therefore, take a balanced approach and make fair criticisms. We all have to make our political points, but we must recognise that the Government have made efforts to be accountable. I realise that, as a new Member, I come to this issue with a less experienced eye than others, but I also come to it with a fresh eye. I like to think that I am a free-range style of politician, rather than a battery-farmed one. I like to ask my own questions, not planted ones. I am prepared to hold the Executive to account and to ask difficult questions, even though I am a Government Back Bencher.

I am, however, also prepared to be realistic, and I see that Ministers must be allowed to do their jobs. When I read the Order Paper, I am sometimes reminded of the saying "The greatest fool can ask more questions than the wisest man can answer"—unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, I am not referring to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). When I look through the Order Paper, it sometimes occurs to me that Departments must devote huge amounts of time and resources to answering questions. Some Departments are asked hundreds of questions, and Ministers give answers. It is obvious that civil servants draft them and that Ministers go through them. Some Ministers, however, have hundreds of the things in their boxes and must read them before they can be published. We must accept that some of the rates that have been quoted for blocked questions are too high, as the Committee noted. That needs to be studied. In none of the Departments that are listed in the information available to me, however, does more than a couple of percentage points of questions fall into that category. I accept that there are other ways of blocking questions, although there is, of course, impartial information, too. There is, however, no evidence of a political culture of deliberately blocking answers.

Mr. Chope : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that on 18 March, the Prime Minister refused to answer a basic

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question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who asked

Does the hon. Gentleman regard that as a deliberate refusal and as blocking, or did the Prime Minister have some other motive?

Kevin Brennan : My first reaction is that I am surprised that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) bothered to ask such a question. It is quite clear that the Prime Minister is responsible for the ministerial code of conduct. I should have thought that that was obvious, but I may be wrong about that.

Mr. Chope : To put it on the record, I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in assuming, as I did, that the Prime Minister is prepared to take responsibility for other Ministers' breaches of the ministerial code.

Kevin Brennan : In fairness, I said nothing about him being prepared to take responsibility; I said that, in my view, he was responsible for the code, as things stand. No doubt we can return to that.

Tony Wright : I intervene only because I regret the partisan way in which the debate is developing. This Government and this Prime Minister have been the first to accept the recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that we change the wording of the ministerial code to make it clear that the buck stops with the Prime Minister. The issue is quite straightforward.

Kevin Brennan : As always, I am grateful to my vastly experienced and very able colleague who chairs the Public Administration Committee for having made that absolutely clear.

To an extent, hon. Members sometimes abuse the privilege of asking parliamentary questions. If we received some of those questions from constituents, we might categorise them as vexatious complainants. It is the legitimate role of parliamentarians to scrutinise the work of the Government, and that of Opposition parties to find out what Government policy is about, to hold the Government to account, to probe them and to get to the truth.

Perhaps some hon. Members suffer a little from league table-itis—it is a problem throughout public administration. Because people's voting records and the number of questions that they ask are published in newspapers, hon. Members are sometimes criticised because they have not asked 250 questions. They might have asked two brilliant and important ones, but league table-itis comes into play and they are criticised in their local press. I have seen evidence of that syndrome influencing the behaviour of parliamentarians. I do not have the statistics here, but I should be interested to see whether the number of questions that have been asked in the last 30 years has grown.

However, there are justified criticisms—some of which have been made today—about the way in which Departments handle and answer questions. The Committee, before I joined it, raised many such matters

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and received responses from the Government. The occasions that worry me are those on which the Government do not follow the course that they have agreed. For example, with regard to the code of practice on access to Government information, they have agreed that when they answer questions and refuse to give information, they should refer to the part of the code that is relevant to that refusal. I am concerned that there are occasions on which the Government give the reason of disproportionate cost but do not make available such information as can be supplied without incurring disproportionate costs. The suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) that information given in response to a parliamentary question should not just be placed in the Library but should be published in Hansard is a good and helpful one.

I am also concerned about the fact that there have been difficulties in the Department of Health. However, rather than emphasise, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) did, that it took time for the problem to be discovered, it would be fairer to give credit to the Government for the fact that it was discovered and that steps have been taken to put it right. It is symptomatic of the pressure on civil servants as a result of parliamentary questions that they should have given their boss false statistics showing that questions had been answered within the time limits. We must look realistically at civil servants' work loads and not merely try to score political points against the Government on account of such problems. It was an administration failure, not a political conspiracy. That is the only reasonable interpretation of the evidence.

Just to demonstrate that I am a free-range, not battery-farmed, politician, on my way to the debate I picked up an envelope from the Letter Board in the Members' Lobby. I do not know what it contains, but it says on the outside "Immediate, by hand, parliamentary questions". With your permission, Mr. Olner, I shall open it and we shall find out at random whether the Government are answering questions effectively.

I asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what

She has answered:

That might be parliamentary scrutiny at its best.

Mr. Tyler : Will the hon. Gentleman share with us when he tabled that question, the date that it was intended to be answered and whether it was answered on time?

Kevin Brennan : I can. I will confess that it is a slight cheat, in that it was an oral question that I tabled for

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answer today, and that is the written response. I did not know what was in the envelope before I opened it, and I am satisfied with the answer that I was given.

3.55 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I want to speak briefly, as there is a danger of the debate becoming a catalogue of misdeeds that loses sight of the overall picture.

Since I came to the House a short time ago, I have found the process of written questions to be an elaborate game. We are limited to considering the quality of the answers today, but the process is important. As a new Member, I found it daunting when I entered the Table Office to see my questions all changed in pencil. I have been a teacher for more than 20 years, and did not like that much. On one occasion, I asked why the staff did not use a red pen, and even that joke did not strike home.

If a Member is reasonably intelligent, he knows what questions he wants to ask and the overall rules about what can and cannot be done. I do not see why it is necessary to interfere with one's language, if one wants to ask a straightforward question. Clearly the questions fall into different categories. I am not sure whether there has been any analysis of those categories, but that would be interesting. In my first few months, I asked questions in total innocence, simply to obtain information for constituents who had come to my surgeries.

For example, we are trying to site a children's hospice in Poole, so an early question of mine simply asked the Secretary of State for Health

I tabled it on 10 July, but it was not answered until 11 March. That is especially tragic, given that there was no guile behind the question. The charity on behalf of which I asked that serious question was still looking for the answer.

I want to reflect on the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), which was that there should be a built-in mechanism. It seems incredible that a question could get lost for that length of time. It was not entirely lost, because I was concerned about the problem and made queries about it, even though I had no staff. I was told to ring the Department of Health, which I dutifully did in October or November. I have a feeling that that might have produced a holding reply, but I have not tracked it as efficiently as I might have done. However, the question is not a one-off case. There will always be instances like it, but there were rather a lot of them, and there was nothing devious in my questioning.

I return to the point that one must understand the rules of the game. The question was changed, although it was straightforward, but we do not always get the answers that we want, even when we receive them on time, and then we are led to table further questions. A mountain of questions builds up simply because we are not given the answers that we want in the first place. The number of questions must create an enormous burden. It is difficult to see the purpose of some of them,

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although some of them may be really clever. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) obviously has his own purposes for asking his questions, and I would probably not immediately recognise his overall objective.

Norman Baker : For the record, I do not think that I have asked the most questions; that is the achievement of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mrs. Brooke : I think that we have that fact about the hon. Member for Buckingham on record now.

I was referring more to the category of questions and the game playing that they involve. Perhaps the Select Committee could examine the pattern of questioning—retrospectively, as I should not like to embarrass hon. Members—and do some casework questions on an individual basis to ascertain their purpose, if hon. Members would consent to be honest about that. Given that hon. Members are calling for Ministers to be open, one might appeal for a similar openness from them during a study on questions. It is too airy-fairy simply to choose examples from here, there and everywhere: we need to examine the systematic reasoning behind the questions and to exert some control on the overall level of questions.

Tony Wright : I am slightly alarmed by the hon. Lady's proposal to demand of the hon. Member for Buckingham, for example, why he is moved to ask the questions that he asks and in such numbers. She is recommending an inquiry that we are not equipped to handle. In fact, I hoped that the hon. Gentleman would come this afternoon and assist us with our inquiries, but I suspect that he is detained in the Table Office.

Mrs. Brooke : I was thinking of sampling questions some time after they had been asked and making some inquiries. I suppose that, statistically, we would be bound to pick out a question asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham in that process. People would choose to give the answers that they wanted, but we could simply pull out the straightforward constituents' questions, because all hon. Members would own up to and identify them. Even by default and by occasional sampling, we could extract some interesting information. We might make some progress if we had more information.

I once tried to get an answer from the Prime Minister, and did not do terribly well. That was a bit unfortunate, because I was mindful of the rules of the Select Committee. I wanted to ask a question that had arisen from the evidence that we were examining and, because I did not want to break any rules, I phrased the question carefully. When I received a nonsense answer back, I decided that it would not do and wrote a letter, the answer to which took a further three months and was still no real answer to the question. That is a frustrating situation, but one does not always have time to follow such things through.

Another example of the same problem, which in retrospect is amusing, relates to the massive redundancies at Marconi that occurred shortly after I became an MP. As one would expect, I tabled a lot of

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questions and received a draft answer from the local officials. I did not know how these things worked at the time, but I can tell hon. Members that I have never had an answer through the parliamentary system. I shall not waste civil servants' time by chasing it up now, however. That is another example of how we might decide not to bother with something because we are sensible enough to realise that time has moved on. However, it suggests that quite a few errors are made around this place.

I welcome everything that was said in the report and the Government response, which was very robust. The words were fine, as were all the promises, but I do not think that we would be making all the statements that hon. Members are making today if those promises were being enacted. In this great game, I am coming round to the suggestion that we need an enforcer of the rules. I do not envisage anything draconian, but we are all playing the game and the rules seem to have changed. The unwritten rules and what is happening now are not satisfactory to everyone. I hope that we can move forward and make the right noises. We need an enforcer and we must return to the beginning and examine the whole process of tabling questions, including the way in which they may be phrased, how they are submitted and the responsibility on Members' not to waste public money, which is important.

4.5 pm

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): I thank the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), for introducing the debate. It is important to discuss the matter and to make progress. Central to parliamentary democracy is open government, accountability and general openness between Ministers and Members of Parliament. We have heard a number of contributions about the ministerial code. All related to important issues that are central to the debate and that underpin our democracy. However, we must maintain a balance and ensure that we have proper discussion as we make progress. It is infantile to use this issue to attack the Prime Minister and other Ministers. That does not take us forward.

My hon. Friend described the background from the mid-1990s to the resolution in the House in 1996, the development of the ministerial code, the annual report on questions and accountability and the Government's response in December 2000, which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) described as robust. I shall not go as far as that. It is a good and promising response, but it does not go far enough. It is not clear enough or firm enough. I shall give some examples. The response refers to a recommendation to Departments when they are

We should not be recommending anything; we should be instructing them on what should be done. Similarly, when information is deposited in the Library in response to a parliamentary question it is recommended that

That should not be a recommendation; there should be a clear instruction that that should happen. That lays the basis for much of what we want to do.

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The document concludes:

We should ensure that civil servants are instructed to abide by all the recommendations. There should be no question of picking and choosing and only a clear, across-the-board instruction will suffice. That would make a qualitative difference. There have been failures and difficulties and we must insist that they are rectified at the earliest opportunity so that in the coming months we can say with satisfaction, "The debate has brought about certain changes and the improvements that we all wanted." We can still do that.

The NHS and Ministers' response to questions about Departments were mentioned. Clearly, there was falsification in the Department of Health with regard to the answering of parliamentary questions. That sometimes happens. In a written answer, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health stated:

It is good that the problem has been recorded, but we need to ensure that it does not reoccur in the Department of Health, and that it certainly does not surface in any other Department. A checking system should ensure that answers are dealt with properly and that Members of Parliament feel satisfied and comfortable.

The 144 questions that were tabled by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and answered in a particular period were referred to earlier. We also heard that, from June 2001, 2,619 questions were asked at a cost of £316,000. Some will say that that is good because it shows seriousness and assiduity, but my view is that such questioning undermines the system. The system is being treated with contempt because there is clearly no need for that amount of questioning of any Minister or Department. We were told that those questions were about trying to develop a critique of Government spending, but can one not wait until Budget day to hear the economic analysis instead of asking about crèches and damage to property in Departments? Such questions are nonsense and undermine the system and all who want a scheme that will secure proper answers for us at the end of the day.

Mr. Greg Knight : Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, in discharging our duties as Members of Parliament, we have to make a subjective judgment about how we best do our job? I am rather alarmed by the line that his argument is taking. Does he feel that there should be a statutory limit on the number of questions that an Opposition Member is allowed to ask?

Mr. Lyons : I am not making that point—there should be no restriction—and I am certainly not making my point with reference to the Opposition. Every Member of Parliament should work on the basis that the system would break down if we were all to repeat that level of questioning. It would be nonsense if we were all to do

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that. We want the system to work effectively, we want people to give proper answers and we want the answers to be given in a proper time scale. As I have said, however, if every single Member were to work in that way, the system would collapse. That would undermine our fight and the arguments for improving it. We want to make it more effective, so that we have greater confidence in it.

There are, will be, and have been circumstances in which the argument about commercial confidentiality can be used, but it can be used only for a certain time. It has a sell-by date and it cannot last for ever. On private prisons, for instance, many people are hiding behind the issue of the cost of not only building such prisons, but maintaining them. That is unfair and we need to challenge such an approach because it does not provide a genuine reason for withholding information.

There are clearly serial questioners and in some cases there is almost the stalking of Ministers, and that is all about trying to score points. As I have said, the argument is not about how we can attack the Prime Minister. If that alone would improve the system, I would be happy to use that argument seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That, however, is not the answer. The answer is that, when we receive a response from the Government, even if we feel that it has not gone far enough, we should use it as a foundation from which to build. If we do that, we will start to have genuine and real improvements with which we will feel comfortable.

4.13 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): I apologise for being slightly late because I was covering the hunting statement in the House for my colleagues. I also apologise to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) for missing some of his contribution. I am pleased that he is Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, because he seems to be a principled, committed democrat who is doing a good job. I am sorry if those comments are unhelpful to him.

We have heard the powerful argument that the system is not working as well as it might do. We have heard it from my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and from Labour Back Benchers, who all outlined in their own inimitable ways different faults with the system as it is presently constituted. I hope that the Government will take the comments that have been made hitherto, and indeed my comments, in a spirit of constructive criticism and not see them as the blunderbuss approach that is very easy to adopt if one chooses to do so.

My starting point is about securing the accountability of Parliament and Ministers, irrespective of the Government in charge. I would make the same point were a Conservative Government in power; indeed, I hope that I would make the same points if we had a Liberal Democrat Government. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are welcome to remember that. In due course—soon, I hope—they will have a chance to see whether that is the case. I suspect that I will still be on the Back Benches, as I am now.

It is important for democracy that the Executive are held to account. None of us must lose sight of that, particularly Ministers because it is easy for them to do

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so. They are busy people; they have a manifesto that they want to fulfil; they have commitments that they hold to dearly; they want to make the country a better place; and they want to use politics to achieve that aim. The last thing that they want is the nuisance, as they see it, of Back Benchers from their own or other parties asking impertinent questions that slow them down and divert them from what they want to do. However, questions and holding Ministers to account are key parts of our role in this place. We must have an opportunity to drag out the information from the Government that they do not want to disclose.

Of course, all Governments in all countries want to hide information. That is the way that the system works, but it works properly only if those who are not part of the Government can elicit information. The question is not whether the Government are behaving properly but whether the system enables others to hold them to account properly.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): I agree totally with the hon. Gentleman, but he needs to go further. If Members ask a question but do not get an answer, we have no recourse to anyone. Does he agree that perhaps we need a more stringent way of holding civil servants to account?

Norman Baker : I agree that we need a method of getting the answers to which we are entitled. That is the crucial point of the debate. I hope that the Public Administration Committee will consider the matter.

The Procedure Committee has considered the practicalities of tabling questions—recently, I gave evidence to it, as have other hon. Members—and it is producing a helpful report. Clearly, procedures could be improved; for example, by the electronic tabling of questions. Oral questions are tabled so far in advance that, when they are asked, they may be out of date. One need only look down the list of Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions. They bear no relation to international events of the previous seven days so, to the outside world, they seem completely mad. At the most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions—for the first time for a long time—the questions were topical, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Another issue is whether we should be able to hold the Government to account through questions during the recess. Some Ministers may groan; that would mean having more and more questions at a time when they want to be on holiday. If something happens in the outside world when the House is sitting, we can have a statement from the Minister at 3.30 pm and within hours of the event. However, if something happens on 1 August, we have to wait until 15 October, or whenever, to raise the issue in any way other than by letter to a Minister. That is completely absurd. We need to deal with lack of accountability through the summer recess, in particular. I welcome the proposals from the Leader of the House, which will go some way to dealing with that by changing the recess dates. That will not entirely deal with the matter, but it will help.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) made a point about information that is now outside direct Government control. We must deal

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with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who regularly asks questions about the London underground as part of his duties, gets far more detailed answers about that aspect of public transport than about Connex South Eastern or one of the privatised companies. We are told that certain questions are a matter for them, as they are private companies. Nevertheless, the public at large regard them as public services. The public make no distinction between underground and overground lines. They want to know—and should be able to find out—what is going on. We need to find a way of getting information about the privatised industries that people regard as public services into Hansard, the House of Commons Library and the public domain generally in a more effective way.

The most difficult and potentially most political issue—I hope that the Minister accepts that I am not trying to make a political point—is the quality of the answers that come back. That concerns me most. It applies not only to this Government, but to previous ones, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) pointed out.

When I was a researcher in this place in the late 1980s, I saw a question from a Labour Member to the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher. She was obviously annoying the Member by using the excuse of disproportionate cost to avoid answering questions, so the Member tabled a question that asked on how many occasions in the past 12 months the Prime Minister had replied that a question could be answered only at disproportionate cost. The answer that was returned stated that that could be answered only at disproportionate cost—if one looks hard enough, one can find irony and humour in No. 10. Thus, the blocking of questions and the giving of deliberately evasive answers has not occurred just under this Government.

The openness of Departments varies. Some Ministers are good and straight at answering questions. For instance, I pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary who has always been—in his present capacity and in his previous capacity as Home Secretary—absolutely straight. If hon. Members ask him a question, they get an answer, no matter how inconvenient it might be. That is the way it should be. I know that he puts particular stress on that. The same cannot be said of other Ministers, and I do not know whether that is their fault or because of the civil servants or the culture in the Department—I do not know enough about Departments' inner workings. However, there is a discrepancy between Departments on how questions are answered.

I have become known—erroneously—for tabling the greatest number of questions, but that honour belongs to others. If hon. Members set out, with a league table in mind, to ask a certain number of questions, they are mad. That would be completely pointless. Is tabling more questions than anyone else the best thing that a Member can do? I do not believe that a single Member has that intention, and I certainly do not. I have no idea how many questions I have tabled in the past, or during the last Session—it does not bother me.

I should add that there is no advantage to be had from being top of the table because someone in No. 10 or elsewhere simply talks to a friendly journalist and says, "How about running a story saying that this MP is costing us lots of money?" I know from journalists that that has happened, so there is no point the Minister

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denying it should he subsequently try to do so. It is not my intention to be at the top of the table; I shall leave that to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Much has been said about the hon. Member for Buckingham, but he is not here. In his defence, I shall say that he is entitled to pursue his parliamentary objectives in the same way as any other Member. He is entitled to interpret the mandate from his electorate in the manner in which he sees fit. Hon. Members are held to account by the media, which scrutinise this place, by their colleagues, who are aware of their activities, and—most of all—by their electorate. If the electorate conclude that Members have misused this place, Members will pay for it at the ballot box.

Kevin Brennan : I do not think that anyone argues for a limit on the number of questions that Members can ask. However, is it not right and reasonable to draw attention to the fact that, had all Back Benchers followed the precedent set by, for example, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the cost, according to official calculations, would have been £120 million over the past few years?

Norman Baker : The hon. Gentleman may draw that point to the public's attention in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Buckingham, others hon. Members and I shall defend ourselves robustly, and say why questions have been tabled.

I am always slightly suspicious about figures for the cost of questions. I am not aware that civil servants have been taken on to answer questions, or that any would have been sacked had not so many questions been asked. Questions may have redistributed civil servants' time from the Executive to Parliament, which might be a good thing. They may also bring out information that the Government do not want brought out, which could also be a good thing.

The alleged cost of questions varies each time the issue is raised. It is never the same from one debate to the next, and goes up and down like a yo-yo, so the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) is not entirely realistic. The Procedure Committee has considered the issue of the number of questions—it was discussed during the sitting in which I gave evidence. Someone may have suggested limiting the number of questions.

I would be prepared to accept something along the lines suggested if—a very big "if"—alternative mechanisms were in place to allow hon. Members to hold the Government to account properly. The reason why some of us spend time tabling parliamentary questions is not for the love of it, or that they are the best weapon that we can find, but they are one of the few weapons that we have in the House to hold the Executive to account. That is why parliamentary questions are so important and why we are discussing them this afternoon. It is also, no doubt, why the Public Administration Committee has examined the matter. Questions are one of the few weapons that we have.

We do not have the freedom of information culture that other countries have. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall referred to an incident relating to agriculture, and how open the United States is compared with the United Kingdom. I am always

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hearing from Ministers—and, indeed, Conservative Members—how we should look to the US for good examples of policing and so forth. Let us follow this example as well, and have US-style freedom of information in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the Government for the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it does not go far enough and the exemptions are drawn too widely. It remains to be seen how the Act will be interpreted in due course.

If we place restrictions on parliamentary questions, we must have alternative means in place. That means strengthening freedom of information above all else. We must have a different culture that encourages citizens to embrace freedom of information and data protection. We must also give more powers to Select Committees to strengthen their role. The Prime Minister should make a statement in Parliament once a year that is open to question about his activities. A range of things could be done to improve accountability in the House.

Extra accountability would not simply benefit the Opposition and Labour Back Benchers, but the Government themselves. The Government might benefit even if information came out that they did not want to release. For example, I asked a range of parliamentary questions about the dome to the then Minister without Portfolio among others. The answers were characterised by a lack of information. Information was deliberately not supplied, which was irregular and improper. Moreover, had the information to the questions that I asked back in 1997 and 1998 been supplied, someone in the Government might have noticed that the dome was going to be a bit of a fiasco. They might have pulled the plug before the whole thing went pear-shaped—to mix my metaphors wildly.

Mr. Tyler : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. Ministers should be the first to read answers on some occasions. Otherwise, if the question is not put squarely and is not properly answered, the relevant information is not available to them. Does that not answer the point made by those who worry about the cost of questions? If Ministers knew precisely what was going on, the amount that could be saved through good government would far exceed the most extravagant estimate of the cost of answering questions.

Norman Baker : My hon. Friend is right. If one multiplies the number of question asked by the hon. Member for Buckingham by 100, the cost of questions would still be dwarfed by the cost of the dome, which cost £832 million. If some of my questions about the dome had been answered, I might have saved public money. It was a fiasco that could have been avoided.

Cover-up is not good for government. It does not help. People such as me perform a public service and help the Government every day of the week by asking questions to elicit information that could help them. Perhaps, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall said, the civil service does not give Ministers the information that they should be given.

Back Benchers and other hon. Members are not unreasonable about parliamentary questions. On one occasion in the past couple of weeks, the Home Office

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telephoned me to ask me to withdraw a question—for good reasons that would be improper to go into. It was helpful to the Government pursuant to their duties for that question not to be asked or answered. The situation was explained to me, and I was happy not to pursue the question. Members of Parliament are reasonable if we are given reasons for particular behaviour.

Mr. Greg Knight : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the correct way for a Minister to proceed? Instead of asking the Member privately to withdraw the question, perhaps under the Chatham house rule, sometimes the question is either blocked or a non-answer is given. The example that he just quoted should be best practice.

Norman Baker : I agree, and I again note the difference between Departments. The Home Office has always been pretty straight with me on its parliamentary answers, which not only is proper, but commands respect from Members of Parliament. We are much more willing to co-operate with Departments when we are treated properly. The converse is when some Departments and Ministers treat us like rubbish, which does not encourage us to do anything but pursue those Departments more actively. I do not want to make a party political point, but I am sorry to say that the answers from the Prime Minister are thinner and more evasive than they tend to be from most Ministers. I am sorry about that, and I wish that he would examine his answers and realise that being more open is more helpful all round.

The Prime Minister has a culture of using people outside the ministerial circle for key activities. For example, he has Lord Levy acting as a duplicate Foreign Secretary. That is the Prime Minister's choice, and no one will deny that, if he wants to appoint Lord Levy to roam around the world, it is a matter for him. However, as far as I am aware, Lord Levy has never spoken in the House of Lords on foreign affairs, and whenever anyone asks the Prime Minister about him, we are met with a portcullis coming down and an absolute refusal to answer questions. What is this guy doing? He may be doing a valuable job and complementing the Foreign Secretary's work perfectly, but I do not know because we are not told. Why are we not told? How can the Prime Minister appoint someone to a key position and then, effectively, refuse to answer questions about him? That is not right.

There is also the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, who, the last time I checked, was on more Cabinet Committees than any other Minister. Again, that is fine. He may be a very intelligent and useful person, and I believe that he is more committed than many Ministers to subjects such as freedom of information. However, it is difficult to find out what he does. He is a key figure in Government, so why can we not know what he does?

The Minister will no doubt groan or smirk if I mention Lord Birt, but this is a serious point. The Prime Minister has appointed someone as transport supremo, but no one is entirely clear about his job. Not even the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, under the redoubtable chairmanship of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), can find out.

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I will not bore the Minister by reading out a huge list of questions of which he is well aware, but I remind him that on 22 January, I tabled several questions to elicit information on the nature of Lord Birt's activities. I did not question the nature of his advice, as I am happy to accept that that is private and up to the individual, but asked basic questions such as how many times he has met Ministers, how many hours a week he works, what he has claimed in out-of-pocket expenses, to whom he reports and for what period he has been appointed to form a strategy unit. Those are not intrusive questions to reveal confidentialities that will rock the Government, but run-of-the-mill stuff. Apart from telling me the last time that Lord Birt travelled by train, which was the answer to one of about 10 questions, we were told nothing. The only thing we know is that he is involved in blue-skies thinking, whatever that may be. We also had an Adjournment debate on the subject, to which the Minister replied. I repeated the questions on that occasion, and, as Hansard shows, the questions were not answered then either.

The Minister may think that I am wasting Government time talking about Lord Birt. He may think that that is not relevant, but it is my right as a Member of Parliament to hold the Government to account in the way that I believe is most appropriate. I will hang or fall by that. It is the Minister's job to answer questions, not to decide that he can avoid answering them, which is what has happened in this case. Clearly, given the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall and the hon. Member for Christchurch, it has happened on other occasions.

It is proper, necessary and just that Members' questions are answered. If Members are treated with respect, they will not abuse the system. However, failing to answer questions elicits further questions. Those who failed to answer questions in the first place, or who failed to put into the public domain information that should be there, are therefore responsible for the plethora of questions tabled, not the Members who are doing their job and trying to hold the Government to account.

I hope that the Minister will pay serious attention to a point that several hon. Members raised today. There is a need for an independent right of appeal, or other mechanism, to elicit an answer from a Minister who has not answered the question and who cannot provide a reasonable excuse, or reason—the word "excuse" is pejorative—under the ministerial code of conduct. Under those circumstances, Ministers should be obliged to answer questions. I do not know exactly how that can be done but, when I intervened on the hon. Member for Christchurch, I suggested that, in extreme circumstances, the Minister should be brought to the House and made to answer the question orally.

There may be less dramatic methods of achieving the same end, but we cannot have a situation in the House where Ministers feel, as one or two of them do, that they do not have to answer questions and that no sanction will be applied against them if they do not. We are in that situation today. The only avenue that works is the code of conduct, but that might mean a four-month delay followed by another three-month delay, with the result that we receive information a year later. That is completely unacceptable. Mr. Speaker issued guidance that could not be clearer, but it will work only if there is

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good will on all sides. I am sorry to say that it will not work if there is a determination to block a question or an answer.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that there needs to be a mechanism for ensuring that answers are given to questions that are properly asked and when there is no reason not to answer them. If he does not do so, I hope that the Public Administration Committee will take it upon itself to find such a mechanism.

4.37 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): First, I pay tribute to the Select Committee for all its hard work and effort in producing the report. Unfortunately, most Select Committee work is unglamorous and unreported. However, it is essential to the parliamentary process of scrutiny. On behalf of the Opposition, I want to place on record our thanks to all Members of all parties who serve on that Committee.

Most of the contributions today contained an anecdote, so perhaps mine should not be an exception. There is a story, which may be apocryphal, of an elderly Conservative knight of the shires who sought re-election that may have been one election too many. He had to face a public meeting, in which he realised that things were not going his way. In an attempt to impress the audience, he said, "I will have you know that on your behalf I have asked no fewer than 150 parliamentary questions in the last year," to which a voice from the back of the hall shouted, "Ignorant bastard," at which point he felt that he had started to lose his audience's attention.

We should accept that there will always be some dissatisfaction with ministerial replies. The motive behind most questions is not merely a quest for information, but an attempt to influence the direction of policy or an endeavour to embarrass a Minister where a policy is perceived to have failed. If it is an attempt to influence a Minister, most Ministers are not for budging, or at least not until their civil servants suggest it. Their answer therefore tends to pour cold water on the questioner's idea, even if they later adopt it. If it is an endeavour to embarrass a Minister, the knee-jerk protectiveness of the Department will usually seek to ensure that the parliamentary reply reveals as little as possible. Even if the question is straightforward and merely seeks to elicit information, some Ministers will still issue an obtuse reply, which is to be regretted.

I accept, in all fairness, that that practice is not confined to the present Administration. Some years ago, when Tim Renton—now Lord Renton of Mount Harry—was the Minister for the Civil Service under the Conservative Government, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asked

The Minister replied:

It was an amusing riposte, but it was not an answer. I am with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Since then, things have got worse, not better.

I accept that the general guidance issued to civil servants about the answering of parliamentary questions stresses that Departments should be as open

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as possible. However, that guidance is not entirely unequivocal because it says that any information given should be as concise as possible. Civil servants still make presumptions about the content of a ministerial answer, which is that the Minister wishes to, and should, reveal as little as possible.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan)—he is not here at the moment—got right to the nub of the problem. Despite the current codes and the published guidance, there is still alive and well in Whitehall a culture of secrecy. That is the main problem. I am not a recent convert to openness. When I was a Minister before the 1997 general election, I frequently altered the terse draft replies that were placed in my red box for me to approve. I redrafted them regularly to give as much information as I felt was necessary to answer the question properly. I am more than disappointed to say that such practice does not seem to have caught on.

In my early days as a Minister, I was taken aback by the civil service approach. When I altered the first draft answer, someone in my private office said, "Minister, surely you do not want to give that reply. He is a member of the Opposition." The civil servants were not being malevolent. I do not think that they were members of the Conservative party being party political. They see what happens in the parliamentary arena, when Ministers are often put on the rack for some temporary policy difficulty, and they think that they are being helpful. They were surprised that I believed that we must fully answer the question, irrespective of whether the person who asked it was a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat or a member of the Labour party.

Mr. Tyler : Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed that, in its present format, an unanswered oral question—which becomes a written question—gives not only the name of the Member of Parliament and his or her constituency, but his or her party? That is a new development and relates precisely to his point.

Mr. Knight : I confirm that that is a new development. It never happened during 1996-97 or previously. I am forced to ask why it is felt necessary to give an hon. Member's party.

I have first-hand experience of civil servants in the Department realising that I wanted to be more open than perhaps they had assumed and then drafting what I regarded as better answers. My argument is that the Minister must take the lead to make that happen, a point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) when he was complimentary about how the Foreign Secretary was prepared to be more open than some other Ministers.

My argument is supported in the report of the Select Committee when my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) made a similar point. The hon. Member for The Wrekin told the Committee that he thought that there was a

I fully endorse that argument. That is what is happening and what is wrong with the system. All of the report makes interesting reading, but some of it is damning in its assessment of what the Government are doing.

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The response tabled by the Government is not entirely satisfactory, so I have a number of questions for the Minister. On page vi, paragraph d, the Committee says that it deplores

until another comes along, whereupon the latter is answered and the original questioner is referred to that. The hon. Member for North Cornwall was spot on about that. We know what goes on. The Minister answers a later, more helpful, planted question and the less helpful interrogatory question is ignored, with that Member being referred to the subsequent answer. I hope that the Government will think again on the matter. I am trying my best not to make a party political critique of what is wrong with the system. Certainly, I cannot remember doing that. The first question tabled is the one that should receive the substantive answer, and the later question may refer back to that answer. Will the Minister agree to reconsider the Government's response, although perhaps not today?

Paragraph e on pages vi and vii is a slightly more welcome response, but again it is not entirely satisfactory. There is an element of trying to fob us off with the comment that

We know that in reality there is no effective parliamentary or ministerial mechanism to review and adjudicate on inadequate or derisory answers. Ministers are not being judged on their performance in that regard. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made a valid point on that matter, and I agree with her. I also agree with what the hon. Member for North Cornwall had to say. We need a better and more immediate way of bringing Ministers to book.

The Public Administration Committee works well, but by their very nature a Committee's deliberations take time. I thought before the debate, and am now more convinced than ever, that there is a case for having a scrutineer of parliamentary replies who monitors Ministers' adherence to the ministerial code. Ignoring the advice of that person would amount to a ministerial disciplinary offence. Perhaps the Cabinet Secretary should take a more proactive role, or perhaps we need a ministerial code tsar to take over that responsibility. The issue needs to be examined, and I hope that in its future deliberations the Committee will reflect on that matter.

Tony Wright : I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says; it echoes what other hon. Members have said, and I flagged up the issue at the end of my remarks. The Committee has, in a different incarnation, recommended in another report on the ministerial code that there should be a mechanism for trying to enforce the code. Our view is that that would be beneficial to Government as well as to Parliament, and the emerging proposal for a mechanism to monitor the answering of parliamentary questions sits alongside that. We have to find a way of bringing them together.

Mr. Knight : I am grateful for that response. All power to the hon. Gentleman's Committee's elbow in pursuing the matter further.

We have had a constructive and interesting debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) has asked me to give his apologies

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because, as so often happens in matters of this sort, there are two debates in which he wanted to take part today. One is in the Commons proper and one here, so he was able to be with us for only one brief contribution.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) set the tone of the debate, and he is rightly gaining a reputation as something of a parliamentary terrier. The Select Committee is fortunate to have him as its Chairman. He is fearless in pursuing the matters that the Committee is examining and that is all that any of us can expect of a Select Committee Chairman. I congratulate him on what he is doing and support him in that. I hope that he long remains in the post.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) made a powerful contribution. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) thought that it was a little party political, but my hon. Friend produced a damning indictment of how some Ministers, including the Prime Minister, avoid answering legitimate questions. I hope that the Minister will give us some cause to live in hope that there will be progress in the matter because effective action is necessary.

I hope that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East will not take it the wrong way when I say that I am disappointed to see him here, but only because Mrs. Marion Rix, his Conservative opponent at the last election, is a friend of mine. As long as he is willing to play a full role in examining the Government's failure properly to answer parliamentary questions on the Select Committee, I wish him well.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall said, rightly, that the situation is deteriorating. I do not know whether that is because of politicisation of the civil service or Ministers failing to give a lead, but my impression is that the number of parliamentary questions that are blocked or just not answered is much higher now than a decade ago.

I agreed with the assessment made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West. There is a culture of secrecy in Whitehall and that is the biggest problem that must be addressed. If Ministers give a lead, most of the difficulties that have been laid bare in this debate will be properly addressed.

The hon. Member for Lewes said that some Ministers are losing sight of the fact that they are accountable to the House and he is right up to a point. I remember meeting President Ronald Reagan shortly after he left office and asked him what it was like being the most important and powerful politician in the world. I was touched by his response. He said that anyone who regards the job in that way will foul up and that he reminded himself daily when he was in the White House that he had only temporary custody of the office. That thought should be printed and put above the doors of all Ministers because they are servants of the House and should remember that they are accountable to the House.

I did not agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said. He said that any Member who tables questions merely to get to the top of a league table is mad. Perhaps he will have a word with the Liberal Democrat parliamentary elections unit. In seats that it believes the Liberal Democrats can win it compares the number of questions asked by Liberal Democrats with

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the number asked by candidates they are trying to defeat. Perhaps he should ask his party to follow his own advice.

The hon. Gentleman's point about Lord Birt was valid. Questioning what he is up to is difficult, not because he is an adviser, but because he is a Member of the other place. I sit on the Select Committee that is examining modernisation of the proceedings of the House and, with cross-party support, we may recommend abolition of that rule. It is ludicrous that we cannot question Ministers, and now ministerial advisers, who sit in the other place. We should have the right to question what they are doing with public money.

This ongoing debate is far from over. I hope that the Minister will give us some encouragement and assure us that improvements in the speed and quality of answers will be made and sustained, and that Ministers will be told, not encouraged but instructed, to lure their Departments away from their natural and long-held instincts of secrecy. Here in Parliament we are right not to be fobbed off with inadequate answers. If, as a result of the work of the Public Administration Committee, Ministers become more punctual, open, honest and accurate in their replies to hon. Members, not only will the House be grateful, but the cause of the democracy, which we all hold dear, will be properly served.

4.57 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : It is a pleasure to be able to respond to this debate so soon after its commencement. It is always a challenge for me as a new Minister to engage in the process of accountability, which is precisely the topic that we are talking about today. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who in the process of holding me to account along with his parliamentary colleagues on the Public Administration Select Committee is spurring me on to ensure that I try my best to be held to account, on securing the debate.

Today's debate focuses on the fourth report, which was published in December, of the Public Administration Select Committee. It is a concise, pithy and pertinent report. It reiterated the Committee's annual monitoring ambition, asserted the importance of openness and accuracy and suggested a programme of taking evidence for a forthcoming report on the matter. The Government take the report seriously and recognise that Ministers have many responsibilities, the most important of which is to be held accountable by Parliament. That is, of course, a firm cornerstone at the foundation of our British constitutional system. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who spoke well and eloquently, indicated that there is not a grand conspiracy to thwart accountability or an attempt to weave a web of secrecy. There are genuine, earnest efforts to be as open and accountable as possible.

Having reviewed some of the evidence and statistics that form the background to the debate, I believe that high standards of accountability are being maintained and improved, and that great efforts are constantly being made throughout all Departments genuinely to strive to keep Parliament informed and served at all times.

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It is worth reviewing the context of the debate by comparing Administrations. Today we have focused on parliamentary questions, but there are many other ways in which—as in the title of the debate—ministerial accountability takes place. Statements to Parliament on the Floor of the House of Commons are, for example, an important way in which to hold Ministers to account, particularly on issues of immediate, contemporaneous importance. In the last Parliament of the Major Administration, there was a statement roughly every 3.7 days. In our first Parliament, there was a statement every 2.3 days, and I believe that that increased frequency is partially a sign of the extra accountability to which the Government sought to lay themselves open.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) made various allusions to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I would like to remind him that the Prime Minister has been statistically more accountable to the House of Commons than previous Administrations. In the comparable period, my right hon. Friend has spent more time in the Chamber answering questions and making statements than his predecessor.

There are other ways, outside the framework of parliamentary questions, for Ministers to be held accountable. Correspondence, the good old-fashioned letter or I presume as we move into the technical age the e-mail, between Members of Parliament, as well as members of the public, and Ministers, is such an example. All Departments have a target of 20 working days or fewer in which to respond to Members' correspondence. In 2000, the last full year for which we have managed to account, 64 per cent. of correspondence was replied to within departmental targets, a gradual improvement of 4 per cent. on the figure for the year before. We have tried to publish stronger guidance for Departments on handling correspondence from Members, which is something that I have constantly tried to push with my ministerial colleagues. Correspondence is an important means of exchanging views as well as of obtaining information. We are currently collecting data for the 2001 annual report on the matter.

Brian White : In giving evidence this morning to the Public Administration Committee, the ombudsman said that cutting the money available for keeping records was one of the easier cuts for Departments to make when they try to achieve efficiency savings. Will the Minister assure us that sufficient money is being made available for keeping records relating to parliamentary questions?

Mr. Leslie : It is a rare opportunity to be able to make a budget representation relating to good old-fashioned administration archiving and data collection, which is an important task, although unfashionable. As a Minister at the Cabinet Office, where such work is the bread and butter of our activity, I shall pass on that representation. In fact, from 1999 to 2000, there was a significant increase in the volume of correspondence to the Cabinet Office. We respond to 88 per cent. of correspondence within 15 working days, an increase of 3 per cent. on the previous year.

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In general, Parliament can hold Ministers to account in several other ways, including oral questions, private notice questions and Second Reading debates, the pattern and frequency of which in this Administration follows a similar trend to that of previous Administrations. The Library produces useful sessional digests of figures, which are worth consulting for more detailed statistics. With such a massive turnover of business in our Parliament, as in any organisation, errors are bound to occur from time to time. These are obviously to be regretted, but also to be acknowledged and corrected.

We have focused today on parliamentary questions and I am tempted to say that there is more to life, in terms of ministerial accountability, than parliamentary questions alone. Questions and answers are integral to the accountability process, but they are not the only way in which Members may request information from the Government. The White Paper process and the Select Committee system offer other means.

I am informed that, in this Session—and since 1997—the average number of parliamentary questions tabled on each sitting day by Members has doubled. I accept that there is always room for greater efficiency but we are endeavouring, honestly and openly, to meet our obligations to Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) talked about parliamentary questions that are referred to chief executives of agencies. Much of that process has been prompted by the next-steps review. Many such questions are now printed in Hansard, unless they are bulky, in which case they are placed in the Library. We must remain vigilant on these matters to ensure that the lines of accountability relating to new systems of administration are as clear as possible.

There is much to be said for today's debate and for the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the efficacy of written and oral parliamentary questions, measured against the objectives of those hon. Members who ask the questions. Many questions are tabled in a genuine attempt to elicit information for the benefit of constituents, but might I be wrong to think that some questions are influenced by more partisan considerations?

Norman Baker : That is an interesting point. I hope that the Minister will not say that the quality of the answer depends on an interpretation of whether the question is partisan or seeks information for a constituent.

Mr. Leslie : Certainly not. I am suggesting that, considering the vast turnover of parliamentary questions, Ministers need to bear in mind that we must strive to fulfil our provision of answers as quickly and efficiently as possible, and to be helpful and genuinely informative on all questions, especially those on constituency cases that need to be resolved.

Members can write directly to Ministers. However, as Mr. Speaker said in his statement:

Accuracy is important in the answers that we give as Ministers. The Cabinet Secretary has revised the

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guidance for drafting officials to stress the need for timely and accurate replies.

Many Members have highlighted examples of when parliamentary questions and answers have not disclosed information because they were subject to exemptions in the code of practice on access to Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase referred to that, as did the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), for Lewes and for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). As responsible Members, we must recognise that some exemptions must be made on, for example, issues of national security and potential harm to the nation should information be disclosed. Also, there must be exemptions on answers that might harm international relations or prejudice the course of justice, and even on matters relating to personnel records and privacy of the individual, as well as on some commercial confidentiality issues when the competitive position of third parties could be harmed. The harm test is well embedded in the code of practice on access to Government information. That initiative began in 1993, and Governments have sought to place many parliamentary questions in that context since.

I am bound to say to the hon. Member for Lewes that the Scottish Parliament operates on a similar exemption-based system, so the matter is not simply party political. Liberal Democrat Ministers may sometimes use exemptions for answers in a similar way.

Norman Baker : I am content that there are exemptions. For the reasons that the Minister has given, such as national security, no one could doubt that information should be withheld on occasion. However, the question in my mind, and perhaps in those of other hon. Members, is about information that we do not believe is covered by exemptions but is still not forthcoming.

Mr. Leslie : I accept that there are always bound to be questions about the interpretation of the code's application.

I was interested to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Christchurch. He vociferously insisted that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was remiss and that he dreadfully misbehaved by not disclosing information and by invoking exemptions under the code. My understanding is that when the hon. Member for Christchurch was a Minister with, I think, responsibility for transport, he refused or declined to answer a question in March 1992 on the ground of commercial confidence.

The hon. Gentleman criticised the Prime Minister on the exemption for international relations, but I understand that he would not answer a question in November 1991 because it was not an accepted convention to release information that was passed between the Government and the European Commission. Politely and with great respect, I say that he should look to his own activities before throwing stones at the Prime Minister.

Mr. Chope : I am grateful to the Minister for reminding me that it is 10 years since I did the same job as he does now, that of trying to answer questions. He has not said that, at any stage, I prayed in aid a code or

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exemptions when I should not have done so, or prayed in aid a code or exemptions when I should have done so. How, however, can a question about the number of letters that the Prime Minister has sent to the Romanian Prime Minister in the past two years be subject to any of the exemptions to which the Minister referred? Surely, it is subject to none of them, and the Prime Minister has not answered the question because he finds it embarrassing.

Mr. Leslie : The hon. Gentleman was himself asked a question about correspondence between Ministers and the European Commission, which he declined to answer because it would apparently have harmed international relations. I suppose that there was no code of conduct on access to Government information during the hon. Gentleman's tenure in office. I would not say that that was a virtue; rather, it was a pity.

Mr. Chope : I have asked the Prime Minister how a question about the number of letters that he has sent to the Romanian Prime Minister in the past two years would damage international relations, but he has declined to answer. Surely that also is unreasonable.

Mr. Leslie : There comes a point when one must ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The answer that the hon. Gentleman received is fairly self-explanatory. I recommend that he read Hansard from 1991 and 1992 before pursuing the matter much further.

Tony Wright : Those points go to the heart of the report and reflect its central recommendation. I think that we are getting a little confused. Surely the central issue is whether Ministers should be obliged to cite exemptions when they do not answer questions. I cannot think of instances where that would not apply, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us whether there are any. The Committee said that that practice should apply universally, and I should like the Minister to say that it should, too. That is what we recommended, and I think that the Government have said that they are in favour of it. If the practice does not apply universally, we shall get into all kinds of trouble, as we have seen from the instances about which we have heard. Some Members have had to go to the commissioner to obtain answers that they could not receive through parliamentary questions. It is, therefore, important that we get this right.

Mr. Leslie : The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration certainly has a role to play in monitoring the invocation of the code of practice on access to Government information. As we know, the code will be overtaken when the Freedom of Information Act 2002 is implemented. My hon. Friend is perhaps suggesting that reference should be made to particular exemptions in cases where the code is to be invoked, and I want to consider that suggestion in much more detail. It would be useful to have more information and for the Select Committee on Public Administration to consider the matter further.

The point remains, however, that there is a reason why we have a code of practice on access to Government

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information. On many occasions, Ministers must make a judgment. They have the information and must consider whether harm will be incurred if answers are given. Ultimately, they are accountable for their decisions to Parliament. They can be held to account not only through written parliamentary questions, through a variety of methods and on the Floor of the House. Parliament has the ultimate sanction.

Norman Baker : Will the Minister explain what harm is done by telling us how many days a week Lord Birt works and under what element of the code of conduct that information is withheld?

Mr. Leslie : It is so tempting to return to the debate on an issue that we enjoyed so much only a matter of weeks ago. I set out my views at great length. Lord Birt is not a Minister, but I, as the Minister responsible, came here to account for the matter.

We have revised the guidance for officials on drafting answers to parliamentary questions. It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful answers to Parliament. Correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity is also extremely important. A refusal to provide information should take place only when disclosure is not in the public interest, in accordance with the relevant statutes and the code of practice.

We approach every question predisposed to give relevant and full information, but as concisely as possible and in accordance with guidance on disproportionate costs. That aspect was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall. What constitutes disproportionate cost is a matter of judgment, because there are not bottomless pools of resources. This Administration have revised the guidance details to refine and clarify matters about disproportionate costs; we want also to stress that any information that is readily available should be provided if at all possible.

Mr. Tyler : I read with great care the guidance given to officials on drafting answers to parliamentary questions, dated November 2001. Does the Minister accept that the examples that other hon. Members and I have given have all arisen since November? Will he give an undertaking that the guidance will be updated again in the light of any slippages in the way in which Departments have responded to advice, given the examples that he has heard from Members of various parties this afternoon?

Mr. Leslie : We keep our guidance under review. We must rely on Ministers in each Department to make judgments about disproportionate costs, as it would be unfeasible for such matters to be adjudicated wholly from one Department. I shall certainly examine the references and examples, many of which I found interesting, in respect of the application of disproportionate cost.

Mr. Tyler : I am not referring to disproportionate cost, which is only one item in the guidance. I was saying that

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the examples cited this afternoon relate to problems referred to in the guidance, and that the guidance is clearly not being met.

Mr. Leslie : Without being able to go into the detail of every example, I shall consider them in more detail.

Tony Wright : A lack of clarity at this point will not help us in the long term. I can be genuinely helpful to the Minister in pointing out that the Government have already agreed to do what I am asking him to do—that is, to cite the exemption that applies when there is a refusal to provide information. They should cite either the exemption or the statue that overrides the code. The choice is between one or the other. I cannot see any difficulty in doing that and, indeed, I thought that the Government had agreed to do it.

Mr. Leslie : I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention. I am tempted to read through the Government reply until I reach the particular phrase that he mentions. All that I can do is commend to hon. Members the report and response. I shall study it again myself with great interest.

Mr. Chope : Does the Minister agree with Mr. Speaker's statement on 28 November? The statement suggests that

Mr. Leslie : Of course I agree with Mr. Speaker's statement, and would not seek to do anything but agree with it.

I understand that the House is considering a number of changes to the mechanisms for the tabling and answering of parliamentary questions, and that the Procedure Committee—among other aspects of parliamentary practice—is considering the extent to which the current system contributes to effective parliamentary scrutiny. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) asked about the wording of questions, the timing of publications and answering of parliamentary questions, the notice period for questions and whether it should be shorter and the process of the named day parliamentary question, which involves 48.8 per cent. of questions. The hon. Member for Lewes referred to what would happen during a recess. I understand that that is another issue that is being considered by the Procedure Committee—we are fortunate to have its distinguished Chairman here.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I apologise to the Minister for interrupting. All the matters that he has described are being considered by the Procedure Committee. Its report, which will be radical, progressive, reforming and helpful to the House of Commons, will be published in mid-June.

Mr. Leslie : What a useful opportunity to demonstrate how the House of Commons can work at its most effective. These are ultimately matters for the House to consider and decide upon. I also commend the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton

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Keynes, North-East about the use of modern technology in processing parliamentary questions. If I can facilitate that representation here, I shall have done something useful.

Mr. Greg Knight : The Minister is very generous in giving way. Does he accept that one of the problems that has been identified today is not so much the updating of the code but the upholding of it? Which member of the Executive does he advise us to communicate with when a continuing breach occurs?

Mr. Leslie : The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, under whose jurisdiction the application of the code of practice on access to Government information falls, is the ultimate authority on the use of the code in respect of parliamentary questions. However, Ministers are ultimately accountable to Parliament. If Members wish to censure Ministers for their behaviour, there are several ways in which that can be done. I note that none has been used under this Administration.

I was looking forward to debating these matters with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). It is a great pity that he has not been able to attend. Unfortunately, I did not give advance notice that I wanted to discuss them, so it would not be appropriate for me to correct the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase regarding the 4,494 questions tabled by the hon. Member for Buckingham since the 2001 general election at an average cost of £123 each, totalling £552,762—about £78 per hour. However, it would be entirely appropriate to discuss with the hon. Member for Lewes, who is present, the number of parliamentary questions that he has asked since the 1997 general election—3,899, a snip at a price of £479,577, which is probably enough to run a small primary school. In light of the statement by Mr. Speaker yesterday, I might ask whether every one of those was tabled in person, but I would not be so unkind.

Ministers are held accountable by the Prime Minister, under the ministerial code of conduct, particularly in respect of parliamentary accountability, and paragraphs 27 and onwards go into much more detail. Most important announcements of policy should of course be made first to Parliament. In important or sensitive cases, Ministers should give careful consideration to the desirability of making an oral statement rather than giving a written answer. Propriety, timings and consultations should all be at the top of a Minister's agenda as set out in the ministerial code. It has been published, and I recommend that all hon. Members peruse it.

Transparency and openness are the underlying themes of today's debate. I firmly believe that many of the measures taken by the Government to open our

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processes and to expose the machinery of government to daylight have been relatively successful. Work still has to be done, but I believe that we are taking firm steps forward in enforcing the code of practice on access to Government information made under the Freedom of Information Act 2002, with a statutory right of access from 2005. I understand that publications will be available from September this year. In the light of comments about new technology, we should not neglect departmental websites and other electronic means of voluntarily promoting access to news and policy information for the public and for Members of Parliament. Those are all important ways of making Government more accessible.

In the last Parliament, and under a Labour Government, we saw the establishment of the Modernisation Select Committee. It is now pressing for improvements and refinements to be made to our accountability processes. Recent recommendations are being considered on the work of Select Committees, and a number of changes and improvements have been made since 1997. For example, the European Scrutiny Committee allows Select Committees to sit together.

Pre-legislative scrutiny has not been mentioned today, but it should not be neglected. The Government have sought to increase the use of that in-depth accountability mechanism. Since 1997, 10 draft Bills have been given pre-legislative scrutiny by parliamentary Committees. We aim to produce better Bills, but that requires more effort.

We should not debate ministerial accountability without talking about Westminster Hall itself. It was an innovation explicitly devised to broaden accountability and the amount of time available for detailed parliamentary debate. It evolved from recommendations made by the Modernisation Select Committee in 1998. It gives Back Benchers much more debating time, and in theory it extends our proceedings to give a more consensus-based approach. Westminster Hall has more than doubled the opportunity for Adjournment debates which, on two of every three Thursdays, are given to debating Select Committee reports.

Had Labour not been elected in 1997, we would not be spending these three long, long but productive hours discussing this matter today. Yes, we are striving to improve our processes, and much more effort always needs to be put into these matters, but I believe that the Government are putting Parliament first—and we are making every effort to support and enhance our democratic system.

Question put and agreed to.

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