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28 Jun 2006 : Column 340

I had hoped that the Minister would have a change of heart on several other issues that we have discussed here and in Committee, but perhaps we will have to leave those for another day.

I confirm our support for amendments Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9, which will help to ensure that children’s information services provide information about child care for disabled children and about services, facilities and publications that may be of benefit to disabled children and their families. It is all very well our passing laws, but if we do not tell people about their implications, it is not good enough. It is particularly important to recognise the need to communicate differently to this set of parents, who may need to hear about what is available to them in different ways.

We are pleased to support the amendment and glad that on this particular issue the Government have listened to the powerful arguments that have been made.

Annette Brooke: We welcome the amendments. Being inclusive, while highlighting that much more needs to be done in terms of child care for children with disabilities, is an important aspect of the Bill, and one that we should never underestimate. All the amendments make a contribution.

However, I still have a great concern that there will be parents of children with disabilities who will not be at work but will still need child care. That is a huge gap in the proposals. Adding a duty to children’s services to provide information, advice and assistance in terms of what services are available for children with disabilities is very important. We talked at length about various information that should have been placed in the Bill, but none of our points could have been more important than this one.

Like the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), I wish to ask how the information will be disseminated. That is vital. It is not clear to what lengths local authorities will be expected to go to make sure that they really reach the people they need to reach. I hope that any accompanying guidance will address what might be best practice in disseminating information, as opposed to just having a pamphlet sitting in an office somewhere.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 9 agreed to.

Clause 73

Procedure for taking certain steps

Lords amendment: No. 10

5.15 pm

Beverley Hughes: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 11 to 19.

Beverley Hughes: This is a group of minor but important amendments that the Government proposed in the other place to deal with drafting errors in relation to this Bill,
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and the commencement order on the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The purpose of amendment No. 15 is to reinstate, as local authority social services functions, certain functions relating to the keeping of adoption records. The amendment corrects an unintended consequence of a commencement order for the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which in effect removed these functions from the list of social services functions in schedule 1 to the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970.

Local authorities' functions in respect of these records remain in place, but they are no longer social services functions within the meaning of the 1970 Act. This has a knock-on effect; potentially, for example, on the powers of the Commission for Social Care Inspection to inspect local authorities' discharge of their functions under the 1983 regulations. Amendment No. 15 secures the position as it was before the commencement of the 2002 Act at the end of December 2005.

The amendment furthermore reinstates a reference to the Adoption Act 1976 in schedule 1 to the 1970 Act so that surviving functions under the 1976 Act are social services functions. Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 make consequential amendments to clauses 109 and 110 to bring amendment No. 15 into effect from the date of Royal Assent.

Amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 12 correct the drafting in clause 73 to make it absolutely clear that the provisions in clause 73(5) and 73(7) regarding the registration or de-registration of provision refer to the recipient of a notice from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector.

Amendment No. 16 relates to the second part of schedule 2, which amends the Education Act 1996 and corrects the wording that refers to a nursery that is in “England or Wales” rather than in “England and Wales”. Amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 19 correct the drafting in schedule 3, which lists repeals to previous Acts and should reflect schedule 2 amendments that remove the wording from other Acts. The three repeals listed were accidentally left out of schedule 3, so the amendments simply correct the drafting.

I hope that Members will agree that these are small but important amendments that need to be made. I recommend that the House agrees with the Lords in the said amendments.

Mrs. Maria Miller: I thank the Minister for taking us through those drafting errors. She was right to point out that we have to guard against unintended consequences. Indeed, there are a number of other unintended consequences, which I outlined in my opening speech. The Government have not yet proposed amendments to clarify all those issues, but we hope that that will come shortly.

It is important to ensure clarity in legislation. I welcome these minor and relatively technical housekeeping points, but the more important point is that we should always strive for consistency and clarity in whatever the House does. Others have to interpret what we do here and we should always bear that in mind. It may sometimes suit us, and indeed the Government, to have terms couched with some opaqueness or in ways that are not
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entirely clear, for fear of making a mistake or drawing a line or nailing our colours to the mast in certain instances. I would always support the Minister in her attempts to ensure that everything that we do here is clear and I hope that clarity is the watchword for all the Bills that we debate.

Annette Brooke: The amendments are technical, so I have no intention of making a long speech. At this stage, one has to rely on the expertise of those who drafted them.

I would like to make a brief comment on amendment No. 15. It is strangely interesting that it reflects in reverse a discussion that we had in Committee. We were concerned that social services departments per se would no longer be identifiable when children’s social services were subsumed within children’s services. Certain duties and responsibilities should be clearly specified under the heading of social services and it must be made absolutely clear to the directors of children’s services. I accept the amendment, but I am little concerned about the terminology.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 11 to 19 agreed to.

delegated legislation

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I propose to put motions 8 and 9 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),


Question agreed to.




Post Office (Nunney)

5.24 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I wish to present a petition that I received at the post office in Nunney in my constituency from Mrs. Caroline Toll, who is a resident of Nunney, and the postmaster and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Innes. The petition is signed by more than 200 users of the post office who wish to express their concern about the future of small post offices such as Nunney. An
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attached list draws attention to what the sub-post office does for the village—not only its activities as a post office but the other services that it provides. They include: selling newspapers, magazines and sweets, prescription delivery for local surgeries, fax transmission and reception, dry cleaning collection, providing a box office for the Nunney Players and contact for the Nunney Community Association. It is a long list of services that would be lost if the sub-post office closed. The most important point is that it provides a hand of friendship to people in the village and a sense of community.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Written Parliamentary Questions

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Michael Foster.]

5.25 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am especially grateful for the opportunity to discuss an issue that I believe to be fundamentally important to Parliament: how we hold the Government to account for their actions, specifically through written parliamentary questions. Of course, you and I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Governments have never been keen on telling Parliament what was really going on, despite the ministerial code.

There is a famous story about a senior Minister, lost in his car somewhere in a dense fog in the highlands of Scotland with his permanent secretary. The figure of a crofter looms out of the fog and the Minister’s driver winds down the window and asks the crofter, “Where are we?” “Why,” replies the crofter, “You’re in a car in the highlands, lost in the fog.” The permanent secretary leans across to the Minister and says with pride, “That, Minister, was a perfect parliamentary answer—correct in every particular, but telling you nothing you did not know already.”

Sadly, the techniques used by Ministers to tell one nothing have become cruder in recent years. The answers that they provide are increasingly late, inadequate or simply spectacularly unhelpful—often, I fear, deliberately so. If that trend continues, there is a genuine risk that Parliament will be even more marginalised in our society than it is already, as people who really want to know the answer to questions opt to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 instead of looking to Members of Parliament to use parliamentary questions—another nail in the coffin of our effectiveness.

A constituent once berated me, saying that she wanted me to do something—“not just words, but actions”, she demanded. Words are the Back Bencher’s only weapons in the fight for our constituents, and they are often best deployed in written parliamentary questions, which is why we must protect their integrity.

My speech seeks to do three things. First, it will illustrate the worrying deterioration in the quality of answers given by Ministers by drawing on my recent experience, although I know that other Members have similar stories to tell. Secondly, it will express serious concern about Members’ tendency to ask unnecessarily large numbers of questions—that is certainly part of the explanation for the declining quality. Thirdly, it will offer three simple solutions to the volume problem, in the hope that Ministers and Departments will respond by offering more timely and helpful replies.

When I applied for the debate, I considered applying for an hour and a half in Westminster Hall. I now find myself with the luxury of two hours on the Floor of the House—an unexpected bonus. If I had known that that windfall would come my way, I would have sought to say more about holding replies, named day questions, questions asked near Prorogation and a host of other matters that are relevant to written parliamentary questions. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) says from a sedentary position that he will do that.
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Those matters are genuinely important, but I want to focus on quality and quantity.

In recent months, I have noticed a serious deterioration in the quality and timeliness of answers that Ministers provide to my questions. A question that I asked the Home Office about police mergers was answered six months late to the day. It was tabled on 15 November 2005 and due for answer on 17 November. It was eventually answered on 17 May this year. I could detect no sense of irony in the Minister’s long-awaited reply, which began:

At least the Government have taken my advice and delayed the decisions on the merging of police authorities, so at least it was worth waiting for.

There are other questions to the Home Office, flowing from my correspondence with constituents, to which I have not received replies in an acceptable period, including four questions about foreign prisoners at a prison in my constituency, two of which were tabled on 26 April and were due for answer on 2 May, and a question on guidance to staff escorting deported foreign nationals, which was tabled on 3 May with the answer expected on 8 May. I have even followed up the latter with a chaser question asking when the Minister will reply, which was tabled on 8 June with the answer expected on 13 June, but I have still had no reply. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will tell the Leader of the House that I appreciate the obvious concern that he has expressed about the delays in answering questions, especially by the Home Office. The Leader of the House gave a particularly helpful response recently connected with a point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), and we appreciate the concern that he has shown.

The problem is not only the Home Office. I have also had strong words with Health Ministers about the inadequacy of an important reply that really called into question the point of tabling questions at all. Earlier in the year, I asked two questions about the NHS colorectal screening programme. Bowel cancer is a disease that has killed two close family members, so I was more than irritated by an answer that simply ignored my question. I asked the Secretary of State for Health the following question:

I also asked about the funding for the programme. The answer was bewildering and suggested that my question had not even been read:

I knew that the programme would not be rolled out then, as I happen to have a friend who is closely involved in the issue and who briefed me in great detail about the delay in the roll-out. The answer did not even
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begin to address my question, but blandly assured me that the programme would be rolled out.

To be fair to the Minister involved, a strongly worded letter of complaint received a sympathetic reply, but letters from Ministers are not on the record. Nor should Members have to rely on letters to Ministers to chase parliamentary questions. I strongly suspect that, like many others these days, the answer was the product of an unwelcome innovation—the centralised parliamentary answering unit—and not of the officials actually charged with the policy. More and more, that unit provides answers to Members’ questions without proper reference to those in charge of developing and implementing policy. It is those officials who develop and implement policy who should normally draft the answers that go to Ministers for approval, because it is those officials who know what is happening on the ground.

On another question to the Department of Health, I recently waited three months to be told that it did not collect the information—an amazingly long time to produce that reply. I was amused by the response to a third question, just this week, on the serious cuts to my local health service, especially in palliative care beds—it was a named day question, given the urgency—which bizarrely included a holding reply and a totally inadequate substantive reply on the same day. I do not know what was going on with that.

The straw that broke this particular camel’s back was the insensitive and totally inappropriate grouping of important questions after this year’s Budget about the precipitate abolition of the home computing initiative. I shall not reopen that debate, but that initiative was a matter of profound importance in my constituency, which is home to a large independent computer manufacturer offering computers under the scheme. I had serious reservations about the principle of abandoning the scheme, and about how that was being done. I think that the scheme should have been phased out and not just abandoned, as there were important implications for the Government’s digital inclusion strategy.

Generally, I have the highest regard for the Paymaster General, but her response to my questions on the subject genuinely shocked me. It was her subsequent refusal on two separate occasions to reconsider her totally inappropriate answers that drove me to seek this debate.

Ten of my questions—all asked in a genuine spirit of inquiry—were arbitrarily grouped together, without any regard for their content. They were dismissively answered in an omnibus reply but, sadly, that omnibus conveyed scarcely any of the passengers invited on board. My 10 questions were published in the Official Report on 3 May 2006, at column 1719W, and were grouped with questions from other MPs. A total of 30 questions from eight MPs—six Conservative and two Liberal Democrat—received just one reply.

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