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4 Dec 2007 : Column 239WH—continued

The other questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the Under-Secretary failed to answer on the due day, however, were very straightforward; they were about which Government Department is responsible for the Government Equalities Office, and
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what ministerial responsibilities the Under-Secretary has in the GEO. I received a holding answer. I received a holding answer, too, when I asked which Department was responsible for her ministerial salary and for the provision of ministerial support. It is pretty poor if a Minister cannot even tell me of which Department the Government Equalities Office is part, what her ministerial responsibilities are, who pays her salary and which officials support her, as that information must be available. The fact that I did not receive an answer on the due day—and it was not a complicated question that required months of research—shows that some Ministers in some Departments do not take their responsibilities to the House seriously at all.

I want to touch on one or two other issues, but perhaps not in quite as much detail. However, before I leave the topic of written answers, I should like to raise something with the Minister. The two worst performing Departments are the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Ministry of Defence has 229 press officers. The Department for Work and Pensions has 180. Clearly, both Departments put a high priority on dealing with the press. The Leader of the House promised me that she would speak to her colleagues “forcefully”, so may I suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary that if some resources were shifted and some press officers fired, more resources could be put into dealing with this House, so that Departments could prioritise their accountability to Parliament, rather than to the media. We might then find that the performance of those two Departments in particular would improve considerably. I put that idea out in a generous spirit, and perhaps the Minister would tell me what she thinks of it.

I want briefly to touch on the importance of making statements to the House before the matters in question are announced to the media. The shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), has already raised some examples with the Leader of the House. The Secretary of State for Transport made a written statement about the expansion of Heathrow, yet the news was announced on the “Today” programme before the statement was given to Members of the House. The Secretary of State for Justice made a statement on constitutional arrangements in Britain, but we heard all about it on the “Today” programme. The Ministry of Justice also published things on its website about its organisational review that might affect the National Offender Management Service before a statement was made to the House.

In another example involving the Department for Work and Pensions, which seems to be a bit of a whipping boy in this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) challenged the Secretary of State during oral questions about his briefing on incapacity benefit assessments and why it had been made to the media on the “Today” programme well before being made to the House. The Secretary of State admitted in a written answer to me that although copies of the report had been placed in the Vote Office, they had not been made available to Members in the Library until the afternoon. Information had thus been given to the media and discussed at length well before Members could obtain the details of the statements. The Leader of the House herself said that it was her job to be the
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“policewoman” who makes absolutely sure that statements are made to the House before they are made to the media.

The final issue that I wish to raise is topical debates and parliamentary questions. With the changes in Departments and the expansion in the number of Departments entitled to a full hour of questions, which I support, questions now operate on a five-week rota. There are slightly fewer opportunities to question each Department, although that has been offset somewhat by the welcome innovation, on which I congratulate the Government, of topical questions for Departments with a question time of more than 30 minutes. It is an advantage and stops us going through contortions to fit topical questions into the questions that happen to be on the Order Paper. I am sure all Members have faced that challenge from time to time. The Leader of the House tried in her own small way to make the rota a little more flexible; I understand that she tried to get rid of questions to the Leader of the House, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead batted that proposal away.

I leave the Minister with this thought about topical debates: they should be genuinely topical. There was a general feeling in the House last week that the debate on apprenticeships and skills—important as the matter is—was not the most topical debate that could have been chosen. At this very moment, the Leader of the House is meeting my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and the Liberal Democrat spokesman to discuss how the choice of topics for topical debates can be made more transparent to Members. I welcome that and hope that the meeting is fruitful.

The Leader of the House has said that the whole point of the House of Commons is to hold the Executive to account, and she made it clear that parliamentary questions are important in that respect. When I raised the matter with her at business questions on 15 November, she was good enough to thank me for the information that I gave her from my league table—for want of a better description—and to say that she would raise the matter “forcefully” with her ministerial colleagues. Will the Minister tell us to what extent the Leader of the House has had an opportunity to be forceful? Most importantly, when will we see an improvement in Departments’ performance in answering questions, particularly the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, both of which cover policy areas that are important to members of the public? Both Departments need to make a huge improvement to the way in which they deal with the House and with questions from Members of Parliament. I look forward with great interest to the Minister’s response.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Gillian Merron): I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this debate. The issue is undoubtedly of fundamental importance. In our well-known and long-standing system of parliamentary democracy, it is crucial that the Government are properly accountable to Parliament. Day in and day out, Ministers
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come to Parliament to account for the Government’s actions and decisions, answering letters and parliamentary questions from MPs and peers. In view of the comments made, it is worth giving a bit of context before I come to the hon. Gentleman’s particular points.

First, the setting is that the principle of ministerial accountability to Parliament is a convention of some long standing and is clearly set out in the ministerial code, which is a guide to the principles and practices expected of Ministers. In publishing the code in July the Prime Minister confirmed that:

In setting out this responsibility and duty, the code goes on to state that

and that is what we are discussing.

Through the resolutions that were carried in 1997 both Houses made explicit how they expect Ministers to discharge their responsibilities to Parliament. I reaffirm the seriousness with which the Government take their responsibility to account to Parliament. The terms of the resolutions are reflected in the ministerial code, and the constitutional convention of ministerial accountability to Parliament, through a range of means to which I will refer, is, in my view and experience, alive and kicking.

Both letters and parliamentary questions are worth a mention, and the hon. Gentleman has referred to the latter. To give an idea of scale, in 2006, excluding freedom of information requests, Departments received 226,427 letters from MPs and peers, compared with 203,734 in 1996. The Government have an absolute commitment to providing informed and timely responses to letters from hon. Members, which are one of the means by which Ministers are held to account. In 2006, the last record that I can refer to, 77 per cent. of such correspondence was replied to within the targets set by Departments, compared with 72 per cent. in the previous year. We have therefore seen an improvement. In my experience, Departments are far from complacent. They do recognise the importance of dealing with inquiries and being held to account, and they seek to take steps further to improve their performance.

On the issue of parliamentary questions that the hon. Gentleman raised, the number of written questions has increased enormously, almost doubling since 1997—up from 214 per sitting day to 396 per sitting day for 2006-07. The introduction of the written question procedure in the September recess shows, if one looks at how it is used, that hon. Members are more than willing and more than able to hold Ministers to account even during a parliamentary recess. I welcome its introduction by the Government. It is worth noting that answering an oral question is estimated to cost around £385 and a written question £140.

Mr. Harper: I welcome the innovation of being able to table and have answered written questions in September. In terms of the growth in scale, perhaps I am being unfair but I do not understand the disparity in performance within Government. The Department of Health, which was asked in the last Session 1,615 named day questions, almost double what the Ministry of Defence was asked, managed to answer 63 per cent.
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on the named day. The Ministry of Defence achieved just a third of that performance. I do not buy the idea that just because more questions are being asked that should lead to poor performance. Some Departments are clearly very good at answering, and some are not.

Gillian Merron: The difficulty, if I can put it that way, with the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that it makes very straightforward comparisons across Departments. It is not a directly comparable matter. Not only do Departments receive different volumes of correspondence and parliamentary questions, which it is important to consider, but they have different targets for replying. That is legitimate, to reflect the nature of the Department.

I would urge caution in making comparisons, because the nature of Departments’ business varies greatly, as does the nature of the questions. Of course, Departments will have to do a greater or lesser amount of work in greater or lesser detail, depending on the question. As a Minister responsible for responding through both correspondence and parliamentary questions, I am keen to ensure full and comprehensive replies. The matter is not directly comparable, but it is worth saying now—I was intending to refer to this later—that there have been some notable successes. In terms of its performance in dealing with correspondence, the Home Office is up by 14 per cent. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is up by 9 per cent. with a particular improvement by UKvisas, and, of course, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is up by 13 per cent. That should convey the fact that nobody is complacent, and that we intend to push forward in a systematic way.

While Ministers are responsible for their own answers to parliamentary questions, I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as I have said, the Government have an active and deep-rooted commitment to the issue of ministerial accountability to Parliament. There is also a duty on Ministers, set out in the ministerial code, to be as open as possible with Parliament. The guidance to officials on drafting answers to parliamentary questions repeats those obligations. The Public Administration Committee has published a number of reports on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with those. In response to the last such report, which the Government were glad to receive, we set out a number of initiatives designed to disseminate good practice across Departments. If hon. Members are dissatisfied with the response that they have received to a parliamentary question, they can, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly done, take the matter up with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

The Procedure Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into written parliamentary questions, and we look forward to receiving its recommendations. For the context that I want to give, it is important to note that there been many improvements and changes in accountability to Members of Parliament since 1997. First, that we are even sitting in Westminster Hall is testimony to the fact that the Government have increased opportunities for scrutiny, and therefore the accountability of Ministers to Parliament, through the introduction of Westminster Hall debates. The Speaker also has discretion over urgent questions in emergency debates. In October this year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House set out in more detail a number of
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measures that the Government seek to introduce following the report of the Modernisation Committee, “Revitalising the Chamber: the Role of the Back Bench Member”—evidence, I believe, that we are seeking to be more accountable. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will draw this debate and the points that have been made to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

Furthermore, in terms of increased scrutiny, the Government have recently introduced topical questions and topical debates to increase opportunities for accountability. Going still further in respect of openness, transparency and accountability, we are now going to be the first Government to publish an annual list of gifts given and received by Ministers and an annual list of visits overseas by Cabinet Ministers. From next year, details will be published of all Ministers’ travel overseas. This Government was the first to publish an annual list of special advisers’ numbers, names and costs, as well as a code of conduct and model contract for special advisers. It is important to remember that our previous Prime Minister was the first to initiate appearances before the Liaison Committee, and to hold a monthly press conference. I suggest that all those points reflect greater accountability, openness and transparency, and we have made a significant difference to the amount of information available about the activities of Departments and Ministers through the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

That commitment to openness and transparency is certainly reflected in the changes seen to the ministerial code in July this year. The code has been strengthened so it now clearly sets out the principles that all Ministers must follow. In publishing the ministerial code, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also announced the appointment of an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and an annual statement covering those interests that will be published.

I would also refer the hon. Gentleman to the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper, published in July, setting out our plans in a number of areas for a new relationship between the Government and the citizen. We need to look not only at the steps that have already been taken but at the commitments to go still further. As for the hon. Gentleman’s allegation that Government statements are made to the media before they come to Parliament, the ministerial code is absolutely clear. When Parliament is in Session, the most important announcements should be made in the first instance to Parliament. I would assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers take this most seriously. I will of course make sure that the points raised in this debate will be drawn to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman suggested a bit of reorganisation of press officers. In terms of answering parliamentary questions, there are many officials across Departments who are going about their everyday work serving the public. In the course of that work, they are answering parliamentary questions. So while I note his suggestion—and I am sure that he would not wish that we stopped communicating on matters of importance to the public, such as the take-up of benefits or campaigns on drink and drug abuse, or the latest news on foot and mouth—I do not agree that simply moving people around would improve the situation.

On procedures for data transfer at the Department for Work and Pensions, it is worth remembering that my
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right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary have both set out in recent weeks a number of reviews that will be conducted into the security of data storage and transfer within Departments. It is indeed the case that this matter has been open to considerable scrutiny and will continue to be so.

In conclusion, the Government are absolutely clear and open about how Ministers should be held to account by Parliament and the public. It is something that we all take seriously and work to our best endeavours to achieve with our Departments. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers in this Government are completely committed to both the principle and the practice and are always trying to improve still further.

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Women’s and Girls’ Football

1.30 pm

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab): I begin by thanking all those who continue to make women’s and girls’ football the fastest growing sport in the United Kingdom. They are the unsung heroes—the volunteer coaches, referees and administrators—without whose dedication the beautiful game would not be successful. This was brought out effectively by the report last year by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which shone a welcome spotlight on the world of women’s football.

The 14 recommendations at the end of the report solicited responses from both the Government and the English Football Association which, if fully implemented, would maintain the growth and the health of women’s football in this country. It is worth reminding ourselves what has happened in women’s football in just over a decade. It was only in 1993 that the Football Association had the vision to bring women’s football into the football family. Before that, it was out in the cold. There were only 80 girls’ teams in England in 1993, but a decade later, in 2004-05, that had grown to about 8,000 teams. It shows that, with a little bit of organisation, the appetite was there. Those teams played in the affiliated competitions organised by the governing body. Just under 2 million young women and girls play recreational or informal football.

We must understand that football, as our national game, brings young people, including some from inner-city areas, into sport. Through the window of football, they can go on to play other sports. It is very important that those young people, who are sometimes at the bottom of the economic ladder, should be able to find their way back into society through the world of sport. There is no better sport than football to achieve that. It is a huge sport across the nation, with 45,000 football clubs. The impact of football, including women’s and girls’ football, on our social infrastructure is not to be underestimated, and the impact on elite sports, too, in the past decade is remarkable.

I am sorry to say that the professional side of the beautiful game, with one or two exceptions, has not lived up to the expectations raised by the Select Committee in the 10th recommendation of its report. That is disappointing. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) will raise those issues later, if she catches your eye, Mr Bayley. Even now, I hope that the Football League and the premier league, along with the English Football Association, which has done a good job with women’s football—I think that women footballers recognise that—will revisit the policy on women’s football.

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