Previous Section Index Home Page

3.58 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I am grateful not only for the opportunity to raise an important matter, but for the elongated time in which to do so, although I assure the Deputy Leader of the House that I do not intend to filibuster. If I had any such intention, I would have filibustered on the previous item of business.

I raise the matter in a spirit that may sometimes be critical, but which is also intended to be constructive, as I hope the Deputy Leader of the House will accept. Let me take him back to 1997, when the Labour party assumed office. At that time, there was revulsion in the country at some of the unsatisfactory and unwelcome practices and the unnecessary secrecy that occurred under the previous Government. The revulsion against that method of government was no small contributor to the significant majority that Labour enjoyed in 1997, or indeed to the significant increase in the number of seats that the Liberal Democrats gained at that time.

As a reaction, after that seminal election, we saw the introduction of a more open method of government. We saw, for example, the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and the amendment of practices relating to parliamentary questions. A small example relates to the number of questions that can legitimately be denied an answer on the basis of commercial confidentiality. An analysis of the number of times that that reason was used under the Conservatives before 1997 can be demonstrated by a steadily rising graph, but that graph drops dramatically after 1997 when the Minister’s Government came to power. I have to say, however, that the graph has subsequently risen to the level that it had reached under the Conservatives. It is difficult to imagine that there were fewer matters of commercial confidentiality in 1998 than at any other point, and there is rightly a suspicion that the number of times when that excuse, or reason, for not giving a full answer has been given is related not simply to the existence of commercial confidentiality but to the difficulty or expediency involved in not giving an answer for political reasons.

Similarly, the Minister will know that another reason for not answering a question is that to do so would incur disproportionate cost. That is a perfectly legitimate reason when properly deployed. However, it was over-deployed and misused under the previous Conservative regime. When I was a researcher in this place, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I recall that one Labour MP, who was fed up with that particular excuse being used by the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, asked her on how many occasions in the previous 12 months she had answered a question using the formula, “This question could be answered only at disproportionate cost.” She answered: “This question could be answered only at disproportionate cost.”

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): She had a sense of humour, then.

22 Jan 2009 : Column 972

Norman Baker: Well, someone in No. 10 had a sense of humour at that time.

The issue of openness is crucial for democracy. We touched on it in the previous debate about MPs’ expenses. After all my years in politics, both nationally and in local councils, my strong view is that being open and accountable for our actions is not only a requirement for all of us but also leads to better government. It is in the interests of the ruling party or parties for there to be openness. Sometimes, it does not seem that way, but in the medium to long term, that is undoubtedly the case.

I am sorry to say that, over the past 11 years, there has been some slippage in that openness, accountability and willingness to answer questions frankly. I suspect that that is not unusual in a Government. The longer they are in power, the more they feel responsible for themselves and the more they feel an obligation to hide things. It is perhaps a human reaction, but it is also a wrong reaction, because once they hide something, they then have to hide the fact that they have hidden it, and there begins a vicious circle that can end up with a Government becoming defensive and not releasing information that should properly in the public domain, even though they had started out in a different vein. As the Minister will know, some of the most damaging stories about a Government, of whatever colour, relate not to what has been concealed but to the fact that it has been concealed. I suggest to him, in the abstract, that being open is in the interests of the Government as well as of the public and of the country.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a trend, in that questions that would previously have been answered are no longer being answered. In about 1998, I asked the former Department of Transport—or perhaps it was the Department of Energy, in those days—about the carriage of radioactive material by air. I asked how many flights carried radioactive material, and I was given a specific figure. When I asked that question again recently, I was told that those figures were not collected. I cannot believe that in the past 10 years, the Government have decided not to collect those figures, but that is what I was told.

The answers to questions can be misleading. A Plaid Cymru Member in the previous Parliament asked how much nuclear waste was carried by air, and he was told that none was carried in that way. When he mentioned that to me, expressing his surprise, I told him that I happened to know the trick: he needed to ask about spent nuclear fuel. If he had asked about that, he would have had a rather different answer. It was quite clear that he was asking that question for the purpose of determining the safety and environmental implications of carrying such materials by air. The answer that he was given might have been technically correct, but it was totally misleading. I do not believe that that is a proper way to proceed.

Back in 24 April 1998 and on this very spot, I held an Adjournment debate entitled “The Prime Minister’s Press Office”. It was a Friday afternoon—I remember it very well, because the House was empty and the Press Gallery was full—and it was about the activities of Mr. Alastair Campbell. I suggest to the Minister, with all due humility, that that debate—what I said as well as what was said in response on behalf of the Government—makes quite interesting reading today. I said on that occasion that just because the Government have levers
22 Jan 2009 : Column 973
available to pull, and just because they have people who are very good at pulling levers—as they did that year with Alastair Campbell; he was exceptionally good at his job, whatever one thinks of him—it did not mean that it was in the interests of the country to pull that lever as far as it would go. Neither was it in the interests of the Government to do so. I said that the Government have to exercise some self-restraint and sometimes have to accept that information needs to be released, even though it is not in the short-term interests of the Government to do so. That is part of the democratic system. If we move away from that, we will be in some difficulty. There are examples, I am afraid, where we have moved away from that, although there are also examples of good practice to set against it.

The principles of freedom of information, which the Minister and his party accepted in passing the Freedom of Information Act 2000, include the public’s having a right to information about the activities of public bodies, most notably the Government and their agencies, along with local councils and other such bodies. That was a sea change brought in by the Government, which I very much welcome. By definition, the Government also accept that material that the public had a right to should be released, irrespective of whether the Government wanted it to be kept secret, if the reasons for doing so were not ones specifically set out in the 2000 Act relating to matters of national security and so forth. In other words, the Government accepted the principle that material would be released as a right, even if it were harmful to the Government’s own political interests. That was a very brave and correct thing to do. However, it does not seem to me that the principle in that Act has been followed through in the practices of all Ministers when they answer parliamentary questions.

I would be pleased if the Minister were kind enough to answer one particular question, which is whether for legal purposes Ministers regard parliamentary questions as effectively freedom of information requests. In other words, do they make the same assessment of whether information should be released as they would have if the information had been requested in a freedom of information request? Alternatively, are MPs entitled to more information in their parliamentary answers than such requests would generate—or, indeed, less? What is the exact relationship between a freedom of information request and a parliamentary answer?

As I said, there are examples of good practice as well as bad practice in government. I am not attempting to smear every Government with the same brush. I refer the Minister back to a question I asked in 2001 that received considerable coverage at the time. I asked the Home Secretary

from the Member representing Hartlepool at the time—now Lord Mandelson. That question was answered properly and in full by the Home Office Minister at the time—under instructions, it turned out, from the present Justice Secretary. At least partly as a consequence, the then Member for Hartlepool had to resign his ministerial office. If I asked such a question in similar circumstances today, I just wonder whether the answer would be as full and open as that one was, or whether some formula would be applied to prevent the information—legitimately
22 Jan 2009 : Column 974
asked for and provided on that occasion—from coming out. I hope the Minister can assure me that it would, but I am going on to explain why I believe such answers are not being provided these days in the same way.

I said that there is a patchwork of answers across government in terms of ministerial responses. That is quite true. Let me say that the present Justice Secretary, for example, has always been absolutely straight down the line, whatever Department he is representing, about answering parliamentary questions, irrespective of whether they are detrimental in the short term to the Government. He regards it as his duty to provide answers to parliamentary questions, and I pay tribute to him for it.

Some Departments regularly produce proper information. During my time in the House I have found that the Ministry of Defence, for example, has almost invariably provided proper answers to parliamentary questions, and, on the occasions when it has not done so, has correctly stated why the answers cannot be provided in the form that the Member has requested. I consider it a proper way of dealing with things to explain why answers cannot be provided, if that is the case—for reasons of commercial confidentiality, for instance, or because an answer might threaten relations with another country. There are legitimate reasons why answers sometimes cannot be given and, as I have said, the Ministry of Defence generally either answers questions in full or gives the responses that I have described. So there is good practice in Government but, I am sorry to say, there is also bad practice and that, unfortunately, is the nub of the issue.

The worst practice, I am afraid, relates to the Prime Minister, and to the answers that he signs off to parliamentary written questions addressed to him. I should like to think that the Prime Minister was not personally responsible. I should like to think that it was a matter for the spotty apparatchiks who occupy the back of No. 10 and draft the answers for him.

Chris Bryant: They are not spotty.

Norman Baker: The Minister says they are not spotty; presumably that means that they are indeed apparatchiks.

I should like to think that the Prime Minister was not primarily responsible—after all, he is a very busy man—and that he merely signed the answers off. However, I received a straight answer when I asked the Prime Minister

The Prime Minister gave the very clear one-word answer “Yes.” We must therefore assume that he does accept responsibility for parliamentary answers in his name.

The Minister may be interested to know that I have produced a little dossier for him. I will hand him a copy at the end of the debate. It is entitled “Why won’t the Prime Minister Answer the Question?” I hope that that is a question that the Minister, at least, will answer.

The ministerial code, published in July 2007, states:

There is nothing wrong with that: it is a perfectly proper policy to set out and adhere to. Of course, if we do not
22 Jan 2009 : Column 975
like the way in which Ministers respond, we can complain to the person who enforces the ministerial code—but, unfortunately, that is the Prime Minister as well. I am not sure to whom one should complain if the Prime Minister is interpreting the ministerial code. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what the mechanism is for dealing with that particular difficult scenario.

In May 2007, in a speech launching his bid to become leader of the Labour party, the Prime Minister said

He was reacting against what were perceived to be some of the excesses of the previous regime under Tony Blair. The Minister may recall that that particular motif—that particular approach by the present Prime Minister—was well received, and contributed in no small measure to the popular support that he enjoyed during the early part of his time as Prime Minister. Unfortunately, it has not been carried through in terms of written parliamentary answers.

I have conducted an analysis. The Minister may consider it a small analysis, but I have asked the Prime Minister 23 written parliamentary questions in the last 12 months.

Chris Bryant: I know!

Norman Baker: I am glad the Minister knows. I do not know whether that means that he is responsible for the answers, but I think it fair to say that only 17 per cent, of them—four out of 23—have been answered in any way satisfactorily, while 83 per cent, have not been answered properly at all. That is not good enough.

I hope the Minister will not either attack me personally for doing that work or pretend that everything is all right, because it is not. The Minister has a good record in the House for being independent and fair-minded. I hope he will recognise that there is a problem, and that it is in his interests as well as those of Parliament to try to deal with it.

How are these questions not answered properly? What techniques are used? Sometimes the Prime Minister will provide irrelevant information: he is asked one thing, but his reply bears no relation to the question he was asked. Sometimes he provides information that is so vague that it cannot be used in any shape or form. Sometimes he answers the bit of the question he likes, and leaves unanswered the bits that are more difficult to answer. These techniques may be well established—perhaps they are not unique to this Prime Minister and have been employed by other Prime Ministers, and also by other Ministers. I do not wish, therefore, to pretend that the this Prime Minister is a lot worse than any other, but these are not techniques to be proud of, and nor do they bear close scrutiny. I hope that he and the Deputy Leader of the House will recognise that it would be better if proper answers were given to parliamentary questions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from his list of techniques, may I draw his attention to two others, which he may have partly covered in what he has said?

One particularly disturbing technique is to refer the Member who has asked the question to some extremely obscure page of a website or to say that the material
22 Jan 2009 : Column 976
requested is available in some huge volume of Government statistics. That is of no help to anyone. However, in fairness to the Leader of the House, I should say that she has at least stamped on the practice of referring Members to previous answers without enclosing a copy of that answer, and that addition at least makes things more convenient for the hon. Member concerned.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman makes some relevant points, and I am grateful to him for adding colour to the case I am making. It should be added, however, that although we may now have the previous answer enclosed, it sometimes bears no relation to the question.

Let me give the Deputy Leader of the House a couple of examples. They are by no means the most important examples, but they are typical of the problem. I asked the Prime Minister on what date he last travelled by rail on official business. I do not think I have to justify my questions—I am entitled to ask questions if I wish to do so—but the reason I asked that question was that I speak for my party on transport matters. The Government have made a virtue of their climate change activities and have rightly introduced a Bill to tackle climate change, and I wished to discover whether Ministers were adhering to their statements in their personal behaviour. It was not an unreasonable inquiry, therefore, and, in fact, I asked every Minister that question. Of 22 Departments, including the Prime Minister’s office, who were asked that question, 18 have given me a precise date on which the Minister last used a train—and most of them travelled by train quite recently, so this is a good news story for the Government as most of them at least are helping to stick to their climate change targets by trying to use the train wherever possible. I am therefore happy to put out something positive about the Government on this occasion, because that is what my questions produced. Two Ministers have not yet responded—they have given holdings answers—and two have refused to give the information. Who are they? They are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

What did the Prime Minister say? He could have given a simple, short answer by actually saying when he last travelled by train: “12 December 2007” or whenever it was. Instead, he said this:

Why did he not answer the question?

I raised another issue in the light of activities before the parliamentary recess in July. Unfortunately, by releasing a huge number of statements on the last day before the recess—as, sadly, has become traditional—the Prime Minister was breaking the ministerial code, as it explicitly states that a large number of statements should not be released on the last day before the recess. I can give the Deputy Leader of the House chapter and verse for that if he wishes.

Chris Bryant: There were half the number of last time.

22 Jan 2009 : Column 977

Norman Baker: From memory, I think there were about 30, but certainly a huge number of written ministerial statements were issued in July on the last day before the House broke up. I therefore asked the Prime Minister

What did the Prime Minister say in reply? He said:

Next Section Index Home Page