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Are we being asked to believe that by happy coincidence all these statements came to fruition on this one particular date? Had they been ready a day later, presumably we would not have had them, but it seems that, happily and coincidentally, they were all ready on the last parliamentary day before the summer recess. I do not think that is the case. I have asked the Prime Minister subsequent questions to pursue that, but I have received no satisfactory answers.

We must also consider the matter to which I referred tangentially in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis): the practice of being referred to a previous answer. When we receive answers of that type, we think that when we take a stroll back through Hansard the information that we want will be there—unfortunately, we find that it is not there.

I asked the Prime Minister

I do not have to justify the questions that I ask in this House, but as the Deputy Leader of the House may wish to know why I asked that perfectly legitimate question, let me say that I did so because Tony Blair apparently plays a leading role in sorting out the middle east but seemed rather invisible in that role. In order to understand how this country and this Government were approaching the middle east crisis, it was important to know what relationship there was between the Prime Minister and his predecessor. It has not always been a very good relationship, by all accounts, so I wanted to elucidate whether that relationship was affecting British relations and policy in the middle east.

I was referred back to a previous question of mine and, therefore, to the previous answer. I shall not bother reading out the previous question, but the previous answer was as follows:

I did not ask about official and charity receptions; I asked the Prime Minister when he last met Tony Blair, so why will the Prime Minister not answer the question?

When an hon. Member presses the Prime Minister, they receive the final formula, which tries to shut down the exchange—“I have nothing further to add.” I asked the Prime Minister

I hope that hon. Members accept that that was a legitimate train of inquiry. The Prime Minister could
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have said that the Government had no plans to allow the US to use Diego Garcia, or he could have said that there would be a parliamentary debate or that there would not be a parliamentary debate. All those would have been legitimate answers.

What did the Prime Minister say? He said:

I am very pleased about that. That is a reasonable statement of the Government’s policy, but it does not answer the question that I asked. I therefore asked him

He replied:

That was a second opportunity to answer the question, but he refused to take it.

There are lots of other examples that I could cite, but I will not trouble the patience of the Deputy Leader of the House by reading out every question to which an inadequate answer has been given. Reading those out would take a great deal of time. I am sorry to say that reading out the adequate answers could be done rather more quickly, although I am not going to do that either. Perhaps he ought to think about the consequences of poor answering practices for when he is in opposition, as his party will be at some point, whether after the next election or at some other future point. He may be happy to establish a rule whereby proper parliamentary questions are not given proper parliamentary answers, but that will set a rather dangerous precedent for him for when he is in opposition. He may find out at that point that being smart in government is not so smart when he faces that tactic in opposition, so it is in his interests to reform this practice.

It is not clever or smart to refuse parliamentarians proper answers to legitimate questions asked in this House. Mr. Speaker has regularly made it clear that he expects proper answers to be given. I know that he has no control over the content of answers, but he has indicated the proper role of Members of Parliament in asking questions; indeed, he has facilitated this debate.

I hope that the Minister accepts that we have a right to ask questions, and to have them answered, even if the answers are embarrassing to the Government or cause them political difficulties. That is not the judgment that should be made, but it is made, not in all Departments but in No. 10. The judgment that should be made is whether the information requested can be released without compromising our security, causing problems with commercial confidentiality, incurring disproportionate cost or causing problems with allies. Those are legitimate reasons for not answering questions, and they should form the test. Unfortunately, the test is increasingly whether a question will cause political embarrassment, which is a misuse of power. I hope that the Minister will do his best to recognise that the issue is serious. If he does not want to admit that today, I hope that he will consider it and try to ensure that answers to parliamentary questions are rather better than they have been recently.

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4.25 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this debate and on the assiduity with which he asks questions.

I wholeheartedly agree that openness is good, and not just for the Opposition. I come to this debate not worrying about whether we shall be in opposition, but as someone who believes that openness is good for government. The same principles apply whether one is on the Opposition Benches or is a Government Back Bencher. I believe that our Parliament has more robust means for ensuring that than almost any other legislature that I know. We have oral questions, which are unpredictable, particularly with the innovation of topical questions, and that has applied to the Prime Minister ever since we have had Prime Minister’s questions, which have been open and effectively topical questions. Our system is not followed in many other countries in Europe or other common law countries, where there is a much inferior system of parliamentary questions. I have sometimes been galled to see other parliamentary systems where speeches in debates do not have to be delivered for them to appear in the written record. Speakers may send them in by e-mail if they were not called, and there is no means of intervening to ask the thrusting question that might make a dramatic difference to the debate.

We have a strict system of written questions, both ordinary and named day written questions. Although we do not manage to answer every named day written question on the right day, every Department does so with the vast majority of those questions, and the vast majority of ordinary written questions are answered within a week. That is so different from most other legislatures in the world that we should be proud of it. We also have a strict regime for correspondence from the public to Ministers, and from Members of this House and of the other place.

We have a robust system but, as the hon. Gentleman says, we must ensure that it works. That is why the Cabinet Office ensures that the ministerial code, to which he referred, is clear. It states that

It continues:

That is precisely the sort of issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned at the end of his speech, and I think we wholeheartedly agree thus far. In addition, the House has always believed that it is contempt of the privilege of Parliament not to be honest in dealings with the House.

The hon. Gentleman said that he has asked 23 parliamentary questions—I am not sure whether they were named day or ordinary written questions—in the past year to the Prime Minister, and I know that he has asked questions elsewhere. One of his complaints—he did not make it in this way, but this is how I would have
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made it—is that sometimes the Prime Minister’s answers have been a little abrupt. On one occasion, the hon. Gentleman received a simple “Yes” in answer, and on another, the answer was more succinct than he might have liked—although, on my reading, it did answer the precise question that he had asked.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) also referred to the practice—adopted not only by the Prime Minister, but by other Ministers—of referring Members to previous answers. The Leader of the House has made it clear that we do not think that that is an appropriate way to answer a question. It may be acceptable if the reply would have to be excessively lengthy, because the previous answer had been lengthy; if the previous answer had been recent, and so was readily available; and if a copy of the original answer was provided to the hon. Member asking the question. However, by far the best practice is to provide the full answer again, even if that means saying, “As I said in my answer on such and such a date”, and then repeating that answer. That is what we are striving to achieve in every Department and I do not see why we should make any distinctions.

The hon. Gentleman says that many questions are not answered satisfactorily. He said that he had asked the Prime Minister specifically about when he had met Tony Blair, but the question that the hon. Gentleman asked on 15 October 2007 was:

To which question the Prime Minister replied:

That is a legitimate answer, because that information is published on a regular basis and it makes sense to have it all in one regular publication, rather than to respond to individual requests.

Norman Baker: I should have said in my remarks that I welcome topical questions as a good innovation. I do not have a problem with the publication once a year of information on “official and charity receptions”. However, the question on Tony Blair was subsequent to that and referred back to that answer. I have had no guarantee that we will learn whether the Prime Minister has met members of the Labour party in Downing street or not. That question has not been answered yet.

Chris Bryant: The point is that the list will be made available annually, and there is an issue about announcing whether someone is or is not a member of a political party. I do not think that everyone who goes through the door of No. 10 has to provide their membership card or, indeed, prove that they are not members of a political party. I remember that a few years ago, during the Labour party leadership ballot that Tony Blair eventually won, someone rang us from Cardinal Archbishop Basil Hume’s office to ask whether he could vote in both the membership section and the trade union section. I said that I did not know that he was a member of either, but in any case he was allowed to vote in both
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sections. We do not always know who is a member of the Labour party, because they can be hidden round corners—

Dr. Julian Lewis: But God is on our side!

Chris Bryant: Well, I would hesitate before handing out a membership card to one of the holy trinity.

The hon. Member for Lewes also mentioned the question about train travel. I am glad that the vast majority of Ministers have been able to reply directly. It has been a standing view of all Prime Ministers that they never comment, in advance or retrospectively, on any travel arrangements. One often sees the Prime Minister getting on a train on television, but the security advice is that he should not comment on his travel arrangements.

I want briefly to put the matter of parliamentary questions in context. Although I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that we have a very robust, vigorous and active system of asking parliamentary questions, I merely point out that in the years shortly after I was born, in 1964 and 1965, only 46 parliamentary questions a day were asked while in the previous Session 445 questions a day were asked. That completely changes the system.

One thing that has made it much easier for Members of Parliament—and sometimes also, I suspect, for MPs’ members of staff, although perhaps I am being unfair—to table questions is the facility online that asks whether they want to ask the same question to another Minister. They just have to click “Yes” and another Minister is asked the same question. I know that there are round robin questions, because they end up being asked of the Leader of the House’s office where they are wholly inappropriate. A number of times I have had to answer a question with the words “None,” “Not at all,” and “Never” because the round robin question has been rather more enthusiastically “robinned” round than is appropriate.

I do not want to restrict the number of written parliamentary questions, but I am cautious because a time might come when we could weigh down Ministers; they end up signing off the answers. I know from my experience that I signed an answer off and it turned out that the information that I had been provided with by the House authorities was completely inaccurate by a factor of nearly 100. I had to submit a changed answer a couple of weeks later. Sometimes the system is held up by Ministers because they have a job to do, and 445 written parliamentary questions is a lot. Last year, for the sake of completeness, there were 73,357 written parliamentary questions.

Norman Baker: I produce all my own questions and table them myself at the Table Office—I do not e-table. I agree with the Deputy Leader of the House to the extent that I feel that the system is being undermined by the capacity of research assistants to table questions that the Member for whom they work has not even seen. I worry about that. If the Deputy Leader of the House wanted to clamp down on that aspect of things, I would not object.

Chris Bryant: Indeed. I do not want to clamp down too heavily on that, but it is an abuse of the systems of the House. Any question that is tabled in the name of an hon. Member should have been tabled by an hon.
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Member. The e-tabling system is there to facilitate hon. Members, not to enable their staff to do their job for them. That is an important principle.

The Procedure Committee has been carrying out an inquiry and will eventually report on the whole question of written parliamentary questions. I am keen to try to ensure that wherever possible we abide as strictly as all hon. Members would want with the ministerial code and with the spirit and letter of the rules of this House. Sometimes we fall short, either because Ministers have been away, which has meant that an answer has not been provided as swiftly as it might have been, or because they have glanced rather cursorily at the answer and it has not been as full as it might or indeed should have been. The requirement is that an answer should be truthful, and that does not mean just a partial truth. It means the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The hon. Gentleman raised two other points on which I want to comment. The first was the issue of written ministerial statements and the fact that there were a large number in July. He referred to the point that I made from a sedentary position, which was that there were many fewer. I was actually referring to the Christmas recess, when there were many fewer because I specifically wrote to Ministers to try to ensure that we did not have a large number of written ministerial statements on the last day.

There is always a double bind for Ministers. If they do not produce something by the recess, no statement is made to the House at all until the end of the recess. That is a large gap. At the same time, to provide a written ministerial statement at the last minute—particularly if it is of hefty substance—means that Members do not have an opportunity to have a come-back. One thing that we have done that I think is right is to make it possible for Members to table questions during recesses, and especially over the summer months. We have also put in place a system for the answering of named day questions during the recess as well—something that was sadly lacking for many years.

Incidentally, I can tell the House that I had been hoping to get the 4.45 pm train from London to Cardiff this afternoon. The one at 4.15 pm would have been better, as that costs the taxpayer only £166 as opposed to £266.

Norman Baker: What class of ticket is that?

Chris Bryant: It is first class, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether freedom of information inquiries and ministerial answers are connected. I am gazing wistfully towards my private office staff for the answer to that, and am afraid that I shall have to write to him with the answer, although I note that the ministerial code refers specifically to the Freedom of Information Act.

I turn now to the disproportionate costs threshold, which currently stands at £750. There is pretty clear guidance from the Cabinet Office on this matter and it makes it clear that, where information is refused on the grounds of disproportionate cost, there should be a presumption that any requested information that is readily available should be provided. Therefore, although it may be impossible to provide a full answer without incurring disproportionate costs, any elements of the question that can be answered should be answered.

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