HL Deb 11 July 2002 vol 637 cc822-4

3.30 p.m.

Lord Greaves

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to submit evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the answering of parliamentary Questions.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, the Government have already submitted evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life as part of their inquiry into defining the boundaries within the executive. They have no plans to submit any further written evidence.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In the light of revelations this week that email conversations between civil servants working on Answers to parliamentary Questions from various honourable friends of mine in another place, included gems such as, Matthew Taylor is a tricky customer and he's not asking this just to help the government"— a perceptive comment, if I may say so—and, I have got form on Willis", can the Minister say whether the departmental guidelines in relation to parliamentary Questions are the same in the two Houses?

Will he give us a guarantee that, particularly in this House, identical answers will be given to the same Questions for Written Answer, regardless of which noble Lords ask them?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, my understanding, which I shall check, is that the Answers would be the same in both Houses and that they would be constructed under the same disciplines. Where there has been any attempt to frustrate, or to be disobliging to your Lordships or to any MP in another place, of course we shall insist that proprieties are observed. The Department for Education and Skills has reminded its staff of their responsibilities and of the need for impartiality.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that it is thanks to the Labour Government's Data Protection Act 1998 that individuals have a much greater right to know what personal data are held about them by government departments? That is a welcome development, the benefits of which should be offset against the opportunities for a bit of point scoring.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend in principle. However, it inevitably makes for uncomfortable moments. One must remember that we are dealing with an organisation of almost half a million civil servants. So there will occasionally be mistakes and errors of judgment.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, are there any plans to submit evidence on not answering parliamentary Questions, or on giving evasive replies—although, of course, I do not have in mind any Member of this House on the Government Front Bench?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, departments will remind staff of their responsibilities. It is a matter that is taken seriously by the Government. As I said earlier, the Department for Education and Skills has already taken steps to remind its staff.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, are civil servants encouraged or discouraged to keep the type of personal information on Members of Parliament that we have been hearing about?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, from my experience at ministerial level they are neither discouraged nor encouraged. As I said earlier, there are proprieties which are long-standing that should be observed by the departments. As my noble friend has said, the public, Members of Parliament and others have far more access to data than was ever possible in the past.

Lord McNally

My Lords, if it has been the practice of departments in preparing for ministerial Questions to pen portraits of Liberal Democrats, I wonder whether he could put the one on my noble friend Lord Russell in the Library of the House

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, as an admirer of the noble Earl I would do that with great enthusiasm. The noble Lord touches on a point which came up recently. I was looking at a submission which had rather personalised—I thought—profiles attached, which talked about an eccentric from that great cradle of eccentricity, and named a certain school. I protested about that, but was told that it came off the Internet and was pulled off one of the commercial suppliers. So I do not think that we can blame the Civil Service for information that is readily available on most of your Lordships' shelves.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, from the answers that my noble friend has given is he on the point of delivering a reply to a Question I tabled to him on 19th of last month—an Answer to which was due yesterday—which concerned the safety of the wave screen at Brixham harbour?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I shall return to the department with some urgency and report back.

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