§ [Relevant documents: Ninth Report from the Public Administration Committee Session 2001–02 HC 1086 and First Report Session 2002–03 (Government Response) HC 136.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]2.30 pm
§ Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab)
I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the Public Administration Committee's report on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions. It is the Committee's ninth report of the 2001–02 Session and was published in July 2002. We will also discuss the Government's reply, which was published at the end of the year.
I wish to thank several people, and especially members of the Committee, who are a sterling bunch. I am proud to be their Chairman. We are working extremely energetically and productively together at the moment, and it is a great privilege to be the Chairman of such a Committee. I also thank our Clerk, not least for the amount of work that goes into such a report. He is an outstanding Clerk who serves the Committee in an outstanding way. He is helped by the long overdue arrival of a second Clerk. I also thank all the Committee staff, who contribute so much to our work, and the Table Office, which produces the memorandum and the raw material that enable us to begin work on producing such a report. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who is speaking for the Opposition, asked me to welcome him, and I am delighted to do so.
This week, a national newspaper, The Guardian, said:In recent years the Commons public administration committee has turned itself into a sort of constitutional terrier, yapping loudly at ministers and officials slow to adopt the cause of reform.Like Princess Anne, I believe that they have got the wrong dog, although in her case at least they got the right breed. I prefer to see us as a retriever—diligent, lively and faithful.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me, as 152WH requested. Does he accept that what we really want is a pit bull terrier that gets stuck into the Government and makes them do their job?
§ Tony Wright
I have a horrible premonition that our debate this afternoon will be haunted by different varieties of dog, and it is already being borne out.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)
Unfortunately, both breeds are over-bred and not very intelligent. A mongrel would be much more effective.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)
Order. As someone who has owned a Weimaraner, I ask hon. Members to stop asking dog questions.
§ Tony Wright
That is a good idea, Mr. McWilliam, although I hope that you will not stop my dog analogy in full flow, as I wish to persevere with it.
Our retriever is diligent, lively and faithful, and constantly seeks out and brings back all those matters that the Government may have mislaid or overlooked. Of course, it does all that on behalf of Parliament, our master. That is what we are doing today in discussing the report on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions.
The raw material of the report covers the 1999–2000 Session. That is a huge time lag, and I apologise for it, although it is not of our making. I am afraid that it was caused by the difficulty in getting from Departments an account of why they have not answered parliamentary questions once we are equipped with the Table Office material. Paragraph 11 of the report tells the story of how we first asked Departments for the material in May 2001. We asked for a response by June. I accept that a general election came along, but it was not until March 2002 that we received the final departmental response. As we say in our report, notwithstanding the fact that there was an election in that period, it should not have taken Departments up to 10 months to respond to a relatively simple request—not least because some were able to meet our original deadline.
I think that I am entitled to bring that issue to the attention of the House, and I am delighted to see that the Government now promise in their reply to our report to endeavour to meet the same turnaround time that they use in correspondence with Members—20 days. We hope that they can keep to that undertaking, because it would help us enormously in our reporting to the House. Perhaps I should also say that we are busily putting together a draft for the two subsequent years, so we shall be producing a composite report that will enable us to catch up and make a more up-to-date survey of the terrain.
Why do we, in the first place, go through the exercise that prompts the report and the debate that we are now engaged in? The answer is straightforward: parliamentary questions and answers are a basic instrument of parliamentary accountability. In some ways—I think that the report mentions this—they are, if used properly, the most effective and sustained instrument of parliamentary accountability that Members have.
I am sure that it is tiresome for Departments and Ministers to have to answer parliamentary questions, not least because they are sometimes tiresome. The 153WH undertaking is huge and burdensome, and it is true that Members use and on some occasions abuse questions for a variety of purposes. However, they are fundamental to Parliament's ability to hold the Executive to account, notwithstanding the occasion when a certain Member boasted in a speech to his constituents that he had asked more parliamentary questions than anyone else, and a voice at the back said, "Ignorant bugger."
We all have our own confessions to make in this context, and perhaps I may make mine, which I made in print not so long ago. I described something that happened immediately after I was elected a Member of Parliament in 1992:After my first few weeks in the House of Commons, one of my children asked me what was the best bit so far about being a Member of Parliament. I remember saying that I thought there were two best bits…First, the fact that the library research staff would instantly provide you with a brief on any subject under the sun. My son thought this would be very useful for his homework".Indeed, it has so proven. I also referred tothe supply of yellow forms on which questions could be written to any Cabinet minister at any time requesting information on anything that came within the minister's area of responsibility, with an obligation for an answer containing the information to be given (and published in Hansard…) within a matter of days.My son was disbelieving at such an extraordinary facility. So we agreed that we would put it to the test. But what to ask about? After some thought we suggested an esoteric question about the dangers of milk floats, on the basis that when I was my son's age I had crashed into one on my bike early one morning while delivering newspapers…and had long harboured a grudge against them. This was duly agreed, and the yellow form was filled in and submitted. A few days later the following reply was received, as recorded in the Hansard record (30 June, 1992)".This had been my question:Dr. Wright: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what figures are available on the number of accidents and injuries associated with milk floats.I shall not go through the whole written answer that I received from Kenneth Carlisle, the Minister for Roads and Transport of the day, as it was quite extensive. First, he told me about milk floats and then he gave me a little table that gave information onInjury accidents involving floats and casualties",andfloat propulsion type".—[Official Report, 30 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 449W.]I could see how many people were injured by electric and other kinds of floats, how many people were killed, and so on.
I was moved to write thatPandora's box was henceforth to be forever open. The people's representatives had to be answered by the mighty. Accountability was not a stale word, but a continuous practice. The episode had a further twist when a journalist phoned to ask what I thought about the answer I had received and about my general views on the dangers of milk floats. My reply, now that I was warming to the theme, duly appeared in his newspaper. I had become the authority on milk floats. More than that, I realised that I had become someone whose half-baked views on all sorts of topics would henceforth be taken with all the seriousness that they had never previously been thought to deserve. In fact, I was surrounded by people whose utterances were being taken 154WH seriously, especially by themselves, sometimes for the first time and against the evidence, and solemnly recorded for posterity. Parliamentary democracy was clearly a wonderful thing.So, we all have our little confessions to make, but none of that should stand against the fact that, if used properly, the ability to ask questions and have them answered by Ministers of the Crown is the most effective tool in the armoury of most Members of Parliament.
The report is the fifth of its kind from the Committee, which in its previous form, as the Public Service Committee, began to issue such reports as part of the reaction to the Scott report. I was on the Public Service Committee at the time, which took evidence on the Scott report and produced a major report on ministerial responsibility, which led to the resolution on the matter that the House made in 1997. The Scott report said that Ministers of the day had failed satisfactorily to answer questions that Members had tabled, and it raised serious issues about the effectiveness of ministerial question answering to Members. The resolution made by the House stated:Ministers should be open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with the Government's code of practice on access to Government information".That period led our predecessor Committee to think that it would be useful to examine and regularly report to the House on parliamentary questions that the Table Office had blocked and were therefore not answered. For that purpose, we have used a list made up of the internal information compiled by the Table Office. On that basis, we write to Departments to ask for information about the questions that have not been answered. That forms the basis of the report.
Over the years, we have reflected on whether that process continues to perform a useful function. The general view, not only among ourselves, but among people who have made representations to us, is that it does so, which is why the practice has become an annual institution. It should be seen as useful to Ministers too, because one of the effects of the exercise is to ensure that Departments are kept up to the mark in providing to Ministers the service that they expect. There have been cases in which Ministers have been let down by their officials. For instance, there was a notorious case recently in the Department of Health, where an official was systematically falsifying parliamentary answers. The ability to keep a log of all that information and to pursue it places an important discipline on Departments and enables Ministers to provide the answers that they are required to give.
One matter that we focused on during that period was the extent to which Departments cited the relevant exemptions under the code of practice on access to Government information when they did not give the information that was asked for. We have worried away at that important issue over the years. I direct hon. Members to paragraphs 15 and 16 of our report, where we say that despite referring to the problem repeatedly, we have to keep returning to it because Departments still do not systematically cite the exemptions under the code when they withhold information. The report gives examples of Departments that do well and of others that do badly. Indeed, in the spirit of the times, we talked 155WH about producing a league table so that everyone could see which Departments did well and which did not in respect of the citation of exemptions.
We strongly welcome the Government's response to our latest report. They said that they would alter the official guidance—indeed, they have already done so—on the answering of questions. They now insist that Departments cite the relevant code exemptions when questions are not answered. I strongly applaud the Government for accepting our recommendation, and I hope that we shall not have to return to the matter as we had to do in recent reports. It should be a basic building block of the system.
I shall refer quickly to two other matters before making one concluding point.
§ Mr. Heald
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Leader of the Opposition has recently been extremely concerned about the release of information. Indeed, he made an official complaint to the ombudsman about the Treasury, not in respect of a parliamentary question but in relation to requests for information. The Treasury has been heavily criticised for the way in which it handled those applications. One of the points made in the ombudsman's report was that, in normal circumstances, we have the right to go to the ombudsman if the code is not followed, and the question can then be dealt with fully. Does that apply to parliamentary questions?
§ Tony Wright
In some instances, hon. Members have sought to pursue the parliamentary question route through other means, in particular through the ombudsman. Indeed, the ombudsman is reporting today on an interesting case that I could refer to in passing and to which other hon. Members may refer. We must consider the system in the round, but the best way to answer the hon. Gentleman is to say that it would clearly be unsatisfactory if Members of Parliament, equipped with all their notional powers and armoured with the 1997 resolution, had to resort to other devices to secure information to which they were properly entitled. That is the essential point.
That leads me to the two other matters that I wish to raise. I have described our original focus, but it has necessarily been widened somewhat in recent times. That is partly because our attention was turned from blocked or unanswered questions to questions that were not answered satisfactorily. I do not mean that people did not like those answers, but that the relevant Department did not provide the answer to the question. In such cases, an answer was given, but it was not satisfactory. Perhaps Ministers answered a different question or simply picked out the part of the question that they wanted to answer and ignored the rest. However, it was clear that if we were concerned with accountability, we could not be concerned only about the failure to answer questions altogether, as we had to consider whether the answers actually answered the questions.
We have been working on that matter. When we first raised it in our report, the Government's reply was, "Well, we're not sure about this, because what do you think an unsatisfactory answer is?" We responded in the Government response document—when we publish a Government reply, we tend to produce a little preface—and stated in paragraph 8: 156WHWe do not believe that such a definition should be necessary. An answer is unsatisfactory if it does not follow the rules, guidance and conventions on question-answering, which now include the requirement to cite Code exemptions".We also said:It is for Members themselves to decide when they regard an answer as unsatisfactoryin terms of those rules. That is the answer to the question of when an answer is unsatisfactory—when it does not do what answers should do under the rules on question answering. The issue is that straightforward.
Hon. Members have given us several examples of such answers. I am most familiar with the examples with which I was involved, and I shall cite some of them to give flavour to what we are discussing. I asked the former Minister for the Cabinet Office, now the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), to list all the bodies that had a statutory duty to report to Parliament. It seemed to me important for Parliament to know which bodies were supposed to report to it, so that it could do something about those reports. Unfortunately, the reply simply said that each body's annual report stated to whom it had to report. I thought that that was an outrageously inadequate answer and I wrote to say so. I am delighted to say that when the current Minister for the Cabinet Office took up the reins, he provided me with a comprehensive answer of the kind that I should have got originally.
I also wrote to the now Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), about a matter for which he was the answering Minister at the Department of Health. In some Departments, there had been great delays in producing autumn performance reports under the public service agreement system, so I asked when that Department was going to produce its much-delayed report. The answer simply referred me to something completely different. I had to write a rather sharp letter, which included the text of what would have been an acceptable answer. It is not difficult to produce such a text. What makes people cross, however, is a lack of any attempt to answer the question or to provide the information required. It is always better to make that attempt, because one will get into more trouble if one does not do so.
I yield to no one in my admiration and respect for the Prime Minister, as is well known. Last year, I wanted to know whether the example of the 1975 Wilson Labour Cabinet in agreeing to differ on the Common Market referendum was to be regarded as a precedent that would be binding on the conduct of a referendum on the euro. That seemed a perfectly straightforward question. The answer that I was given referred me to an answer given by the Economic Secretary to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I looked up that answer and found that it had nothing to do with my question. It told me about the five tests and the fact that there would be a euro referendum, all of which I know, but it did not tell me anything about what I had asked. I am afraid that I therefore had to table another question asking the Prime Minister to explain the connection between my first question and his answer. He again referred me to an answer that set out the Government policy on the euro. Those are just frustrations. It would 157WH have been quite easy to say, "We haven't come to a view on that. We will see when the time comes." All kinds of formulations would have served.
That is a trivial example. In other cases, people try to get information and it is not provided. The Committee gives a number of examples of such cases.
§ Mr. Heald
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it can often damage the Government to adopt an over-clever approach to answering the questions? Recently, the Conservatives argued that the Department for Work and Pensions does not do anything, but merely consults the whole time. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) asked how many consultations there had been since 1997. The reply was that the answercould only be provided at disproportionate cost."—[Official Report, 9 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 140W.]
§ Tony Wright
We could trade examples. We give some examples in our report, and we shall continue to do so regularly in other reports. I thought initially that the hon. Gentleman was going to mention the case of the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), who memorably asked the Department for Work and Pensions for some information and was told that the Department did not have it. He pursued the matter under the Data Protection Act 1998 and found that the information did exist. Of course, it was then provided. It is clear that it is as well to be watchful and ensure that Departments are kept up to the mark.
Such experiences and the frustration that they caused hon. Members meant that Mr. Speaker started referring Members who complained about such things to the Public Administration Committee and the Procedure Committee. People looked to the Public Administration Committee to do something about the situation, but there was nothing we could do apart from produce our report, as we did each year. As we say in the report, against that background, we decided to offer a service to Members and take up unsatisfactory answers with Ministers and Departments.
That service does not deal with every dissatisfaction, but it deals with inadequately answered questions. I am pleased to say that hon. Members have sent us a steady flow of examples and that they have all more or less fallen into that category. Hon. Members have used the facility extremely responsibly and, in turn, Ministers have responded positively and constructively. There have been a number of instances—if we have not cited them in this report, we shall do so in our next one—in which Ministers have brought their Departments up to the mark because of what has happened. In such instances, Ministers have tried to ensure that questions are answered more satisfactorily and that apologies are offered when things go wrong.
We think that that innovation is important. We were worried about whether the service would greatly consume time and resources, but at the moment, it helps with accountability. I hope that Members find it helpful.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
My hon. Friend is obviously making his case very strongly. I am surprised that he has not mentioned commercial 158WH confidentiality, which is one of my bugbears when I look back through the report and pick out the questions to which I have not had answers. One question on which I felt strongly sought to identify the recipients of the largest sums of money under the common agricultural policy. Normally it would be wrong for those firms and agencies to be identified, but my question was very much connected with the CAP and its operation. Without going into detail on that particular example, would he care to mention the way in which commercial confidentiality prevents policy development because it obfuscates what is really happening?
§ Tony Wright
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and various Members have quite properly referred to the same difficulty. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who produced off his own bat, just a year or so ago, a report on the difficulty of gaining information about commercial confidentiality issues through parliamentary questions. My hon. Friend gave the example of the CAP, but the hon. Member for Lewes placed his question in a context that interests many of us, relating to the fact that so many aspects of government are contracted out, with the public and private sectors working together. That makes it even more essential for Members to be able to probe the basis on which some activities take place. If so much is closed off because of commercial confidentiality, difficulties are raised. Whatever else we do, we must ensure that if that reason is given, it is given as the exemption. We can then test that against the code of access, involving the ombudsman if necessary, as such issues can be tested against a public interest.
§ Mr. Drew
Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of overcoming that problem would be for the Government to return to the organisations with confidentiality restrictions to ask them whether they mind information going into the public domain? In practice, such information often gets into the public domain through the media, which is why some of us get so upset, and it can also be made available in alternative ways.
§ Tony Wright
I agree. Those comments take me back a few years to when the Committee was spending much time examining the Government's freedom of information proposals. We took extensive evidence on the White Paper, the draft Bill and the Bill that emerged, and when we took evidence from business organisations, their concern was not to see information protected; they simply wanted to know what the rules would be so that they could play by them.
§ Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)
Those businesses also said that they did not mind information becoming available after an appropriate time, but that time sensitivity concerned them.
§ Tony Wright
That is true, and it is a good additional point. However, the general point is that business was in some ways more relaxed about such matters than the Government. The Committee was struck by that fact, which is why we sought to persuade the Government that they, too, could be more relaxed about their approach to those matters in the legislation. We had some success on that point, but not total success.
159WH All we are discussing today in relation to those matters is openness in government. We all know where we have come from on that subject. Without wanting to resort to the familiar clichés, I point out that we have come from a culture that loved secrecy, had secrecy bred into its bones and was extremely fearful about approaching matters more openly. I remember the evidence that was given to the Scott inquiry by a former Cabinet Secretary. The way in which he talked about the business of parliamentary answers was extremely interesting. He talked about it as a form of art in which one released as little as possible while maintaining the conventions of parliamentary question answering. It was a sort of elegant, elaborate game, and if you had a first in greats you could play the game better than anyone else. It was great fun for parliamentary branches inside Departments to sign off answers that did not really tell people anything, but did so in an extremely elegant way.
That is the history of where we have come from. It is still around us. Hon. Members may have referred to the fact that in recent times the ombudsman has had difficulties, as the guardian of the code on access, in securing the co-operation of Departments in the way that she has wanted. There was an occasion during the past year when she flagged up in her most recent report the possibility that she might have to discontinue her work in that area because it was proving too difficult to get co-operation. That is obviously serious, although I think she has now reached an understanding with the Cabinet Office that is helping her along.
Another case has been reported on by the ombudsman today, for which she deserves great credit. A public interest test was applied that flushed out information that she regards properly as background information, but which does not impinge on Cabinet discussions. It does not come within the policy process, but it is proper background information. The ability to make such distinctions secured the release of information that was not already available.
That context is changing because of the freedom of information legislation that will finally come into effect next year, and the situation is beginning to produce a change of culture throughout Government. It will be possible for Parliament and others—we would expect Parliament to be at the forefront—to get far more information out than previously, particularly background information, so that we can see far more of the processes, thinking and research behind certain policy positions. That makes for better, more sensible and grown-up policy making in which Parliament is far more of an active participant with Government, which is all to the good.
The example of Hutton hangs over everything at the moment, but the Hutton inquiry showed that it is quite possible to release almost anything relating to a public policy issue, apart from where certain privacies need to be safeguarded, without the sky falling in.
§ Tony Wright
The belief in this country has always been that the sky will fall in if more is given out than is 160WH absolutely necessary. We will transform policy making and the relationship between Executive and Parliament if there is far more information sharing than in the past. That will be better for government. Indeed, that is the argument. It will be better if we do things in a more grown-up way.
The environment is changing, and we report now in a context that is quite different from that of the mid-1990s, when we first started producing such reports. The day may come when we shall be able to cease producing them, but there is still work for a diligent parliamentary retriever to do, and it is a great pleasure to bring such matters to hon. Members' attention.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)
Before I call the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), I should like to remind hon. Members of something. Please do not think that I am getting soft in the new year. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) used the word "you" on several occasions. He was out of order on only one of those occasions, when he referred to having a first in greats. My qualifications are in electrical and electronic engineering. That was the context in which I had to draft the initial reply to parliamentary questions about the telephone system in the east of Scotland when the Post Office was a Department of State.
§ Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con)
I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), and the Committee. It was the first Select Committee on which I served as a new Member of Parliament, and I have never been overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the work. A yapping chihuahua might be a better description of it than those offered before, because we never gave up once the teeth sank in. Having been bitten by one, I have some experience of that.
Like the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, I believe strongly that the privilege of being able to ask questions is fundamental to our job as parliamentarians, not just in our constituencies but across a wide spectrum. I was not a member of the Committee when it started its deliberations, and came in when it was halfway through its report, as did the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for the Liberal Democrats and the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) for Labour, but the matter is an ongoing sore that returns time and again. It cannot be beyond the wit of any Government, regardless of complexion, to deal with it, because the officials remain the same for a new Government, so the basis for answering questions already exists.
The Committee expressed the hope thatwe shall not again have reason to complain that Departments are not citing the Code of Practice".I have had experience of having to badger Departments. I have written to Ministers but not received replies. Although those were not parliamentary questions, I had to resubmit them to Ministers asking for an answer. That is frustrating, and I am staggered by the number of Members who have complained about the quality of answers, the non-answering of question and the number 161WH of points of order that Members have to make to the Speaker to try to force Departments to reply not only properly—the hon. Member for Cannock Chase referred to that—but in a way that makes parliamentary sense. I asked a question recently about a matter in Somerset, which was natural as I represent a Somerset constituency. I received an answer that was relevant not to my constituency but to the midlands. That may be a lovely idea, but it did not help me and it discredits the system.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase made an interesting point about helping the Government to be more open. I believe strongly in the ability of Members of Parliament not just to hold the Government to account from the Opposition Benches or support them from the Labour Benches, but to make the Government better. Our ultimate scrutineers are people not in this place but outside the building—our constituents.
I want to draw the attention of hon. Members to the citing of relevant exemptions to which reference is made in paragraph 14 on page 9 of the report. There is a fundamental breakdown concerning the code of practice, access to Government information and relevant exemptions. It is vital that any Government should have an opt-out, but the reason for wanting it should be explained precisely. If the Government want an exemption, they must explain precisely why they are invoking it. Otherwise, they not only do discredit to themselves, but they confuse Members of Parliament.
The back of the report cites page after page of complaints from Members because the Government have asked for exemptions but have not explained why they are necessary or relevant. The report states on page 10:Our frustration on this matter is easily gauged by the fact that this is the third time we have made such a recommendation. Despite twice recommending this before (and twice having it accepted by the Government), we recommend again that where departments withhold information under an exemption of the Code of Practice they cite the relevant exemption in their written answers.I ask the Minister to look at that carefully, because I believe that it is the fundamental problem.
§ Brian White
The hon. Gentleman is making an effective case about the number of civil servants. Can he explain how his party, which would wipe out most of those positions, would provide answers in the future?
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
Luckily, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I am neither the leader of my party nor at present on the august Benches in front of me. As a humble Back Bencher, I believe that I can safely say that that will not be the case.
There is another area that I found deeply frustrating. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase and the Committee were considering targets. We asked parliamentary questions to try to tease out from the Government information about them. Time and again we asked Departments to come up with the number of targets and what they were. Hon. Members who were on the Committee will remember how frustrating that was, because we never got the same answer twice.
162WH I asked copious questions. I believe that the answer we ended up with was about 700, but many were sub-targets. We never got an exact number for each Department. The poor old Department for Work and Pensions is in for it today, because again it was one of the main offenders. The Committee was trying to look into the matter of Government targets, which went right across the spectrum, but could it get an answer? I do not believe that we ever got to the bottom of it. There were no exemptions. There was no reason why we should not have received answers. It was the Government's manifesto policy that there would be targets. There is no problem with that—everyone has targets—yet we could not get to the bottom of the matter.
The report is a fundamental step in the right direction, but I have a horrible feeling that the Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, will consider the issue time and again. The Government have a fundamental problem. He is right about unnecessary secrecy. The parliamentary question system is absolutely vital to the role of a Member of Parliament, but until the Government realise that that is the case and that they cannot just send letters saying that the answer is in the Library—we have all received those—or send answers that are not satisfactory or relevant, this problem will continue.
The reply from the Government is very good, but one could take out seven of the 14 pages of the report to get to the salient points. If I were the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, I might say that there is a lot of waffle but little substance, because the Government have missed an opportunity. We were asked by Members to put forward questions on exemptions, the quality of responses, the role of Departments, and the background thinking. That is not rocket science but straightforward stuff.
The Government have missed a golden opportunity to say what they could do for the long term, and their reply is a stop-gap. Why do we not have a commitment for the long term? In five years' time, we may be sitting here talking about the same thing. In fact, I guarantee that we will. That is not acceptable. I would like to tease the Minister slightly by asking why he does not give a commitment rather than merely a "holding answer" to the Committee, so that he and Opposition Members do not have to come back and go over this again. I am afraid that we will sit here for quite some time every year, unless we get this right.
§ Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak. Hon. Members will note that I was not a Committee member when the report was prepared, but I am delighted to be a member now. It is a very fine Committee, and I pay a particular compliment to the Chairman, who does a splendid job in Committee and when he presents our reports to the House. His speech today was another example of what a first-class Select Committee Chairman should be like.
I was not a member, but I had strong views on the report, partly because I have worked in bureaucracies for many years. Most significantly, 35 years ago, I started work at the Trades Union Congress. At the 163WH TUC, the kind of disciplines that were imposed on us bureaucrats, writing letters for Vic Feather, Len Murray and others, would not have allowed us to get away with the things that Departments get away with. There is not only secrecy and resistance to releasing information, but sloppiness. I hope that standards are raised and maintained.
I feel that standards have fallen drastically compared with those of the past. One reason for that feeling is that I used to write many letters on behalf of the TUC to Ministers and officials. The responses that we received 30 years ago were infinitely better than those that we receive now.
A very fine general secretary called Walter Citrine, of whom many of us will have heard, modelled the bureaucracy of the TUC on the civil service. I remember being able to go to the filing system and look up letters that had been sent to the TUC in 1929. Everything was in order. I read letters from Winston Churchill, Sidney Webb and Presidents of the Board of Trade from the 1920s and 1930s. They were all there and all in order; one could find anything at any time.
I did not have a first in greats but I had a university degree, and I thought that I could write English. I was on a very steep learning curve, however, and if a letter was not up to standard, a line was drawn through it and I was ordered, "Do it again, and write it this way." Very quickly, one learned to write a proper letter, and we had a certain pride in the standard of correspondence that the TUC put out.
We were modelled on the civil service, but in recent decades there has been a lack of concern about Members of Parliament and the issues that they raise. There is a certain kind of writing down of Parliament and, more importantly, of the people who elect us, which is now all to do with central Government and what a Minister, and in particular Downing street are concerned about. Members of Parliament are considered lesser people and Parliament a lesser institution in the eyes of Government. The report betrays that, and it is something that must be corrected.
I may be old-fashioned. When I went from the TUC to the National and Local Government Officers Association—NALGO, as was—and found that there was nothing like the same discipline there, I was disappointed. People thought that I was almost authoritarian and militaristic in my approach to correspondence and bureaucracy. Information and policy are precious, however. Words must be weighed; words are important in politics. If we do not have those disciplines in politics, it will gradually deteriorate and disintegrate. We have a proud tradition of discipline in our bureaucracy that we ought to preserve.
As a Member of Parliament and as a member of the Committee before and at the time that the report was produced, my experience was very varied. Some Ministers and some Departments behaved very well, so that one received good responses; others did not.
I remember a letter that I received—I shall mention by name those who responded well and miss out the names of those who did not, to save their embarrassment—from my noble Friend Lord Rooker when he was Pensions Minister. It was clearly written by a civil servant, as is the nature of things, but the way in which it was written clearly reflected the views of the Minister 164WH and his style. I could read it aloud and it sounded like my noble Friend speaking to me. It was trenchant and it had an edge and a bit of abrasion—just what I would expect from Lord Rooker. It answered the points that I had made; I did not agree with his point of view, but it was a proper answer, which was clearly from a Minister, in his name and in his style. That was the best example.
We then had the feeble responses. I have had several of those over time, written not by somebody with a first in greats, but by somebody with experience as a party press officer, writing a simple press release or a bit of spin for the press. That is not good enough either. The response should be serious political analysis and a serious political answer to issues that Members have raised. I would look forward to a clever answer from someone with a first in greats. Jousting with such a mind would be challenging, but those answers are not like that.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the answers might vary according to who asks the question?
§ Mr. Hopkins
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I was about to make that point. Some questions to the Ministers are of the nature, "May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on once again walking on water?" I do not tend to ask that kind of question. My questions tend to be challenging. I say, "I take a different view from the Government on this. What does the Minister think about these serious points and statistics?" Again, the nature of the questioner and the nature of the question make a big difference to the response.
I do not ask walking-on-water questions; I ask challenging, difficult questions, which are sometimes full of awkward statistics about underfunding of public services. It is the job of civil servants with their firsts in greats and my colleagues who lead their Departments to respond to difficult questions. As a Member of Parliament, I think it absolutely right that I should ask difficult questions, even if I ask them of Labour Ministers.
In addition to the feeble answer, there is the late response. I wrote to the Home Secretary following a request to do so by the chief fire officer of Bedfordshire, who was concerned about the lack of sprinklers and the fire risk at a place called Yarl's Wood. Yarl's Wood is not in my constituency, but all the Members of Parliament in Bedfordshire were asked to write to the Home Secretary—I am sure that the others also did so. I dutifully wrote to the Home Secretary, but I did not get a reply until about five months later. The short letter merely said, "The matter is under review." Yarl's Wood burned down some weeks later. The matter was publicised in the press because someone—not me—leaked the information. The lateness and lack of seriousness of the reply predated a matter of serious national importance. A little more attention to detail on such issues and a less sloppy approach might have saved Yarl's Wood millions of pounds. We are pretty sure that nobody died at Yarl's Wood, and I hope that that is the case.
Finally, there is the answer where one does not receive a reply at all. Again, I will not mention the Minister's name, but he is one of my hon. Friends. I wrote a 165WH challenging letter about public funding. Not only did I not receive a reply from the Minister, but some six months later I received a humble, apologetic reply from the permanent secretary no less. I did not expect to receive a letter from someone so elevated—a letter written by a junior civil servant and signed by the Minister is fine. The permanent secretary apologised and gave some kind of answer, but he did not really respond to my points, which means that either the Minister was never told or the civil servant responsible lost the letter. If the letter fell off the civil servant's desk and was dug up later on, he would think, "Oh God, I have got to reply to this awkward-squad Member of Parliament asking about funding." I hope that this was not the case, but perhaps the Minister was so irritated by the tone of my letter that he decided not to bother. I am sure that that was not so, but it is at least possible. However, the Minister and I debated the matter on another occasion.
Something clearly went wrong. That would not have happened at the TUC in my day—if a member of staff had got to that point, his job would have been on the line. Indeed, one or two people who repeated that kind of poor performance at the TUC lost their jobs because they were clearly not up to it. These are matters of discipline and rigour.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
I am following the hon. Gentleman's point, but perhaps he would look slightly further. One of the big problems is that the TUC is a coherent unit—it is quite small—while some Departments are vast and therefore much more unmanageable. Many questions go out across the United Kingdom to get replies—from the Government office for the south-west, in my case, or from wherever. It is therefore much easier for things to go astray and get lost. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
§ Mr. Hopkins
I do. However, that simply makes the case for more rigour, for more people taking responsibility, for good management and for adhering to rules. Let us take armies as an example: one can say, "Yes, I know we lost the battle, but it's such a big army and we couldn't really keep track of everything." That is not an excuse. I am talking about military matters because I know that the hon. Gentleman has some experience in such things. As a nation we have to get a grip on our bureaucracies, just as we do on our armies, to ensure that they work properly. My brief experience in this place has suggested that it does not work very well in some areas. The report highlights that, and there have been a number of complaints from other Members.
I want to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) about the nature of questions and questioners. Some of us do ask difficult questions and some of us are sometimes challenging, even to Ministers on our own side. We have big debates about big issues within parties as well as between parties and across the House. One debate this afternoon is causing a certain amount of stress in Government party circles. However, the job of an MP is to ask difficult questions. For example, if my local police force does not have enough money and 166WH cannot properly police areas of my constituency, it is my job to go on and on until I get it enough money, and I am not going to ask easy questions, because there is no point. That is just a waste of breath. On the other hand, it is nice occasionally to congratulate a Minister on doing a good job, and I have done that from time to time as well.
Getting such things right is not, to use a cliché rocket science. It is simply returning to some of the disciplines that I think we used to have; some of the disciplines that I have seen and experienced in action. Some 35 years ago, and slightly after that, I used to correspond regularly with civil servants and Ministers. My impression is that standards have fallen severely and need to be raised. I hope that the report and the continuing work of our Select Committee will ensure that standards are raised and maintained for the foreseeable future.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)
Is the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) going to attempt to catch my eye?
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)
In that case, I will call the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White).
§ Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)
First, I apologise for my lateness. However, I was on the Committee when the report was drawn up. I will be brief as I realise that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) wishes to speak.
I have to disagree slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). There is a great temptation to feel nostalgic for some golden era that did not really exist. There is a myopic view that somehow it was wonderful then and it is terrible today. I do not accept that. A lot more is happening today, with more information and more channels available. We have a different style of writing and it applies to a different set of people. We no longer have the same little elite talking to the same little elite.
§ Mr. Hopkins
I appreciate that I may have a rosy view of the past, being an ageing sentimentalist. However, I said that some Departments are much better than others. If we could raise all Departments to the level of the best, we might get somewhere.
§ Brian White
I do not dissent from that at all and have a couple of suggestions. Members are often frustrated when Ministers say that they will write and put a copy in the Library. We have ministerial statements in Hansard. It would be extremely useful if the letters that go to the Library could appear in a section in Hansard, like ministerial statements, so that other hon. Members could see the answers to those questions. Ministers would still be able to write to the hon. Member and to put a copy in the Library, but other hon. Members going through Hansard would be able to see the responses.
167WH One of my problems with the system of parliamentary questions and ministerial answers is that it is difficult to work out the boundaries between Departments. When we ask the same question of different Departments, we either get the same answer from every Department, including the commas in the same places, which does not tell us anything, or we receive an informative answer from some Departments but not from others. I praise the Government for the way in which they are using Westminster Hall for cross-departmental questions, but the cross-departmental answering system for parliamentary questions needs to be reassessed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) mentioned the ideal parliamentary answer. I was at a dinner with Robert Armstrong—he of the terminological inexactitude—when he said that the ideal parliamentary answer is like that received by the guy in Wales who, when he stopped and asked a local person, "Where am I?", was told, after some thought, "You are in a car." It was the perfect parliamentary answer in that it was totally accurate, it was complete and it did not tell him anything that he did not already know. That was an interesting definition of a parliamentary answer.
On cost, parliamentary answers often say that the question is too expensive to answer. However, when we look back to the previous year, we see that there is an answer to the same question. That frustrating inconsistency causes much concern. Will the Minister consider situations for which information is not available, even though it has been previously?
Finally, a lot of the trouble is caused by the design of systems. When they are designed, means should be specified from the start to enable data and information to flow from those systems. Will the Minister, through the Department's review of procurement and IT systems, ensure that accountability is as much a part of the specification as delivery? In that way, a lot of the frustrations of parliamentary questions would be avoided.
§ Mr. Hopkins
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend about systems. My local authority housing department can, at a moment's notice, show on screen all the letters that it has received from me and when it replied to them. As I said, it is not rocket science. I am sure that similar systems could easily be applied to hon. Members' letters to Departments of State.
§ Brian White
There are many more parliamentary questions than letters that local authorities have to deal with, but the point is well made. It boils down to using forethought when designing systems. I urge the Minister to take that on board in the guidelines that he is considering. It is important to recognise that there have been some improvements since the report. The Government's response was right. We need to ensure that the way in which Departments react to Government guidelines continues to improve.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) and agree with the practical points that he made, in particular putting into Hansard the texts that 168WH are to go to the Library, which is less accessible to most hon. Members. However, I have to take up one point. When we debated these matters on 21 March 2002, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) correctly ascribed the anecdote about the driver in Wales to my predecessor as a Liberal Member of Parliament, Mr. David Lloyd George. It was he who, perceptively, said that that was precisely the way in which parliamentary draftsmen approached the issue of parliamentary questions.
§ Tony Wright
To be accurate, we are talking about the same Lloyd George who was the greatest seller of parliamentary honours in our history. That prompted the Committee to take an interest in these matters.
§ Mr. Tyler
I warmly endorse the congratulatory note in the hon. Gentleman's voice, because the Government and their Conservative predecessor have conducted the process far less openly and transparently than Lloyd George did. I hope that his Committee will consider the issue seriously, because it is important.
My point was that even David Lloyd George could see that there was something inherently wrong with the civil service's approach to the problem. I warmly endorse everything hon. Members said on the climate in which the problem has been allowed to get worse, not better.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and all members of his Committee on their assiduous pursuit of the issue. I have two concerns. The first may be of limited interest at the moment, but in a week or two, it may be extremely important. Who knows? The Chairman of the Committee implied that the openness that was so evident in the Hutton inquiry, but that sadly is not so evident in the parliamentary proceedings, did not lead to the sky falling in. As has been said, "Not yet." He pre-empts the outcome. It is extremely important for us to recognise that the parliamentary procedure by which the matter was scrutinised was insufficient, and it had to go outside to a totally independent inquiry for us to get anywhere near the truth.
§ Brian White
Select Committees do not have access to some of the papers that Hutton had. We should therefore be considering that part of the process, rather than the answering of parliamentary questions and ministerial statements.
§ Mr. Tyler
I entirely endorse that suggestion. I hope that after the Hutton inquiry, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and his Committee will have an opportunity to think carefully about ways in which Parliament can perform its scrutinising role and hold the Government more effectively to account in the light of those decisions. My only concern about what the Chairman said this afternoon is the snail's pace of reporting back to the House. As he said, the Committee is now considering the two years subsequent to the ones 169WH that we are considering. I have concerns about several, more recent issues. I do not blame the Committee, but I do blame the House authorities and the Government for the way in which these matters come back to the House. We must be able to accelerate the process, because what we are discussing is ancient history, which is most unfortunate.
I draw particular attention to paragraph 45 of the ninth report, which mentions an issue that was discussed this afternoon and that I raised in the House on 11 June 2002. It refers tothe internal guidance of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) claiming that civil servants were instructed to determine whether a Member was 'friendly' before deciding how to respond.In paragraph 47, the Committee took a very strong view. It says:We believe that Members have a justifiable concern that the standard of answer to parliamentary questions may vary between departments, and potentially, may vary between different Members…We will report our findings as part of our next annual report on parliamentary questions.I am disappointed that the Chairman could not refer to that. I presume that that is one of the matters that is still being discussed.
As the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) said, it is a scandal that, too often, the input into the answer of a straightforward parliamentary question takes account of the political allegiance or the degree to which the Member is a loyal Government Back Bencher, rather than the integrity of the answer. That is a serious issue. It was serious then, and it is serious now. I hope that the Committee and the Government are considering it very carefully.
One of the Committee's recommendations, to which the Government's response also refers, mentions a recommendation of the Procedure Committee. I am bound to say that I have real misgivings about relaxing or making concessions to the Government on the number of parliamentary questions until we have greater transparency and the Committee's report, which deals with the sort of concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, is fully implemented. The House should not give way until the ethos to which the hon. Member for Luton, North referred has markedly improved. I and my colleagues are dubious about making such concessions. We want to be sure that the House gains a real increase in transparency, which will allow us more effective scrutiny and accountability, before making any such concession.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
The Clerks of the House talked to the Select Committee about that matter. They have seen a massive growth in the number of questions and they point out, in an entirely honourable way, that many Members use questions in order to say to their constituents, "Look, I have asked an awful lot of questions." I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is not what PQs are designed for.
§ Mr. Tyler
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but there is a happy medium. We may want to have the restriction suggested, but the quid pro quo should be that all 170WH Ministers should be prepared to take on board not only the letter of the Select Committee's recommendations but the spirit also. I shall give a number of examples in a moment.
§ Mr. Hopkins
Is the hon. Gentleman interested in asking whether there has been an increase in letters drafted by special advisers rather than by civil servants? Might not that be part of the problem?
§ Mr. Tyler
The hon. Gentleman touches on an extremely important point. Indeed, I drew it to the attention of the Wicks Committee because of the important implications. The Wicks Committee has examined the problem, although we have not yet made real progress on the role of special advisers and on ensuring that the integrity and political impartiality of civil servants is properly protected. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase and the Committee recently produced an excellent draft Bill for the civil service. It is long-awaited. Indeed, it was part of the agreement between my party and the Labour party before the 1997 election that there should be such a Bill. It would be inappropriate for me to go off on that tangent during this debate, but I strongly endorse that initiative. It is the answer to the problem.
§ Brian White
If the hon. Gentleman is praising the report he must know that we praise the role of special advisers, which we put in context. He continues to perpetuate the myth that there is something wrong with special advisers. The report highlights the valuable role that special advisers play in ensuring the political impartiality of civil servants.
§ Mr. Tyler
Methinks the hon. Gentleman protesteth too much. I have not commented on the role of political advisers, but I have said that it is a proper subject for debate. I am glad that the Committee has considered it. If my memory serves me right, he was alone on the matter, and some sort of minority report was necessary. I shall leave it to him and other Committee members to sort that out.
I will give some examples of precisely what I have in mind. Recently, the Government's real commitment to openness was interestingly revealed by the ombudsman in a response to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor). That interesting case has already been mentioned. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the ombudsman, ruled on a submission of a colleague of mine about a complaint by a Mr. Rob Blackie against the Cabinet Office. That followed a refusal to give a sufficiently factual basis for an answer to a parliamentary question.
The ruling, which is available in print, stated that all factual information, including briefing notes to Ministers on draft parliamentary answers, should be released into the public domain and that non-factual information should be released if the balance of public interest required it. The ruling also made it clear that, on the issue of non-factual information, each document should be assessed on its merits rather than Departments pursuing a "class approach". It will thus be impossible for a Minister to claim that information does not exist if it does exist, or to ignore for political reasons relevant information provided by civil servants. 171WH David Hencke, the well-respected correspondent of The Guardian, who reports on such matters, described that as a victory for the Liberal Democrats after a two-year battle with the Cabinet Office. In reality, it is a victory for Parliament, but sadly it underlines the point that has already been made: we should not have to resort to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to do our job properly. We should be able to do it without having to go that far.
It is important for the Government's sake that they fulfil the obligations in question. Otherwise, a stream of requests will go to the ombudsman, which will be far more time-consuming than doing up front what they should have been doing all along. My colleagues and I will be watching carefully to see how Ministers implement the ruling. It will be to their advantage—in cost terms as well—if they are forthcoming with the relevant information rather than waiting for an ombudsman challenge and ruling.
We need some overwhelming evidence that the Government are turning their good intentions into reality. I should welcome hard evidence of the permanent disappearance of the bad habits adopted by Ministers in successive Governments before we agree to any concessions.
On blocking, I asked the Prime Minister on 9 July 2003 what I hope all hon. Members will agree was a perfectly reasonable question:how he intends to fulfil his undertaking to make the House of Lords more representative and democratic"—words, of course, from the Labour manifesto. I was referred to an earlier answerto the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) on 7 July 2003, Official Report, columns 617–18W." — [Official Report, 9 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 853W.]The latter question was specifically and narrowly concerned with the proportionate representation of political opinion in Northern Ireland in a revised second Chamber. That in turn was answered by a reference that went back six months to a reply givento the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on 15 January 2003, Official Report, column 632W."—[Official Report, 7 July 2003: Vol. 408, c. 617W.]That hon. Gentleman's question was:To ask the Prime Minister if it is his policy that the political balance of the House of Lords should be maintained prior to the implementation of legislation completing the second stage of reform.The answer was a straight bat:While the way forward on reform of the House of Lords is still under consideration, arrangements for identifying new members of the House remain unchanged. Membership of the House is kept under ongoing review."—[Official Report, 15 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 630W.]That was scarcely very revealing, even on 15 January. Two weeks later—by which time, of course, the Prime Minister had announced a complete change of Government policy and was in favour of a fully appointed House—it would have been misleading. After the debates that took place in the House on 4 February the answer in question was absurdly economical with the truth. To trot it out again, twice, six months after that was not just misleading—it was deliberately designed to deceive the House, and frankly that was ridiculous.
172WH I hope that the Committee, in its current review of what has been happening in recent years, will consider that sort of example. It does no good to the reputation of the House or the Government. Quite apart from the bizarre attempt to avoid giving an accurate and up-to-date answer, the whole episode appears to demonstrate a refusal to honour the spirit of the promises made to the Committee, and through it to the House, on the issue of ministerial accountability.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)
Before the hon. Gentleman continues, and with the aim of keeping the proceedings in order, will he confirm that he is not implying that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) was deliberately deceiving the House?
§ Mr. Tyler
I am sure that that cannot be the case, Mr. McWilliam. However, some element of the preparation of answers by those in the Prime Minister's office cannot have taken full account of the six-month delay following the original answer, which meant that the matter had become totally out of date. I hope that even at the highest levels of Government, careful consideration is now under way of the criticisms made by the Committee and by hon. Members of all parties this afternoon.
The Chairman of the Committee raised an issue in relation to questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). As he rightly said, an extraordinary situation arose. My hon. Friend sought information that had, I think, been published in a previous year. It was said not to be available, although it was then found that it was available, as the hon. Gentleman said. We cannot have such situations. It may be, as the hon. Member for Luton, North said, that the mechanics—the technical equipment, the methodology—are not in place to ensure that such silly mistakes are not made. I would hope that such matters are receiving proper attention and resources.
The subject of delays is familiar to us all and has caused great concern to the Speaker. Many issues have been raised about delays, so it does not help that, in tackling the subject of delays on questions, the Committee is itself so far behind the experience of Members. Indeed, it has taken from March 2002 until now for the House authorities to find a suitable opportunity to debate such matters, which is a concern.
There are times when Departments use delays deliberately. For example, I mentioned in a previous debate a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) had raised. He asked for a decision on funding to fire authorities in England and Wales for additional costs following 11 September 2001. Coincidentally, on the morning of 27 February 2002, the press office of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—the Department then responsible—issued a news release, No. 2002/0072, entitled "Fire service to get £53 million in new funding". That release said that it was an answer toa parliamentary question from David Borrow MP (South Ribble)".That question had been listed neither in the Order Paper nor in Hansard; furthermore, it was Question 1,623, which was well after my hon. Friend's question, and had a DTLR reference that was 228 after that of my hon. 173WH Friend's question. The only possible explanation is that my hon. Friend's question was quite deliberately held back until a "friendly" Member who had provided a planted question could get the credit for the answer instead of my hon. Friend.
I am not making a simple party political point: I am saying that hon. Members are all equal in the sight of the Government—or at least they should be. There should not be Members who are entitled to preferential treatment and quicker answers than other Members. With your long experience in the House, Mr. McWilliam, I am sure that if you were an Opposition Member and had found that a Government Member was receiving preferential treatment when you had asked the same question, you would be as indignant as I am. The incident does no good for the reputation of the Government or, indeed, the House.
On maladministration, when we last debated ministerial accountability for parliamentary questions, a Department of Health official had recently been dismissed for repeated falsification of records pertaining to written answers, which stretched back to June 2001. I hope that the Minister will assure us that that could not happen again. What improvements have been made in the Department of Health and other Departments to ensure that there can be no repetition of such incidents? Is there a standard internal audit mechanism in the parliamentary correspondence sections of all Departments? I hope that there is.
The issues are important. As has been said, hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that the Public Administration Committee does an admirable and important job on our behalf. It is perfectly true that our scrutiny of what goes on in the Government will not rise or fall dramatically due to improvements in how parliamentary questions are answered, but it is an element in the important job of accountability. I hope that the Committee's recommendations in the report—indeed, in any reports that will be issued in the next two years—will result in real improvements in the transparency, political integrity and non-partisan approach that we expect from the professional civil service. I particularly hope that we will get more light and less heat out of the system. It would be a welcome development, at least in the short term, if the annual report could appear rather more speedily after the Session in question; if it could be replied to within the time that the Committee's Chairman has said the Government aspire to; and, most importantly, if it could be debated while the period concerned is still fresh in Members' minds, so that we can accurately monitor the Government's record.
It is not satisfactory that we constantly have to raise such issues on the Floor of the House. That is not an effective way of dealing with these problems. It has been a long wait since the previous report, and during that period the improvement we all hoped for has not occurred. Parliamentary questions, whether oral or written, are an important means by which hon. Members hold the Government to account.
The machinery for answering those questions should be improved to a level that is not only genuinely consistent with the aspirations of transparency that we 174WH so often hear about, but displays the spirit of openness that is called for by Mr. Speaker, by the guidance to Ministers and their officials, and by the Public Administration Committee. I strongly endorse the views of the Chairman of the Committee, and I look forward to an early report on the subsequent years, as he intends.
§ 4.1 pm
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
I start by echoing the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that the Committee has been engaged in an extremely important exercise. It is welcome to be able to debate the report today, but we should have been able to debate it more timeously. We should be able to deal with the matter annually, so that the information is totally up to date. The Committee and its predecessor have a proud record going back to the mid-1990s of bringing this matter to Ministers' attention and pressing for improvements. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), as Chairman of the Committee, should be congratulated on continuing that tradition.
Parliamentary questions are probably the best tool that a Member of Parliament has to elicit information from the Government, and it is possible, through a series of parliamentary questions, to tackle an issue and really get to the root of what is going on. Having said that, it is nowhere near as effective as the sort of procedure we have seen in the Hutton inquiry, where the powers available to Lord Hutton have been much wider. The ability to conduct serious cross-examination of a witness, whoever that witness may be, is something that our system still does not really provide for.
It speaks volumes that when the Committee wrote to all Departments asking them to explain the reasons behind their refusal to provide information in response to questions, after seven initial responses and a lot of prompting, the final response was only received 10 months later. We should not think of that as some rare aberration, which does not reflect a deep-seated malaise in Government circles.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) raised the issue of the exemption that is used to deny access to information requested in the question. That has been raised three times by the Committee, and the tone of frustration that he described, which comes through clearly in the paragraph of the report that he cited, is all part of the same picture. It is not just in parliamentary questions that we see such examples. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said in quoting from the ombudsman's case involving the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), what we are seeing is a culture in operation.
That was true of a recent ombudsman's case involving my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It did not involve a parliamentary question, but the issues are similar. My right hon. and learned Friend asked for early access to some of the detailed technical documents underlying the Treasury's assessment of the euro. The Government denied that request, but what the ombudsman said about the way in which the request was treated is interesting.
The ombudsman said that the Treasury did not regard the Leader of the Opposition's letters as being a request for information and thus for consideration under the code. The ombudsman's letter continues: 175WHHowever, this seems to me to put far too literal an interpretation on Mr. Howard's letter. It is clear that his purpose in seeking a change of approach was to achieve early access for himself and the wider public to the information contained in the studies. I therefore consider that the Treasury should have treated Mr. Howard's letters as information requests to be considered under the Code, and I criticise them for their failure to regard them in that light.The ombudsman described in the next paragraph the permanent secretary's comment and said:since Mr. Howard's request concerned the release of specific documents rather than information, it fell outside the terms of the Code. That is not so. While the Code gives no right of access to documents per se it does give a right, subject to exemption, to the information contained in them; and both the present Ombudsman and her predecessors have taken the view that the release of actual documents is often the best way of making available information that is recommended for release.The point is that the permanent secretary interpreted the rules literally and narrowly, saying that as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was asking for a document, he could not have it, instead of focusing on the importance of trying to provide information to someone who was seeking it in the public interest. That is not the only example of such an approach to the Leader of the Opposition. When he was conducting his campaign on Government targets, every possible excuse was used to refuse to answer parliamentary questions until the Opposition came up with their own figure for the huge number of targets, at which point it was suddenly not a matter of disproportionate cost. The purpose of that approach was to hide the rattling skeletons in the closet.
It is welcome that the Government now say that they will provide information to the Committee within 20 days. Let us hope that that happens. The background is considerable continuing dissatisfaction among Members about the way in which the Government handle such matters. The Procedure Committee undertook a questionnaire and found that 60 per cent. of Members thought that written questions were effective in bringing information into the public domain, but more were dissatisfied with the speed of answers than were satisfied: 45 per cent. were dissatisfied and 44 per cent. were satisfied. In addition, more were dissatisfied with the quality of answers—28 per cent.—than were satisfied.
I shall give some examples of delay. The Opposition Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), put a written question to the Home Office on 27 January 2003, to which he received a reply on 19 November, 10 months later, stating:I will write to the hon. Member and place a copy of my letter in the Library."—[Official Report, 19 November 2003; Vol. 413, c. 1028W.]Continuing the theme of Whips, on 6 March the Opposition deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), asked a question of the Home Office about administrative grants in his constituency. On 19 November, eight months later, he received the same reply.
To give another example from a distinguished source, during the debate on a previous report on 21 March 2002, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase reported the difficulties that he was experiencing in obtaining an answer to a parliamentary question. He said: 176WHMr. Speaker's statement suggested that aggrieved Members could get in touch with the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. Armed with that fact, I immediately contacted myself about the matter, but I did not know what further action to take."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 21 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 140WH.]I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. We need some sort of mechanism that will break the logjam.
The Library analysis for the end of the 2003 summer term shows that four Departments each had 200 questions unanswered when we broke up. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has noted the increased use of holding replies to delay the response to questions and the use of "in the Library" responses to avoid putting material on the parliamentary record. In that respect, it is worth looking again at the Library analysis of the delays that follow the sending of a "will write" reply. The truth is that the Department will not write very soon.
At the end of summer 2003, 177 "will write" responses to parliamentary questions had not resulted in replies, 97 of which—about half—had been tabled more than three months earlier.
§ Mr. Hopkins
Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence of how many of those questions were politically difficult, or how many of the delays were the result of resource constraints such as understaffing?
§ Mr. Heald
I do not know. That would be a very useful subject for the Committee to examine in a little more detail when it inquires into the matter again, as I am sure it will. What has been happening in the Department for Work and Pensions is interesting. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, clearly it was thought in that Department that it mattered whether a question was "friendly".
When I was a spokesman on health matters, my questions were not answered by the Department of Health, in a process for which an official has subsequently been disciplined. Opposition spokesmen such as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and I were tabling questions and they were being marked off in the Department as having had replies, but we were left wondering where the replies were. When our questions were about when we would get answers on certain matters—I think that I listed about eight or nine, and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon listed a good number—the result was that the Minister looked at the questions and thought, "My goodness, what is going on here?" It is possible, however, that the hon. Gentleman and I were asking quite difficult questions because, as spokesmen, we were well briefed on the issues.
It is important that some of the "will write" replies are published. I do not know whether that is necessary for some of the very long ones, but certainly where there is a useful piece of information, it should come out. I agree with the Committee that there should be a record of those items.
When the Freedom of Information Act 2000 comes into force in January 2005, Members of Parliament will be able to seek information by using freedom of information rights as well as by tabling parliamentary questions. It is possible that hon. Members will test that system. What I cannot understand is why a person 177WH asking for access under that legislation will be entitled to it within 20 days, whereas a Member of Parliament doing so through a parliamentary question will not have that entitlement. Apparently, that is deliberate. During the passage of the 2000 Act, Lord Falconer said:As I said, the terms of this Act do not deal with the relations between a Member of Parliament and the Minister who is being questioned; they deal with a member of the public asking a public authority for information quite separately from Parliament. The Freedom of Information Bill has no part to play in that"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 October 2000; Vol. 617, c. 1270.]It would therefore be possible for a member of the public to write in and be told, "Oh, yes, there is information," and to be given it quite quickly, but for a Member of Parliament to ask a parliamentary question and be told, "Oh, no, there isn't any information," or have to wait 10 months for it. It seems odd that members of the public should have better access to information than their parliamentary representatives. Will the Minister tell us what the implications of that are? If the Freedom of Information Act is setting a standard, surely it ought to apply here.
Turning to matters of commercial confidentiality, there is clearly an element that needs protection, but does the Minister agree that if the Government continue using the public-private partnership approach, on which £50 billion of public money is spent each year, they must be extremely careful how they use the commercial confidentiality argument? I note that since 1997 the percentage of questions that Ministers have not answered on those grounds has doubled. If more use is to be made of the private sector—as hon. Members can imagine, I am not against that—surely there must be some give in terms of providing adequate information to Parliament. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).
Does the Minister agree with the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall about the deliberate use of delay being wrong, and that Ministers should not do that? Earlier this week, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who was the Opposition spokesman in a debate on the Traffic Management Bill, asked some questions, the answers to which he wanted for the debate. In the House, he made this point:I asked the Secretary of State, in a question that should have been answered today because it was a priority written question, what the level of congestion in inter-urban roads and urban roads is against which he intends to achieve"—[Official Report, 5 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 115.]the reduction referred to in the Bill. My hon. Friend also asked a question about street works, but neither of his questions was answered in time for the debate, even though Ministers must have the relevant information, or they would not be introducing the Bill that tackles those issues. Does the Minister agree that it is not good enough for Ministers to delay giving that sort of information, which would inform a debate in Parliament?
It is not the first time that such things have happened. My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) gave evidence to the Committee that he had tabled a question after Second Reading of the Animal Health Bill in November 2001. He received a holding 178WH reply. The substantive reply was received only after the debate, and simply referred him to the Secretary of State's comments in the debate that had initiated the question. Therefore, the purpose of the question—to inform debate in Committee—was completely avoided by the Minister's delay.
I suppose that this point has come up time and again, but in 2001 the Speaker made the following ruling:The House's legitimate expectations are contained in the 1997 resolution on ministerial responsibility. It is the duty of a Speaker to do what can properly be done from the Chair in support of the resolution. It is the duty of Ministers to act in the spirit of the resolution. The resolution says:
'Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with the Government's code of practice'."—[Official Report, 28 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 971.] Is it all weasel words, or do the Government genuinely believe in having a more open arrangement? We need better to inform our debates. In this modern era, when far more information is available, the public expect a better standard than that shown in the examples that I have described.
Finally, would the Minister care to comment on the suggestion that has often been made that the Chairman of the Committee should have a special role? It should be possible for hon. Members to write to him and for him to pass the letters to the Department asking why information has not been provided. The Government should treat that as a serious matter, and a proper response should be made. That would go at least some way to improve the way in which the system works.
§ Tony Wright
For the sake of accuracy, let me respond to the hon. Gentleman's nice point about my taking the issue to myself—I am sorry if I did not explain it adequately before. It was because I wanted to take the matter somewhere other than to myself and to help other hon. Members that we started doing precisely what he is advocating. We are now in routine correspondence with Ministers after we receive approaches from hon. Members. On the whole, we receive positive responses, so we can point to progress on that front.
§ Mr. Heald
The other suggestion was that the Committee should publish the letters if it is not satisfied with the responses that it receives. I hope that that might be part of the procedure. I should be grateful if the Minister outlined more fully the mechanism, how he thinks it is working and how it might be improved.
§ The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander)
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issues arising from the Committee's ninth report which, as we have heard, covers the period to 2002, and the first report of the 2002–03 Session on ministerial accountability and parliamentary questions.
First, I pay tribute to the work of the Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). I echo his words of thanks to all members of the Committee for their endeavours. The Committee has made a valuable 179WH contribution in recent years to our consideration of the issues before us, and I welcome the fact that in many areas we have been able to respond positively and constructively to its many recommendations. I also take the opportunity to welcome my opposite number, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). It may our first debate together, but I fear that it will not be our last, so it would be remiss of me to do anything other than welcome him to his new post.
I shall try to cover the wide range of questions that has been asked, but before I do so I shall answer the questions that were posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). He made a characteristically insightful speech, drawing on his wide experience at the TUC. We had the full sweep of British history—Sidney Webb, Winston Churchill and Stafford Cripps and their respective correspondence with the TUC. However, I would echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White), that it is rather dubious to claim that all things were better in the past and that there has been no scope for improvement in recent years. In my historical research for this debate, I uncovered the answer that was given by one of my predecessors as Minister for the civil service, now Lord Renton. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about how many members of the civil service were men and how many women, he replied, "All of them." We have made some progress in recent years.
The Committee's ninth report was published in July 2002; it incorporated data from the 1999–2000 Session. In December 2002, the Committee published a further report, its first for the 2002–03 Session, which included the Government's response to the recommendations in the July 2002 report. As was kindly acknowledged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase as Chairman of the Committee, the snapshot of performance and the range of issues covered by a debate such as this inevitably come from some time ago. As he observed, it is a huge time lag. The Committee is working on its next report, covering the 2001–02 Session, and that will be published in the coming weeks. I look forward to seeing that report and to continuing with my hon. Friend our dialogue on a range of important issues.
In his contribution of July 2002, my hon. Friend stated that the Government had accepted the Committee's recommendation that Departments should aim to respond within 20 days to the Committee's annual letter concerning ministerial refusals to answer questions. I understand that most Departments have met that deadline in the most recent exercise undertaken. Nevertheless, today's debate is timely in allowing us to consider the issues afresh. In particular, I hope to update the House on our progress since the Committee first published its recommendations in July 2002.
Before turning in more detail to some of the points raised by hon. Members, I propose to restate the framework within which Ministers operate in accounting to Parliament and in answering parliamentary questions. All Ministers are bound by the principles of accountability set out in the ministerial code. As hon. Members will be aware, that code constitutes the set of standards that Ministers are expected to adhere to in the performance of their duties. Ministers also operate in line with the requirements of the code of practice on access to 180WH Government information, which was first published in 1994. That has been a matter of some discussion this afternoon. The code states:The approach to release of information should in all cases be based on the assumption that information should be released except where disclosure would not be in the public interest, as specified in Part II of this Code."Of course, from 2005, Ministers will be subject to the requirements laid down in the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which will replace the non-statutory code of practice and provide the public with a statutory right to receive information. I shall return to the points made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire on that matter.
Let me turn first to the code of practice on access to Government information. I referred earlier to the requirements on Ministers to work within the framework laid down in the code. The code will continue to operate on a non-statutory basis until the implementation of the 2000 Act. In its July 2002 report, the Committee addressed several issues about the way in which the code of practice is used in answering parliamentary questions. In particular, the Committee recommended thatwhere departments withhold information under an exemption of the Code of Practice they cite the relevant exemption in their written answers".As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, that is an important point. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire was gracious enough to recognise strongly in his remarks that the Government accepted the Committee's recommendation in their response published in December 2002. The Committee described that asan important step towards openness and the protection of the public interest, and we warmly welcome it".As our response indicated, in September 2002 "Guidance to Officials on Drafting Answers to Parliamentary Questions" was duly amended to make it clear that the relevant exemption under the code of practice should be cited if information is withheld.
Several contributions, not least the last, focused on dissatisfaction with the quality of answers that have been provided by individual Ministers to Members. Of course, Members can raise their concern with the responsible Minister first and foremost, but the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire raised a specific point on the role of the Public Administration Committee in that context. As the Chairman of the Committee reiterated today, the Committee continues to play an important role in championing specific cases on behalf of Members with the relevant Department. I am happy to express on behalf of the Government my gratitude for the hon. Gentleman's continued work and for his recognition today that that work is bearing fruit in the responses that have subsequently come from Ministers.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) made a specific point about placing full answers on the record. He was reflecting comments that were made previously by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and that the Committee raised in its initial report, about answers that referred the Member to material deposited in the Library rather than including the text in the response itself. The Committee recommended in its report thatwherever practicable the full answer…should be placed on the official record.181WH Those observations were brought out today by the hon. Member for Bridgwater and earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East.
As we made clear in our response, the Government agree with the Committee on that issue. However, we also stated that there might be occasions when lengthy material would have to be deposited in the Library as it would take up too much space in the official record. Subject to that caveat, the normal practice will continue to be that information will be placed on the record.
On the other point that was raised—the virtue of having a report every year—I can do no better than return to the original recommendations of the Committee, which state:We hope that this report, and those in successive sessions, on parliamentary questions will be debated in the House, either in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber.Clearly, it is a matter for members of the Committee to determine whether they see virtue in a debate such as this, and for the Government to respond to the Committee's request.
The role of the parliamentary ombudsman has been raised many times this afternoon. As hon. Members acknowledged, the parliamentary ombudsman has an important role to play in investigating complaints under the code of practice on access to Government information, to which I referred earlier. I propose to update the House on the progress that the Government have made in recent months in strengthening their working relationship with the ombudsman in relation to handling cases under the code. As I have said, the Government accepted the Committee's recommendation in its July 2002 report that the relevant exemption under the code of practice should be cited when information is withheld. The guidance to officials was altered in September 2002 to ensure that that point was made clear to them as well.
If a Member is not satisfied with an answer, they can, of course, raise the matter with the Minister. However, if the Member remains unhappy with the response received from the Minister, they may ask the parliamentary ombudsman to investigate under the code of practice on access to Government information. Members present who serve on the Public Administration Committee will be familiar with those aspects of the ombudsman's work.
Let me update the House and members of the Committee on developments that have taken place in the months since the Committee's reports were published in July 2002 and December 2002. Last July, in response to another of the Committee's reports—its third report of the 2002–03 Session, on "Ombudsman Issues"–the Government published a memorandum of understanding between them and the ombudsman's office, which set out an agreed framework for handling future cases arising under the code.
The memorandum makes it clear that all requests for information received by Departments should be dealt with within 20 working days in the case of simple requests. The time can be longer if significant searching or collation of material is required. It also makes it clear that when the ombudsman undertakes to investigate a complaint, Departments are expected to respond in full 182WH to the ombudsman within three weeks of receipt of the statement of complaint. The memorandum reflects our intention that Departments should be as helpful as possible towards the ombudsman, and our intention to ensure that complaints under the code are dealt with promptly and efficiently.
In Ann Abraham's appearance before the Select Committee on 27 November—
§ Mr. Hopkins
I have a simple request. Would it be possible to respond to all letters with an acknowledgment card by return of post? That would at least show that all letters had been received and were receiving attention.
§ Mr. Alexander
That is a characteristically interesting observation. Like many other hon. Members across the House, I have some experience of trying to reconcile the virtue of replying quickly to constituents who write to me with a postcard from my constituency office saying that we are in receipt of the letter, and the potential frustration that simply receiving an acknowledgment letter or postcard could cause. Clearly, Ministers are responsible for the conduct of individual Departments. My instinct is to say that the best way forward is to secure as prompt a reply as possible to the substantive issues in the question, rather than simply create another layer of potential bureaucracy in the system.
I have some concerns, however, in relation to the specific points that were raised, not least with regard to the Department of Health. I will say a word or two about the difficulties that were encountered and the Government's response, but for the moment I will return to the appearance of Ann Abraham, the parliamentary ombudsman, before the Select Committee on 27 November. What she says bears repeating in relation to the way forward, and in particular to how far advanced we are in taking forward the memorandum of understanding that I worked for with the Government through the Cabinet Office, which was agreed with the parliamentary ombudsman. In her appearance, she stated:I do think that the Memorandum of Understanding that we agreed with government which was published in July was a positive and constructive move and it is helping us and it is helping government to understand what the Code is about and it is certainly helping us in our discussions with government departments on individual complaints to remind them of their responsibilities. It is a bit early given that that in effect has only been going for a few months. What I am doing is monitoring the situation closely and I would hope after six months of its operation to actually be able to do a proper review of how effective the Memorandum has been".We look forward to receiving the ombudsman's interim assessment of the operation of the memorandum in due course.
§ Mr. Tyler
In that context, will the Minister address the recent decision by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—the ombudsman—in the case to which I referred? In terms of the quality, rather than the speed, of responses, does he feel that it is satisfactory for Members to have to go to the Parliamentary Commissioner to get the additional information on which answers are based? Does that not also refer to the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about the need to consult the 183WH freedom of information legislation to get speedy and accurate answers in future? It is surely unsatisfactory for the Government's position to be that we, as Members of Parliament, must go to external sources to get what we should be able to get directly from Ministers on behalf of our constituents.
§ Mr. Alexander
By raising that matter, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated me. First, I will set out the Government's position on the substantive point that he made about some of the recent coverage of the ombudsman's report. Secondly, I will endeavour to address the point, which was also made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, about freedom of information.
The release of factual information in response to a code request relating to background notes is accepted, but the Government reserve the right to withhold such information where it is not already in the public domain and where the harm likely to arise from disclosure outweighs the public interest. We remain of the view that if background notes to parliamentary questions are routinely released in entirety on demand, it is likely to constrain the ability of officials to offer frank and candid advice to Ministers. It is not always easy to separate facts from opinions in advice.
I would caution against reading the specific conclusion of the ombudsman's report as a general ruling relating to all matters about background briefing notes for parliamentary questions; it was a ruling relating to a specific question raised. Some of the press coverage of the most recent report by the ombudsman did not accurately reflect the more narrow terms of reference that Ann Abraham set for herself when it was released.
I turn to another point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made prior to returning to the substantive point on freedom of information. The Department for Work and Pensions has come in for sustained scrutiny by several Members this afternoon. On the conduct of officials and the role of Ministers in marking of notes when preparing to answer parliamentary questions, I return to the point made by the Committee in its report:In response to a number of written questions, the new Secretary of State at DWP, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Smith MP, said 'Guidance notes have been produced for many years to assist officials who help prepare answers to parliamentary questions. Until now they have been produced by officials without clearance by Ministers. The reference in the guidance notes to the question being 'friendly' is not appropriate and has been deleted'. Mr Smith also placed a copy of the guidance in the Library.There is little that I can add to the comments of the Secretary of State. Needless to say, I endorse entirely the sentiments behind the points that he made.
§ Mr. Alexander
I will certainly consider the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The Cabinet Office is responsible for the guidance issued, and I will bear in mind what he says in relation to that specific point.
184WH I offer some reassurance to the House about the more general point that the hon. Gentleman made about the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In essence, the questions from the hon. Members for North-East Hertfordshire and for North Cornwall suggested—implicitly, by quoting the noble Lord Falconer—that hon. Members would be at a disadvantage once the Act was established.
The Act is fundamentally blind to those requesting information, so it would be wholly wrong to suggest that its implementation would systematically and routinely disadvantage those Members of Parliament who wished to raise matters directly with Ministers. The Act does not distinguish as to who seeks information; it certainly does not distinguish between Members of Parliament and members of the community. It places an obligation on public authorities, including Departments, to provide information.
Clearly, parliamentary authorities will want to consider whether there is further scope, and whether in years to come the House authorities should give further consideration to the relationship between Parliament and the Executive in the light of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act. It would, however, be wholly wrong to interpret what I am sure most of us would agree is a significant step towards openness and transparency as disadvantaging Members, when we all stand to benefit from the greater openness and transparency that implementation of the Freedom of Information Act will secure.
§ Mr. Heald
I am very grateful to the Minister; he is being generous with his time. However, does he agree that the absolute minimum for a Member of Parliament is that they should receive information that is as good as that received by a member of the public who submits a request under the Freedom of Information Act? Surely, the rules on replying to parliamentary questions make it clear that an MP will get at least as much information as a member of the public would when submitting an information access request? I hope that one would get a little more.
§ Mr. Alexander
The fundamental accountability of Ministers to Parliament is a clear constitutional issue. It is inviolable and is in no way undermined by the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, so we should not regard it as disadvantaging Members. The absolute requirement of holding Ministers to account to MPs of all parties remains in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Any future consideration that must be given to the nature and speed of Ministers' replies must be based on a clear understanding of the enduring importance of the fundamental constitutional principle that Ministers are accountable to Parliament. I do not accept that the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act will in any way undermine that fundamental right of MPs to hold the Executive and individual Ministers to account.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am very grateful for the Minister's statement, which is extremely helpful. I thank him for it, and congratulate him on it. However, I hope that he will take back to his colleagues throughout Government a firm commitment that any new methodology necessary to implement the promise that he just gave will be in place by this time next year. I am afraid that all the 185WH evidence suggests that we often lag behind our own legislation in that respect. He gave a valuable undertaking that parliamentarians will not have less access to information than the general public, for which we thank him, but we need further assurance that that undertaking will be implemented. Hiding behind the House authorities is not good enough.
§ Mr. Alexander
Kind and characteristically generous though the hon. Gentleman's words are, he is tempting me down a path of being unable to follow through the undertakings that he suggests I have made, which I resist. Let us be clear about what I said this afternoon. I said that the inviolable right of Parliament to hold Ministers to account remains and endures. The Freedom of Information Act will be implemented in 2005. It does not distinguish between who seeks the information. However, there is a role for the House authorities, if they are concerned, to question how Parliament holds Ministers to account in the years to come, but that is a matter for the Public Administration Committee, the Procedure Committee and any other body in the House that may have an interest. I assure hon. Members that Ministers accept their responsibility under the ministerial code. There are also long-standing parliamentary conventions under which we are, and continue to be, accountable to Parliament.
§ Tony Wright
May I try to be helpful? Surely, if the Freedom of Information Act has the consequence that we all hope for, it will produce a change in the way in which Governments do their business, which will have a good impact on citizens' requests. It will also have a good impact on MPs' requests. The most recent case was published by the ombudsman's office and was mentioned today. Its central point concerns the following:I have seen nothing in the papers to suggest that the Cabinet Office have considered the harm test in relation to each individual item of briefing.In other words, the Cabinet Office did not go through the mechanics of applying the harm test to information that sat inside a class of exemption, and therefore did not do what was required under the code—then the Act. I hope that moving into the statutory territory will ensure that all Ministers, whether they are dealing with Members of Parliament or members of the public, will develop a mindset that will make them predisposed—indeed, in law they will have to do it—to going through the procedures that will result in information getting out rather than ensuring that it does not get out.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)
Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be just that. The hon. Gentleman's intervention was almost the length of a speech.
§ Mr. Alexander
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase raises a characteristically constructive and important point. Indeed, a process of 186WH transformation and education is under way across Whitehall with a view to implementing the Freedom of Information Act. In the spirit of candour that results from discussing freedom of information, I can inform the House that only yesterday I held a meeting with a ministerial colleague from the Department for Constitutional Affairs, to discuss the readiness of our respective Departments for the implementation of the Act. I was able to assure my colleague at that meeting that work is being taken forward not only at ministerial level but at official level throughout my Department. I am sure that that is being echoed in all Departments.
In that sense, the rather benign scenario set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase has a reasonable prospect of coming to fruition. Officials and Ministers are undergoing a process of education on the effect of the Freedom of Information Act on the internal procedures and workings of Departments. Continuing progress needs to be made between now and the implementation of the Act. However, significant progress has been made—not least in my Department, to which my hon. Friend referred in his question—and that progress is reflected in other Departments.
The final point that I want to touch on was raised by—
§ Mr. Alexander
To be fair, I have been generous in giving way and I am keen to make progress, not least to respond to the specific point, raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall and touched on by the hon. Gentleman, about events at the Department of Health.
In its ninth report of 2001–02, the Committee highlighted events that occurred at the Department of Health during the 2001–02 Session. Following criticism in early 2002 about the time that it was taking to answer PQs, the Department uncovered evidence of what appeared to be the systematic falsification of records in the parliamentary section; it also found some procedural defects in the handling of parliamentary questions. We have heard from at least one hon. Member today who suffered as a result of that systematic falsification. However, as the Committee acknowledged, the Department learned from that experience and has put in place several measures to combat the risk of abuse, and to improve answering times. Of course, those matters are now the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. I would certainly be happy, if hon. Members wished it, to draw those remarks to his attention.
We recognise the important work that has been undertaken by the Select Committee over a number of years. I assure hon. Members of the Government's continuing response to the matters under discussion. We are determined to continue making progress.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Five o'clock.