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Accountability (Summer Recess)

Volume 453: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

23. What assessment he has made of the accountability of Government Departments during the summer adjournment. (102890)

The recent introduction of written questions and written ministerial statements in September appears to have been a success. It represents a significant strengthening of existing arrangements for ensuring the accountability of Departments during the summer recess and provides—contrary to the opinion of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—yet another example of modernisation. The House agreed in principle on 1 November that September written questions should become permanent and I will make proposals to achieve that.

Given that there are restrictions in respect of time and number on September questions, yet 730 questions were lodged by 100 Members of Parliament, does it not suggest that it was a considerably useful exercise? Will the Leader of the House consider extending the process to other recesses as well? Since Ministers continue to be Ministers and Departments continue to function during recesses, what interest is served by our not doing so?

I will consider any suggestion that is put to me and I will certainly look at whether we could extend the period for answering questions in September, but there is less scope for doing this in the Christmas and Easter recesses, which are pretty short and a large part of which are taken up by public holidays. I also point out to the House that the number of written questions has risen astonishingly over the past 10 years. Taking three Sessions of equal length—the first Session of each Parliament—there were tabled in the 1997-98 Session, 53,000 written questions; in the 2001-02 Session, 73,000; and in the 2005-06 Session, 95,000. That is about an 80 per cent. increase, and when Members on both sides of the House understandably complain about any delay in answering questions they must bear it in mind that there is a limited resource for both answering those questions and clearing them.

Although there is a general welcome for the tabling of written questions during the summer recess, there is concern that the quality of the replies given is somewhat lacking. What is the Leader of the House doing to assure the House that we will get proper, full answers at the first time of asking, so that Members are not forced to ask lots of supplementary questions?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman on his first outing on the Front Bench.

Ministers make every effort to ensure that questions are answered on time and accurately. I shall continue to make myself unpopular with my ministerial colleagues whenever matters are raised by Members on either side of the House about lapses, but I repeat that the number of questions being asked of Ministers has shot up. For example, three Members have asked 1,100 questions of a single Department—the Home Office—between them in quite a short space of time. A shadow spokesman recently tabled 140 questions in a single day. That is currently their right, but I say to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, that this is not a matter of sport. The House must have a sense of proportion if the system of asking written ministerial questions is to continue sensibly.