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Leader of the House

Volume 464: debated on Monday 8 October 2007

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

20. How many and what percentage of questions tabled for answer on the three September answer days received a substantive answer on the due day. (156073)

Written questions were tabled, under the new arrangements for September questions, by 136 hon. Members. Fifty-nine per cent. were answered on the specified answering day, with a further 24 per cent. answered subsequently in September. That amounts to 83 per cent. of questions answered in September.

That woeful performance—40 per cent. of questions not answered on the day on which answers were due—shows that the Government are failing to provide the answers that the country needs in a range of policy areas. That, no doubt, is why the Prime Minister was frightened to go to the country to receive the answer to the question that we all want to ask.

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that under the last Government no questions were answered in September, although hon. Members could table them. This is a new procedure. More Members have asked questions on September question days than did so last year. The time taken to answer them, on average, is about the same as the time taken on non-September sitting days. Obviously, we all want all questions to be answered as quickly as possible.

Only in Parliament, during September, was there no debate about an early election. Only in Parliament was there no debate about an international credit crunch, a run on a bank in Britain, foot and mouth disease for the second time, the bluetongue virus and the speculation about when we should call the election. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that written answers are not a suitable alternative to substantive debate about the big issues of the day, and that Parliament should sit in September?

The House did sit in September for two years as an experiment. My hon. Friend will know that on 1 November last year, in a free vote, the House decided not to continue September sittings. He will probably also know that the Modernisation Committee is to consider whether the arrangements for recall of Parliament are sufficiently accessible to Members.

Does the Leader of the House accept that while of course it is helpful to be able to table written questions during a recess, it would be even more helpful if Prime Ministers and other Ministers made major statements to Parliament, rather than to the country from abroad, when a few days later they could be accountable here?

If the House is not sitting and Ministers need to give out information, they have no option but to give it out publicly and not to this House. When the House is sitting, we very much take the view that information should be given to Parliament first.