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Parliamentary Questions

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

25. What assessment she has made of the completeness of information given in answers to parliamentary questions. (195469)

As I have stated in the past, the Leader of the House keeps the quality of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions under continuous review.

On the assumption that every Whitehall Department has now abandoned the traffic light system that was formerly used to filter out embarrassing questions, will the hon. Lady confirm that she will use her good offices to urge the Treasury to provide me with an unambiguous answer to questions that I have tabled today about the use of No. 11 Downing street by charities, including the Smith Institute, rather than the obfuscatory ones that I have received hitherto?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, all Ministers understand the importance of answering parliamentary questions fully, truthfully and in a timely manner. He has only just tabled those questions, so I am sure that he can expect an answer in accordance with the usual timetable.

As regards answers to questions put by Members of Parliament, the House will be aware that it is Government policy to have more out-of-hours GP services. However, when I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Health on the number of GPs who operate the service, I was told that that information was not collected centrally. The Government must have the information centrally in order to have made their policy in the first place, so will the hon. Lady urge the Secretary of State for Health to provide the relevant information, or alternatively will she confirm that the policy was made on the hoof without any supporting evidence?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is aware that questions can be answered only within certain cost limits. However, I undertake to get in touch with the Secretary of State for Health and raise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House talk to the Leader of the House to see whether we could have a much more efficient system to monitor, check, report back on and improve the quality of written answers? I suggest that either the Modernisation Committee or a sub-committee, on a cross-party basis, could do quarterly reports on what the standards should be and whether they are met.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we are waiting for a report on written questions from the Procedure Committee. It will be more appropriate for us to consider the issue that he has raised when we have received that report.

Is the hon. Lady aware that many hon. Members believe that if they table difficult questions for the Government, the Government respond to the question that they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that actually was asked? Will she confirm that in the folder with the answers for written questions is a note from the permanent secretary reminding Ministers that the answers have to be factually correct, fit the requirements of the question and be produced swiftly? That was the practice during the Major Government.

As I explained in my previous answer, the 1997 parliamentary resolution on ministerial accountability was incorporated into the ministerial code. It is absolutely specific:

“Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments and…Agencies”.