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Leader of the House

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

The Leader of the House was asked—

Public Bills

2. If she will take steps to ensure that all Government amendments and new clauses to public bills are debated by the House on Report. (250011)

As far as possible, we always try to make sure that the Government do not table new issues on Report and that there is plenty of time for full debate. I have been working with Ministers in charge of Bills to ensure that we do better this year, but I confess that it is an art, not a science. No matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent Members’ loquacity or prolixity.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. Does he recall that during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, huge swathes of Government amendments and new clauses were never reached, which meant that this House failed to do its job in holding the Executive to account and carrying out the scrutiny that the Prime Minister rightly says it is a priority for him to improve? On the Coroners and Justice Bill, for example, will the Deputy Leader of the House give us an assurance that every effort will be made by Government business managers to ensure that this House can debate both Government and Opposition amendments and new clauses? If necessary, will he provide the second day on Report that is so often needed for us to do our job properly?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make sure we do our scrutiny job properly, and that means devoting enough time to every element that needs to be debated. However, he is wrong in the sense that some Government amendments introduced at Report stage are in direct response to requests from the Committee. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering again, but the truth is that that applies to the majority of Government amendments. I have spoken already to the Minister responsible for the Bill that he mentioned. We are trying hard to make sure that we are not introducing new elements and areas of debate and, if necessary, we will try to provide a second day for debate on Report.

Since 1997, there have been 66 criminal justice Bills. That is too many, and too often they merely undo improperly scrutinised earlier Bills, thereby wasting the House’s time. For proper scrutiny, and to avoid that problem in the future, may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we have two days on Report stage much more frequently?

I think that we need to have the right amount of time, but two other things can help. First, my hon. Friend has campaigned for a long time for pre-legislative scrutiny, which is an important way to make sure that we do a better job before a Bill is introduced into Parliament. Secondly, post-legislative scrutiny can identify legislation that is not working or has not been useful. For that matter, it can also be used on legislation that has not been fully implemented. We should take such legislation off the statute book and not let it lie there dormant.

The Deputy Leader of the House will know that the current regime for proceedings on Report was introduced about 10 years ago, following recommendations from the Modernisation Committee. Should they not be reviewed now? How might that happen, given that the Modernisation Committee has apparently stopped meeting?

I am not sure that this might not be a matter for consideration by the Procedure Committee; it has a splendid Chairman, who is unfortunately not able to be with us at this moment, and it does a very good job. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as hon. Members of all parties have occasionally not been satisfied with how the Report stage has progressed. Sometimes, they have confused Committee stage with Report stage, and that has made it difficult for us to do our job properly. So perhaps this is something that the Procedure Committee should look at.

It did not take long for the Deputy Leader of the House to forget that Report stage is the key moment for Back Benchers to scrutinise Bills properly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is not that Back-Bench Members speak for too long, as he suggests, but that programme motions do not take account of the business that is to be transacted? Moreover, far too many Government amendments are introduced at Report stage, not because they respond to points raised in Committee but because, as a result of the idleness or incompetence of the Ministers responsible for the Bill in the first place, they were not ready earlier.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for the Government to consider all the relevant issues before legislation is introduced. We should not bring in new elements after that, so it is important that the short titles of most Bills are fairly tight to render that impossible. However, he is wrong to suggest that the vast majority of the amendments tabled by the Government are new ones of their own devising. The vast majority are concessionary to the Opposition, and sometimes they are even a concession to a good point made by the Liberal Democrats.

Written Questions

3. How long on average it took to answer parliamentary questions for (a) ordinary and (b) named-day written answer in the last five years. (250012)

I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend. Collating the 73,357 questions to 29 Departments, and working out a mean, median or indeed average reply rate has not been possible. However, Departments know that they should answer written parliamentary questions within a working week, and named-day questions on the day that they are for answer. I want to know about it if they are failing to do so. As it happens, the office of Leader of the House has answered 100 per cent. of named-day questions on the day that they were for answer, and 200 out of 202 other questions within five days.

Computers have been around for 60 years, for goodness’ sake. Departments are required to answer questions accurately, promptly and truthfully, but their performance is often deplorable, as I know from my protracted attempts over the past year to extract information about the recording of hospitality for senior civil servants. Does my hon. Friend support my recommendation that Secretaries of State should have their salaries reduced by, say, 5 per cent. for every day over the two-week target that their Departments take to answer the average written question?

I am not sure that I can entirely support my hon. Friend in that suggestion—although perhaps if all Secretaries of State were paid the same as Deputy Leaders of the House that would be an interesting point. The important point that I think he is trying to make is that every Department should answer questions promptly, fully and without any form of obfuscation, and I want to ensure that that is what they do.

The Deputy Leader of the House is being unusually intransparent—if that is a word; I like to make things up—untransparent. [Hon. Members: “Opaque.”] Indeed. Anyway, the point that I am making is that it is beyond belief that an average could not be worked out by taking a sample of questions. My view is that the Government are hiding something. Does he agree?

Funnily enough, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I do not think that I am being opaque. I certainly do not think that I am being intransparent. The important point is that we should ensure that Departments in every area of government answer questions properly on the named day or within the time scale. The vast majority of questions are done so. He may not be happy with every answer that he gets, but the one thing that I undertake to take on—I have been working closely with ministerial colleagues in every Department—is for instance, before Prorogation, to ensure that Ministers do not just suddenly say, “Oh well, prorogation is coming up; we’re not going to answer any questions.” We did better last year than the year before. I also want to ensure that, if there are pinch points in individual Departments and we are not getting sufficient answers swiftly enough, we deal with that.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is it not disgraceful that some of the questions that were not answered had been tabled months before Prorogation? It is a device to allow Departments to get away with it. I retabled all my questions in the new Session, but I hope that he will look into this, because it is not right.

That matter was raised before the last Prorogation, and I wrote to Ministers at the time laying down the rules that govern it. I am very happy to provide a copy of that letter to my hon. Friend and to place one in the Library.

The Deputy Leader of the House tells us that he wishes to be informed where there are lapses. Perhaps he ought to be aware that, at the end of the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, nearly 500 questions, tabled for more than a month, did not receive a reply at all—not even the usual Prorogation reply. Will he look into these serious lapses and tell us what he proposes to do to ensure that, in future, all written questions receive a substantive reply in good time?

The shadow Deputy Leader of the House takes a keen interest in what happens before Prorogation. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I wrote to Ministers before Prorogation to try to ensure that, if anyone was thinking of using such a device to get out of answering a question, they should not do so. Perhaps my letter was sent a little late, and this year we will try to make a better fist of this.

Parliamentary Privilege

4. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the arrangements for parliamentary privilege in protecting the rights of hon. Members. (250013)

The right of Members of Parliament to speak without fear or hindrance, and their duty to speak without favour are essential parts of our parliamentary democracy and will always need a stout defence.

I am pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House rightly considers parliamentary privilege to be essential, critical and vital if Members of Parliament are to carry out their duties and responsibilities without fear, hindrance or favour, but does he not agree that implementation of the statement made some while ago by Mr. Speaker that a Committee should be set up to look into this matter is very long overdue? Bearing in mind not only the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) but the more recent case—I am not entering into its merits—of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), it clearly is time that the House had an opportunity to look deeply at how parliamentary privilege might be safeguarded.

As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know, parliamentary privilege has been fiercely debated for many centuries; indeed, elements of it go back to 1515. It is important that we have a clear understanding of parliamentary privilege. Any hon. Members who have not read the 1999 report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege should do so; it is a fine exposition of the issues. On the question relating to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), I think that you, Mr. Speaker, are likely to cover the matter in your statement in a few moments. On the Committee that was set up, we would be more than happy for it to meet. Unfortunately, we have not had the support of Opposition parties on that. The Committee could choose a Chairman, and as soon as police or any other investigations are completed, it will be able to get on with its business.

I am glad that the Deputy Leader of the House referred to the 1999 report; I was a member of the Committee that produced it. The Government have never implemented the recommendations, even though they indicated sympathy with them. May we have an early debate on that report, with some definitive statements from the Government?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, not least because the report highlighted the significance of freedom of speech, which is vital to our parliamentary democracy. The report reiterated article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689, which says that

“freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”.

There were a series of recommendations. Some of them have been followed through in the business of the House, and some of them have not yet been put into law. The hon. Gentleman perhaps makes a good point about the need for us to have a full debate, so that people can fully understand the nature of parliamentary privilege, which is not quite as some members of the press have suggested it is.