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Parliamentary Questions

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009

1. What steps she is taking to ensure the completeness of answers to parliamentary questions for written answer. (277946)

4. What steps she is taking to ensure the completeness of answers to parliamentary questions for written answer. (277950)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I are fully committed to making sure that Ministers give faithful, honest, complete and timely answers to written parliamentary questions. We keep the matter under continuous review.

I have to say that I am generally very pleased with the quality of the answers that I get from the Department for Transport, but occasionally—possibly because I am at fault, not having tabled the question precisely enough—the question could be open to misinterpretation. I was pleased a couple of weeks ago to get a call from an official at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea asking for clarification, but more recently, I rather suspected that I had been fobbed off with an answer to a question that the Department would have preferred to have been asked, rather than to the question that I asked. Could officials be asked to take the opportunity to speak to Members more often to find out what information they need, so that Members do not have to table another question and incur more expense?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good suggestion. In one particular case relating to some questions to the Department for Transport that he tabled, I have followed up on the problem that he had. I think that there was a misunderstanding in the Department, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), wrote to the hon. Gentleman this morning to say that he will make clear the precise situation and make a proper correction to Hansard.

When the Prime Minister said that he could not implement the full police pay rise of 2.5 per cent. at arbitration, but could pay only 1.9 per cent. because of the impact on inflation, I tabled a question to the Chancellor asking what the difference would be to the overall inflation rate if either pay rise were implemented. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave a long-winded answer that did not address the question. The Office for National Statistics could provide an answer, however, which was that either figure would not have made a blind bit of difference to the overall inflation rate. Clearly, the answer had not been given because it was embarrassing to the Government. Could we make sure that accurate and full answers are given, even if the information might embarrass the Government?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the Government should provide truthful answers, whether they embarrass the Government or not. I also take the point about providing timely and full answers, which is why this week I wrote to three Departments where there have been difficulties in providing enough timely answers. There is sometimes an issue with the numbers of staff who provide suggested replies to Ministers, and sometimes there is a problem for Ministers: for instance, one Minister in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, answers 600 questions a month. Obviously, that is a pretty severe stress.

I had a sneaking suspicion that the hon. Gentleman might raise the issue of his question last year. I should not say that the three, or perhaps four, paragraphs of the Chief Secretary reply were long-winded; if anything, they were not quite long-winded enough. In fact, on the fuller letter and the question that he asked me previously, I did some following up for him and I think he has had a more substantial answer that goes into some depth about all the issues that he raises.

We have had repeated assurances from the Leader of the House that Ministers’ written answers will have attached to them all relevant information, so that it is easily accessible to other Members as well as to members of the public who may read Hansard. It simply is not good enough that Ministers make reference to the “information being in the House of Commons Library”. Earlier this week, however, I received a reply from the Department for Children, Schools and Families concerning the number of children who are taken into care. It is a serious subject that is of huge interest to a number of Members across the political divide as well as to members of the public, and the information referred to was not so long and complex that it could not have been made easily accessible and published in Hansard. Will the Deputy Leader of the House undertake to have a word with the Children’s Secretary, while he still is the Children’s Secretary, to ensure that in future his Department supplies all relevant information in a format that is easily accessible to other Members and to members of the public?

I am absolutely sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. Ministers should not provide an answer that refers somebody to some obscure, other document, even if it is in the public domain. That is why I am happy to write again to Ministers and to ensure that we speak to the Cabinet Secretary, so that civil servants, via the permanent secretaries, also understand the expectation that hon. Members should not be fobbed off with a half or two-thirds answer, but receive a full answer. My only hesitation is that, before the Government came into power, in 1996-97, there were only 18,439 written questions; in the last Session, however, there were 73,357. Departments have to manage the process properly, so that we have high-quality, timely, faithful and honest answers in every case.