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Parliamentary Questions

Volume 501: debated on Thursday 26 November 2009

22. What steps she is taking to ensure that hon. Members’ parliamentary questions are answered by Ministers in as full a manner as possible. (301687)

25. What steps she is taking to ensure that hon. Members’ parliamentary questions are answered by Ministers in as full and timely a manner as possible. (301690)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has today responded to the Procedure Committee report on written parliamentary questions. That response sets out how the Government plan to improve the quality and timeliness of answers to written parliamentary questions.

Which Minister did the Deputy Leader of the House admonish for tardiness most recently, and have things got better since she intervened?

The hon. Gentleman is talking about a very recent meeting with a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions. As it took place only very recently, we would not be expecting that quick a recovery to have been made, but we hope for an improvement.

I note the Minister’s comment about the production of the report. Does it include a league table of the quality, timeliness and performance of Departments? If not, why not?

The Government have accepted the following recommendations: that there should be regular monitoring of the number of questions answered later than the answering period of five days; that better guidance should be provided for Ministers and officials on answering questions; and that further work should be done by the Procedure Committee on challenging unsatisfactory answers. It certainly is a good idea to list performance by Department so that people can see that.

As well as the admonishment referred to by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), are the Government considering any sanctions that would deal with the issue of questions that are not answered in a timely or substantive way?

It is a question of transparency monitoring and reminders at this stage. We have also recently published guidance on answering written questions in a guide to parliamentary work that is published on the Cabinet Office website. There has been a great amount of activity in guidance, monitoring and transparency and we hope that that will do the trick.

In June, I raised the issue of inadequate answers to written questions, because the practice was simply to refer to information being available in the House Library. The then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), said that he would write to every Minister to ensure that that practice did not continue. However, since then matters have not changed, as Members on both sides of the House will confirm. In fact, I have received five replies that conform to the old practice.

For example, a reply on carer’s allowance on 7 July from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), simply said:

“The information has been placed in the Library.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 740W.]

Again, a reply on 12 October from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), simply said:

“A set of tables containing the information requested has been placed in the House Library.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 356W.]

That is not acceptable. Rather than simply going to a Committee and giving evidence, as she has just mentioned, will the Deputy Leader of the House have stern words with her colleagues and ensure that we receive the proper information, particularly on behalf of members of the public who do not have the easy access to the Library that Members have?

It was not me who gave the evidence to the Committee, but my predecessor. I have quite recently had a meeting with an individual Minister and officials, when I used very stern words; I am prepared to do that. I am always happy to consider individual cases. If the guidance that my predecessor set out has not been followed, I would be very happy to take up the cases that the shadow Deputy Leader of the House has raised. Let me reiterate that the Government’s recent response to the Procedure Committee’s report supports further work on challenging unsatisfactory answers. I shall take that forward and I hope the Procedure Committee will decide to do so, too.