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Leader of the House

Volume 507: debated on Thursday 11 March 2010

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

20. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues to ensure the completeness and timeliness of answers to parliamentary questions for written answer. (321525)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter in the House on previous occasions—for instance, in points of order on 9 and 23 February—and that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised it in a point of order on Tuesday. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I take any concerns felt by Members about this very seriously, and we have held meetings and written to Ministers about their performance in answering parliamentary questions.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for taking the matter seriously, but I am afraid that her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions apparently do not. However, she will be pleased to learn—as, I am sure, will you, Mr. Speaker—that some progress has been made since I raised my point of order: only 19 of my questions are now outstanding, although eight have been outstanding for more than a month. At least the Department has answered my question about how many named day written questions it does answer on time—and I am sorry to say that for the last three years it has been the pitifully low proportion of 30 per cent. The position has not got worse, which is something, but it has not got any better either. In the few remaining weeks of the current Parliament, what efforts will the Deputy Leader of the House—and, indeed, the Leader of the House—make to persuade the Department to take its responsibilities to the House seriously?

As the hon. Gentleman says, we have taken specific action in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions. The previous Deputy Leader of the House wrote to the Department and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I met a Minister and officials to discuss their performance. My office recently spoke to officials again. The Leader of the House has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and both she and I spoke to the Secretary of State yesterday.

I can tell my hon. Friend that many of us are given a very good service by most Departments, but I have one caveat: when the Cabinet Minister representing a Department is in another place, I find that I receive much slower service from the Department concerned.

We have accepted recommendations from the Procedure Committee, and new procedures will operate in the new Parliament. There will be regular monitoring of late answering of questions, and further work will be done on challenging unsatisfactory answers. Better guidance on answering questions has already been provided for Ministers and officials, and the Prime Minister recently wrote to Cabinet colleagues reminding them of the need to answer questions both fully and in a timely manner.

Back-Bench Business Committee

21. What discussions she has had with hon. Members on the means of implementing the House’s decision to establish a Back-Bench business committee in time for the start of the next Parliament. (321526)

The Leader of the House will table a motion to give effect to the resolutions of the House that were agreed following the recent debate on House of Commons reform.

I think the whole House is pleased to hear that, and we should acknowledge that, but it is only half the answer to my question, which involves whether the “Wright” Standing Order will be brought forward. I hope the Deputy Leader of the House accepts that the most appropriate procedure would be to consult the Wright Committee members whose amendment, essentially, was carried last Thursday, to ensure that the detailed Wright Standing Order, and also motion 62 in the Remaining Orders and Notices—and the Standing Order tabled, too—are submitted to the House for decision. Can the hon. Lady tell us when that is likely to happen?

The Leader of the House has to consider the motions that are required to give effect to resolutions of the House. Having looked at the motion tabled by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, I note that some of it differs both from the recommendations in the Committee’s report and from our debates. Because there are some departures, further consideration will be necessary. However, hon. Members can rest assured that there will be motions giving effect to the resolutions of the House, as the Leader of the House told the hon. Gentleman yesterday. We ought now to be pleased with the progress that we are making.

May I reinforce the importance of this matter, and may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to specify the respects in which the Wright Committee’s proposals do not match what was voted for by the House? If we are to implement what was recommended by the Wright Committee and voted for by the House, a good starting point will surely be the Wright Committee’s own idea of how Standing Orders should be used to give effect to the House’s decision.

The starting point is that some good steps were clearly taken, given that the resolutions were passed overwhelmingly. It is good that we know the will of the House. I can specify one of the details for which the hon. Gentleman has asked. Moving the power that currently resides with the Liaison Committee to the new Back-Bench business committee was not discussed during the debate. There are other differences between the resolutions that we agreed in the House last week and the detail of the motion, but the matter is being considered.

Parliamentary Questions

22. If she will bring forward proposals to provide that hon. Members may only table one question for oral answer to each Government department at each Question Time. (321527)

As I said to the hon. Gentleman in January, the Modernisation Committee concluded that Members should not have to choose between tabling the two types of question. It is for the hon. Gentleman to make representations to the Procedure Committee if he wants to change the way in which topical questions are processed.

Everybody would agree that topical questions are a very good thing, but one of the unintended consequences is that some Members get to ask a Department two questions on one day, while others get no chance at all.

I am in danger of repeating the last answer that I gave on this subject. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but in implementing topical questions, we have not forced a Member to choose between asking a substantive question and asking a topical question. A Member may have a reason for wanting to do both in one sitting. As the hon. Gentleman has said, topical questions are a successful innovation.

It is all very well for questions to be asked and answered, but the Deputy Leader will recall that on 26 November last year during Business questions, she was refreshingly candid in saying that a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions had been rebuked for not answering questions properly—or, rather, was questioned about his accuracy. I note that the Leader of the House has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Questions, but will the Deputy Leader consider publishing a regular list of all offending Ministers with whom there have been meetings, or to whom the Secretary of State has written?

I am not sure that that is necessarily appropriate. We have accepted the Procedure Committee’s recommendations, and in the new Parliament there will be regular monitoring of the number of questions answered later than the conventional answering period of five days. There will also be the possibility that the Procedure Committee can challenge any answers that are considered unsatisfactory. With those two measures, we are feeling our way towards finding improvements. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, are very concerned that we should start to get this right. There has been a great deal of action, and to some extent, we will have to wait and see whether it proves to have been good action.

I am afraid that that simply will not do. The Deputy Leader of the House is on record on numerous occasions as having spoken about openness and transparency, but when she has an opportunity actually to do something about it, she fudges the issue. What is the problem with naming and shaming errant Ministers?

I need to make it clear that I am always happy, as is the Leader of the House, to make representations to any Department on any situation that Members want to raise—and I shall leave it there. I have in the past been clear and candid about where steps have been taken. We are talking about working through issues with one Department, and the matter has been addressed.

Report Stage of Legislation

23. If she will bring forward proposals for the amendment of Standing Orders to prevent programme motions applying to the Report stage of legislation. (321528)

The House has recently agreed to new procedures for managing its own business, including establishing a House business committee in the next Parliament. That Committee would make decisions about scheduling business, including the Report stage of Bills. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be here to see the new Committee operate, but I am sure that he is pleased, as we are, with our progress on Commons reform.

Does not the Deputy Leader think it, both constitutionally and democratically, utterly wrong and unacceptable that a Bill should go to the other place with new clauses and Government and Opposition amendments undebated in this place? Members whose constituencies might be affected by the Bill have no opportunity whatever to participate in the debate.

I have answered questions on this matter time and again. Programming does not always work perfectly, but it does serve to provide great certainty in timetabling the different stages of a Bill; it is, for instance, very helpful in timetabling Public Bill Committees. We must see these changes in the context of the other steps forward that we have taken in improving scrutiny, especially pre-legislative scrutiny and the introduction of evidence taking. Therefore, there are now many more opportunities for the scrutiny of Bills than previously.

Conduct in the Chamber

24. What recent representations she has received on the operation of the Standing Orders governing conduct in the Chamber. (321529)

We have not received any representations on either the current operation of Standing Orders or suggestions for amendments. The conduct of Members in the Chamber is a matter for your judgment, Mr. Speaker, not for Standing Orders.

May I draw the Deputy Leader’s attention to early-day motion 1054? In the natural hurly-burly of debate, it is understandable that a Minister may from time to time say something that subsequently turns out not to be correct—and the Minister then, quite properly, writes a letter to say, “I made a mistake in my remarks in the Chamber.” Is it not right, however, that if a mistake is made in the Chamber, that should be corrected in the Chamber, rather than being the subject of a private letter?

As I understand it, a Minister will correct information only if he was asserting that information. In the situation to which I think the hon. Gentleman is referring, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was challenging some figures that an Opposition Member had given, and that is not a case for correction in the Chamber. When a debate is going backwards and forwards between Members, with comments being made and assertions being made and then challenged, that is not the same as when a Minister has given figures that are then proved to be wrong.