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Leader of the House

Volume 580: debated on Thursday 8 May 2014

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions (Ministry of Justice)

5. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the time taken by that Department to answer written parliamentary questions. (903912)

On 10 March, I submitted to the Ministry of Justice a named day parliamentary question for written answer that—nine weeks later—is yet to be answered. On 26 March, some two weeks after the answer was due, I submitted a chase-up question to inquire when the original question would be answered. To date, neither of those questions has been answered. What is worse, my assistant in Westminster has telephoned the Department weekly, and each and every time he has been told that an answer is being finalised. I am concerned about the time taken for such questions to be answered. It makes it impossible for Members to hold the Executive to account, and it is a discourtesy to my constituents if Ministers simply do not answer these questions.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Like other large Departments, the Ministry of Justice receives a very large number of questions, and given the complex nature of its business a thorough response can take time. However, I agree that in the case of his particular question, it is simply not good enough: there needs to be a response. I know that the Secretary of State for Justice will want to take on board the hon. Gentleman’s complaint, and that he will in future ensure that Members receive timely answers setting out the information they need.

I am very disappointed that the Deputy Leader of the House is not prepared to take up this case, and I hope that he will now promise to do so. The Procedure Committee’s report on the Government’s answering of written questions makes for very uncomfortable reading for many of his colleagues. Only the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had a greater deterioration in performance than the Ministry of Justice during the last Session. Further to the previous exchange, will he clarify whether the Ministry of Justice is covering up information or is just completely incompetent?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to the answer that I gave to the last question. We have taken up the issue and I have indicated strongly that the Secretary of State for Justice needs to ensure that there is a response. The Secretary of State for Justice does not have the worst performing Department. I am sure that it is a matter of the Department ensuring that a detailed response to the question is provided, rather than the cover-up that the hon. Gentleman implies.

Parliamentary Questions (Use of Library)

6. If he will ensure that Ministers place documents in the Library in accordance with their answers to parliamentary questions. (903913)

This is a matter for individual Departments. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Office of the Leader of the House provides best practice guidance on answering parliamentary questions to all Departments, which states that if reference is made to documents in response to a parliamentary question, copies of the documents must be placed in the Library.

On a number of occasions, I have received answers to parliamentary questions that say that information has been placed in the Library, only to find that it has not been placed there and that it does not arrive until quite a while later. Before we get into naming and shaming Ministers and Departments, will the Deputy Leader of the House take steps to ensure that that poor practice does not happen again?

I agree that if an answer to a parliamentary question refers to information being deposited in the Library, that should happen in a timely manner. I would be happy to remind Departments of the requirements and to take up any cases on behalf of the hon. Gentleman, should he wish to give me the details. We tried to identify the question to which he was referring. If he provides that information, we will follow it up.

Much as I hate agreeing with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), he is absolutely right on this occasion. The worst of it is that the Leader of the House is about—I have a sneaking suspicion—to let all Ministers off the hook, because the moment he prorogues early, all the questions lapse and no Minister has to do anything. I urge him not to prorogue until the day before the Queen’s Speech, so that Ministers have plenty of time to get all their answers in order.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am certain that all Departments will do everything they can to ensure that questions are responded to before Prorogation.

Scrutiny of the Government

As a result of the changes that have been introduced in this Parliament, such as the election of Select Committee Chairs, the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee and more generous approaches to permitting urgent questions and allocating time for debating legislation, the ability of the House to scrutinise the Government has been much enhanced.

I asked the question because that is my view also. I was very taken by the letter that you read out, Mr Speaker, from the Clerk of the House, for whom I have the greatest respect. He said that the House is

“a more effective scrutineer of the executive, and more topical, relevant and independent-minded”

than he has ever known it in his 42 years of service, so we must be doing something right.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I trust that it will not be interpreted as engaging the Clerk in the debate to say that I hope that Members throughout the House agree that what he said is absolutely true. It is important for such scrutiny to take place. I hope in the debate this afternoon to enhance the ability of this House to demonstrate to the public, whom we serve, that we not only debate the matters that are relevant to them, but use the opportunities that we have to hold the Executive to account.

However much the processes and procedures of the House have been improved, the Government seem to be trying to subvert them by having extremely long recesses. My understanding from the Table Office is that Westminster Hall will not sit again until 17 June. If, as we all expect, the Leader of the House is about to announce that we will rise on 14 or 15 May, it will mean that for more than a month we will have no opportunity to scrutinise Departments in detail. Will he at least agree to bring forward the Westminster Hall debates to 10 June?

The hon. Lady slightly anticipates what would more properly be a business question. At this stage, we tend to have Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech at this time of year rather than November, so they come together with the traditional Easter and Whitsun recesses. That creates a change in the structure of the calendar rather than necessarily an overall reduction in time spent in debate.

Initiation of Legislation (Local Authorities)

9. What scope there is for local authorities to initiate legislation in Parliament; and if he will make a statement. (903917)

Under the rules of the House, local authorities may initiate legislation by way of private Bills, which may make specific provision for their local authority area only, as opposed to amending the general law of the land. There have been six such private Bills before Parliament this Session.

Given the great initiatives of the 19th century to reform towns and cities around the country and recent initiatives such as Liverpool’s push for smoke-free public places and Canterbury’s action on street traders, and as we have a zombie Parliament, in which the coalition can agree no business, will the Leader of the House invite local areas to come forward with initiatives for their communities?

First, of course we do not have a zombie Parliament: we are about to have a Queen’s Speech that will set out a detailed programme of government. The Government do not have any plans to review the procedure that the hon. Gentleman mentioned for private Bills, but we would be open to considering other ways in which such business could be transacted.