The Leader of the House was asked—
Ministerial Announcements (Guidance)
The ministerial code is clear. When Parliament is in Session the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament, and I regularly remind my colleagues of this.
I thank the Leader of the House for his answer. He said the ministerial code is clear. That seems strange to me, because the statement we heard from the Chancellor yesterday had a familiar ring to it—I had read most of it in the Sunday papers. Will he clarify again whether the ministerial code should be observed rather than ignored?
Well of course it should be observed, but I think the hon. Gentleman chooses a rather poor example for his argument. There was a great deal in the Chancellor’s statement yesterday that came as a complete surprise to this House and to the wider world, both in the economic forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility and in the many specific measures. The autumn statement truly showed that announcements are being made in Parliament.
I am not sure how much that would add to my fearsome reputation, although I am always happy to attempt to add to such a thing. We have not had any shortage of capacity to make oral statements here on the Floor of the House. I think there have been 38 statements in this Session so far and we have always been able to accommodate them. If we ever get to the point where they could not be accommodated, we should look at the point my hon. Friend makes.
May I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)? Has the situation not gone so far now that everything in the autumn statement should be announced through the press? At least then we would have a chance to debate it all in advance, rather than it being used by the Chancellor to pull a rabbit out of the hat in a political sense by announcing it in the House in that very unfair way?
Opposition Members cannot have it both ways. Well, they can try to have it both ways—we have heard both arguments from those on the Opposition Back Benches. That perhaps shows that everything relating to the autumn statement was presented in the correct way. As someone who served as Leader of the Opposition when Alastair Campbell was advising the Government of Tony Blair, I do not need any lectures from anybody about announcements being made in the press rather than elsewhere.
The Office of the Leader of the House of Commons provides guidance to all Departments on the practice of answering parliamentary questions. The guidance advises Departments that Members should receive a substantive response to their named day question on the date specified and should endeavour to answer ordinary written questions within a working week of being tabled.
The Government’s official guidance on written questions requires answers to be both accurate and truthful, and not highly politicised. Yet written answers recently received from a number of Ministers, most notably a Minister of State from the Cabinet Office, have been of a party political character. Will the Leader of the House ensure that his ministerial colleagues are aware of the proper processes to be followed when answering questions?
If the hon. Lady has issues about the speed with which questions are being answered or their content, that is clearly a matter she can raise with the Procedure Committee. It is best that she provides the background information, but if she wants to provide me with the examples she has mentioned, I would be happy to follow them up with the relevant Secretaries of the State.
May I follow up that point and remind the House that in recent months the Procedure Committee has invited two Secretaries of the State and their permanent secretaries to appear before it to explain their lack of performance? If Members of any party have any concerns about the content or timeliness of their answers, they should bring the matter to the attention of the Procedure Committee.
I am grateful for that point of clarification or information. When Departments want to respond promptly, they can do so. I have frequently quoted the ability of the Department of Health, for example, to respond to 99% of questions within the appropriate time scales, and I am now happy to be able to refer to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has been able to respond to 100% of them within the appropriate time scales.
One of the Secretaries of State dragged to the Procedure Committee was from the Ministry of Justice, which provides one of the worst examples of Ministers dodging their responsibilities and parliamentary scrutiny. Under the current Lord Chancellor, fewer than one in five questions was answered on time in the last Session. That is because, as he has admitted, his own special advisers are vetting every answer. Do we not need more substance and less spin from Ministers?
I was very pleased to speak in the UK Youth Parliament’s debate in this Chamber on 14 November. The level of debate was extremely high, and I have ensured that all relevant Ministers have been made aware of the contributions that took place.
Mr Eddie Fenwick, the Member of the Youth Parliament for Newark, sends his thanks to the Leader of the House and Mr Speaker. He hugely enjoyed the day. One topic debated was the franchise and whether 16 and 17-year-olds such as Mr Fenwick should have the right to vote. Perhaps surprisingly, polls suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds do not want to vote because they feel they do not have the confidence to address the issues. Would my right hon. Friend consider providing a debate on raising the quality of political education in this country to increase confidence among young people?
I send my regards to Mr Fenwick and everybody who took part in the Youth Parliament debate, which was an extremely encouraging spectacle, concerning the level of education and commitment of young people to political debate in this country. There are strongly held views for and against lowering the voting age to 16—including among young people, as my hon. Friend says—but I continue to encourage every possible effort to raise the level of political education and discussion, including this week at the 25th A-level politics annual student conference, which a couple of thousand students attended and I addressed.
Without youth workers, there would be no election of, or support for, members of the Youth Parliament, so will the right hon. Gentleman make representations to the Cabinet Office against the destruction of youth services nationally, so that this great fantastic institution of the UK Youth Parliament can continue?
I am sure that this great innovation will continue, because it has real momentum, and young people are fascinated by it. Hundreds of thousands took part in the decisions about which motions should be debated. Local authorities have an important role in supporting the Youth Parliament, and it is important that they continue that support in whatever way they can.
Let me again place on record my thanks to all the staff who made that day so successful. I wonder whether you, Mr Speaker, have discussed with the Leader of the House the possibility of extending the opportunity for young people to speak, perhaps in another Chamber such as Westminster Hall. It has been suggested that we might afford them slightly more time in which to deal with the issues that they feel are so important.
I join my hon. Friend in placing on record the thanks of—I think—all Members to the staff of the House, who did a great deal to make the Youth Parliament possible. It is worth considering the idea of extending the time available to them by enabling some of them to sit in other parts of the House, and I am sure that we can look into that together, Mr Speaker.
The Government are committed to publishing draft clauses based on the Smith commission report by 25 January 2015. I will report to the House in due course on further progress in relation to the devolution of powers within the United Kingdom, and on the consequences for England.
As the House considers the report, there will be much talk about how combined city authorities can become the vehicles for devolution in England. That will make it increasingly necessary for authorities to come together in the west midlands, where there is still no agreement. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the position of shire counties and rural areas is fully taken into account, so that everyone in England has an opportunity to benefit?
That is an extremely important point, and, as a north Yorkshire Member of Parliament, I am certainly very conscious of it. There is a huge opportunity for local authorities to take up the challenge that has been taken up by Manchester, and to reach the same agreement with the Chancellor. However, this does not only involve metropolitan areas or conurbations; there are also major opportunities for county councils and rural authorities in general to make such plans, and we should encourage them to do so.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on delivering the Smith commission’s conclusions into legislation, but does he share my worry that the voice of rural communities such as North Yorkshire county council, and indeed the moneys for transport infrastructure and other projects, may well be adversely affected if the plans for the city region and the northern powerhouse go ahead in the form that I fear that they may take?
It is of course important for the whole concept of the northern powerhouse to work for people throughout the north of England and for rural as well as urban areas to benefit from it. Given the locations of our constituencies, my hon. Friend and I will both be very insistent that that should happen. It is certainly possible for the whole of the north to benefit from the uplift in prosperity, skills, transport infrastructure and superfast broadband, because the Government have put together a stronger set of measures for the north of England than any other Government in recent decades.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is well aware that my constituents are very keen on English votes for English laws. How will he implement that, and how does the Smith commission recommend that it—as well as devo-max in Scotland—should be implemented in a way that will not lead to a break-up of the Union?
The Government will shortly publish a Command Paper setting out the options for what have become known as English votes for English laws, as well as plans for further decentralisation within England. I hope to publish it before Christmas, and will seek to make a statement in the House, following which we shall all be able to consider together how to proceed with those plans.
May I ask the Leader of the House how far he intends to take the logic of English votes for English laws, given that with the devolution to Greater Manchester I will no longer be able to vote, as a Greater Manchester MP, on many of those issues, but will be able to vote on those same issues in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency?
I have invited the Opposition to present their own proposals, but they have refused to take part in any discussions with the Cabinet Committee. I wrote last week to the deputy leader of the Labour party to ask it to present its proposals that we could publish in the Command Paper I have just been talking about. I have not yet had any positive response to that. The hon. Gentleman might want to encourage that response. It is very important of course that whatever solution we arrive at is fair to all parts of the United Kingdom, but that includes being fair to the voters of England as well as to the rest of the UK.