Skip to main content

Points of Order

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 7 March 2017

I would like to raise my concern that Ministers of both the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice appear to be evading my very serious named day questions. As colleagues well know, it is intended that named day questions receive an answer within three sitting days, yet I can recite countless recent examples where that timeframe has not been observed—and often completely disregarded.

I am particularly troubled by an answer I received from the Secretary of State for Health to one question. Last year, I submitted a question to ask how often the transfer time for prisoners experiencing an acute mental health crisis exceeded the two-week guidance period. I found that in 2015-16 three out of four cases took longer than two weeks. When I submitted an identical question last month, to get hold of the most recent figures for 2016-17 to date, I was told that the data are not held in the requested format. When I tabled a subsequent question to inquire whether the data collection had changed, I was told that it had not.

I have started to receive a number of answers from the two Departments stating that the data are not held in the requested format. How can the Department of Health possibly defend avoiding answering these questions and withholding vital information it clearly has access to?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. My response is as follows. First, as has been said on innumerable occasions, there is a responsibility on Ministers to provide answers to parliamentary questions that are both timely and substantive. I cannot comment on the question whether the material the hon. Lady sought is held in the form she had in mind, but the central point is that Ministers are supposed to attend to both the letter and the spirit of the inquiry from an hon. Member and to seek to accommodate that Member by providing, as I have said, a timely and substantive response.

Secondly, over a period of years, as Members on both sides of the House will be keenly conscious, it has become commonplace for the record of individual Government Departments on these matters to be published. It seems to me to show very considerable discredit on the part of a Government Department persistently to fail, in a timely and substantive way, to respond to hon. Members’ questions. The hon. Lady’s point of order will have been heard on the Treasury Bench.

The Leader of the House has traditionally seen it as part of his or her duty to persuade Ministers to up their game in these matters. My clear understanding is that the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) recognises his responsibility in these matters. I hope it will not be necessary for this matter to be raised continually on the Floor of the House. An improvement is required.

My final observation is that if this problem persists I urge the hon. Lady to write to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), the Chair of the Procedure Committee, who, on behalf of the House, will, I think, be only too happy to chase progress in this matter.

If I may, perhaps on behalf of the House, I would like to offer good wishes to the hon. Lady for her own health and progress in the next few days. We all wish her well and we look forward to seeing her return to her place in due course.

Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that, for the past two years, Members of this House have been in correspondence with the trustees of the parliamentary pension fund, raising concerns about its investment approach, especially on the long-term financial risks associated with fossil fuel assets, as well as on the fund becoming more transparent and open with Members and former Members of this House. In its 2016 annual report, published just last week, we learned that the fund invested in tobacco, fossil fuels and large-scale tax avoidance, raising a reputational risk for Parliament.

Mr Speaker, can you clarify what MPs might do, using proper procedure, to take this matter forward with the trustees who have so far refused to meet Members? Might you also help to allay the concerns of many Members, perhaps through the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, that the pension fund is leaving this House open to reputational damage and legal challenge?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for notice of what I hope she will forgive me as describing as her attempted point of order. Unfortunately, the fact of that notice, which is extremely courteous of her, does not of itself convert the attempt into an actual point of order. However, I do not in any sense mean to be dismissive. This is a very important matter, even if it is not principally a matter for the Chair. The Chair has, frankly, no responsibility for the parliamentary contributory pension fund, let alone the investment policies its trustees pursue. That said, I acknowledge that the hon. Lady and all colleagues, as well as retired Members, have a legitimate interest in this subject. They are, as she indicates, properly pursued with the trustees. I am sure the ever-alert secretariat of the fund will be reading our proceedings—they certainly should be.

My concluding observation for the hon. Lady is that, although there is no ministerial responsibility for this matter, she might wish to bear in mind the interest of the Leader of the House in the subject. I was somewhat perturbed to hear the hon. Lady say that her pursuit of meetings has so far been unsuccessful. I have come to know the hon. Lady over the past seven years and she is, in the very best sense of the term, an extremely persistent Member. People who think that if they forever and a day refuse to meet the hon. Lady she will go away and drop her point of concern are probably guilty of a triumph of optimism over reality.