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Points of Order

Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2010

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will remember that on 9 February, at column 771, we had an exchange about the inadequate answering of parliamentary questions by the Department for Work and Pensions, and you gave me what I thought was very sound advice suggesting that tabling a further question on the Order Paper or raising a point of order on the Floor of the House would concentrate the minds of Ministers. I did indeed do that. Before the recess, I tabled a lengthy question asking when a range of questions—up to 30—would be answered. You can imagine that yesterday, when that question was due for answer, I was not very impressed to receive a further holding answer from the Minister of State. It seems to me, Mr. Speaker, in the light of our exchange and the significant number of unanswered questions, two of which date back to last year, that this is a case of Ministers treating the House with contempt. What may I do to get answers from Ministers given what I have already done?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Regular attenders at sittings of the House will know that he is persistent and feisty, probably beyond comparison in the House, in highlighting the phenomenon of unanswered questions or those to which tardy replies are given. He must continue to be persistent. I know that no Health Minister—[Interruption.] Order. I was going to say that no Health Minister is on the Government Front Bench, but the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) is getting ahead of himself. The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) is on the Treasury Bench, and she is always a keen listener; I know that she will hear the point that I am making.

Ministers must reply quickly to parliamentary questions, and the replies that are provided must be substantive rather than merely formulaic. They should not be replies along the lines of “I hope to reply as soon as possible.” When the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) has waited for a period of several days or possibly weeks—this goes for all Members—the Member is entitled to a substantive reply. I hope that it will not be necessary continually to repeat this point. The hon. Gentleman and other Members will be aware that the tracking system means that this information is becoming available for public view, and I have a hunch that he will not wish this matter to remain secret and will probably want to give it the widest possible coverage.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When a Minister gives a holding answer saying that they will write to the Member concerned, how long do you expect that holding answer to last before we get the substantive answer?

It is very difficult to be precise, because—I hope Members will accept the validity of this response—it rather depends upon the terms of the question, how much information is sought and the difficulty and possible cost of obtaining it. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman, whose point of order is helpful, that it should be a matter of only a few days and no more than that. As a matter of course, I should think it very odd, and frankly worthy of comment and objection, if a substantive question did not receive a substantive answer within, for example, a week. We need a timely exchange. That is what Members expect, and I think most Ministers would accept that it is legitimately required of them.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Further to your very helpful statement on petitions, which I am sure the House will welcome, may I ask what the position is as regards electronic petitions? Are they to be recorded on the Order Paper or just in the general official record?

That is an extraordinarily good point of order, to which the answer is that a system of the kind that the hon. Lady hankers after does not yet exist; it is a matter of work in progress. She rightly points to the need for further developments, but work is taking place, and I hope that she will content herself today with the holding answer that I have provided. [Laughter.] I am very glad that the House is in such a good mood—this is all very encouraging.