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Written Answers: Reference To Departmental Websites
12 February 2001
Volume 622

2.52 p.m.

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will refrain from answering Parliamentary Questions for Written. Answer by referring the Peer who asked the Question to a

departmental website, instead of including the information in the Answer and publishing it in the Official Report.

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My Lords, it has been the practice of successive administrations to refer to departmental websites when appropriate. Naturally, access to all such websites referred to are available within the Libraries of the House as well as to the public. This is in line with the Government's stated aim of encouraging the increased use of electronic facilities.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Perhaps I may point out that I asked for a Written Answer to the simple and important Question: how many people claimed asylum in 2000? The Answer was that I could get the information from the departmental website. I did so by applying to a lady in the Library who produced, an hour or two later, six pages of detailed statistics. The website was listed as www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/index.htm. I mention that in case the public want to know. Within those six pages the answer to the simple question was on page 3. The figure was 76,040. Is it not in the public interest that that should be in Hansard instead of people throughout the country having to grab the information somehow from a departmental website of which they may not have the reference?

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My Lords, I am enormously impressed by the noble Lord's grasp of modern technology. I am enormously impressed by his grasp of the address of the Home Office website. I was aware of the Answer to which he has just referred. I had the opportunity of speaking to my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton who answered it. The noble Lord was keen that there should be the most detailed and thorough Answer imaginable. However, having discussed it we agreed that it might well have been better if the figures which answered the Question had been given in Hansard as well as on the website.

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My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking that Her Majesty's Government will take another look at this Question? Traditionally, it has been the function of the executive to assist Members of Parliament whether in this House or another place. The obligation is not discharged by the executive, which in so doing exhibits a curious attitude towards Parliament. It does not lie in the mouths of the executive to put off or in any way obstruct the desire of Members of this House or another place. It should answer fully the Questions put down on the Order Paper.

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My Lords, the complaint cannot be that we did not answer the Question fully because pages of material were made available in answer. However, as I made clear in answer to the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, my noble friend Lord Bassam and I agreed that it might have been better if the specific figures had been given in the Answer as well as referring the noble Lord to the website for greater material.

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My Lords, does the method by which the Government replied to the Written Question of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, have anything to do with reports that Internet studies are now to be given priority over the reading of Shakespeare?

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No, my Lords; it has nothing to do with that but relates to the Government's desire to try to improve electronic communication. I do not resile from the point made in reply to the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Renton: although there was much information on the website, it would have been more convenient to Members of this House if the specific figures had been given in the Answer. I have made that clear.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that in many respects the Home Office website is a much easier place to access information than Hansard? After a few weeks one cannot remember the date of the Answer. Is the Minister aware that the Home Office website has been improved enormously in recent months? Not only can one obtain the statistics for which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, asked but also many other important pieces of information which are not readily available to the public. However, the public can access the websites for free in local libraries or elsewhere.

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My Lords, that is a compliment to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, who is the modernising Minister in the department.

There is a serious point here. As a result of there being a website, a vast amount of information about government departments is more accessible than otherwise would have been the case. I entirely agree with the noble Lord.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is the responsibility of Ministers to ensure that the Answers given are correct? It is not a question of convenience but of principle. Answers should be given in the Official Report and then placed on the website, and not the other way round.

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My Lords, questions of judgment are involved. My noble friend Lord Bassam and I agree that it would have been better if the numbers had been given.

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My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, who signed the Answer as "Lord Steve Bassam". That sounds awfully friendly but I did not know that he was the son of a Duke or a Marquess.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the public have access to Hansard and although they may have access to websites and so on they may not have the exact reference required. In any event, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, said, is it not much better that the well established parliamentary practice relating to constitutional importance should continue? I am glad that it will.

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My Lords, it is surely right that the figures should be given; and that there should be a reference to the website where more material can be found.