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New rules will let ministers off hook, MPs warn

Unanswered questions can be binned in October

David Hencke, Westminster correspondent
Wednesday September 8, 2004
The Guardian

Government ministers who want to dodge awkward questions from MPs are being given powers from this month to put the queries in the bin.

For the first time, MPs who fail to get an answer before the end of the annual session in October will be told they have to resubmit the same question or it will dumped. If this had happened a year ago, more than 1,500 questions would have been binned.

The government's decision - announced in a written statement by Peter Hain, the leader of the house, on the eve of the recess in July - has provoked outrage from the Tory frontbenches and anger from backbench Labour, Liberal Democrat and nationalist MPs. MPs who are beginning to realise what the decision means intend to challenge the leader of the house this week when parliament returns.

Mr Hain yesterday strongly defended his decision as part of a package to improve parliamentary accountability and accused his detractors "of completely misunderstanding what I want to do". He said he had written to cabinet colleagues telling them they must not use the new rules to avoid answering questions. But neither the opposition nor backbenchers believe him.

Oliver Heald, the shadow leader of the house, said: "These are new powers which give ministers the right not to answer anything. Instead of burying bad news, ministers will simply not give it."

Llew Smith, Labour MP for Blaneau Gwent, who has asked more than 1,000 questions since he was elected 12 years ago, said: "It is a pity the leader of the house has not designed a system to ensure ministers do their duty to answer the important questions MPs put to them... rather than creating a system to allow ministers avoid answering questions at all, if they delay long enough."

Adam Price, Plaid Cymru MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, said: " It takes long enough to get answers as it is. This would simply allow ministers not to give them at all."

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, said: "Even when you get an answer after a long delay it is often unsatisfactory. I am planning to take one cabinet minister, Margaret Beckett, to the parliamentary ombudsman for failing to provide an adequate reply."

The changes followed protests from MPs about the huge increase in ministers' promises to write to them during the recess and put the answer in the Commons library. These answers are never published in Hansard - and are sometimes never deposited in the library. Such cases have jumped from 432 in 2000 to 1,556 last year. The worst offenders are the Home Office and Ministry of Defence, the latter partly because of the Iraq war.

David Blunkett's department holds the record for the number of "I will write" answers issued on one day: 150. Part of the problem is caused by increased activity of MPs.

Parliamentary democracy appears to alive and well with a record 79,000 questions asked in 2002 and 60,000 questions asked last year. This compares with between 40,000 and 60,000 questions asked under John Major.

One Conservative MP, Graham Brady, who represents Altrincham and Sale West, found that MPs can wait more than 100 days for an answer. The record for the longest wait for an answer is 132 days from the Department for Culture, followed by the Department of Health and the Foreign Office.

Mr Hain conceded yesterday that the growth in replies put in the library was a serious problem which had to be tackled. But he added: "Both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office are very busy departments and do get an enormous number of questions."

He insisted that his changes would improve public accountability. "At present, when answers are put in the library they just disappear.

"The new system will mean that all answers will be published in Hansard the moment they are put in the library and made available online. I believe that these new arrangements will substantially reduce the number of 'I will write' replies, and make the subsequent responses much more accessible both to other members and to the public."