John Hemming's Web Log John's Reference Website
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
  Letter to Tony Blair
Yesterday I sent the following letter to Tony Blair:

Over the past year I have, as a new Member of Parliament, asked a number of questions of your government. Sometimes this is via a written parliamentary question. On other occasions it is in a letter or an email. Sometimes the questions are asked directly of Civil Servants.

On many occasions I have received a good response within a reasonable time. However, there are frequently situations in which I receive a flawed response, a partial response, an evasive or misleading response or even no real response.

I do believe that your ministers are acting unlawfully in doing this and take the view that these issues should be considered through Judicial Review. I have written to the Cabinet Secretary about these issues, but, at the time of writing, had no response.

I would like, therefore, to summarise all the issues I have identified to date. This will facilitate the judicial consideration of your decision as to how these matters are handled. It is my intention to treat your response as the final remedy within the system of government and the point at which, if there is an unlawful response the matter should be taken to judicial review so as to determine the lawfulness of the response of government.

1. Deficits within the NHS

I have made numerous requests of the NHS and the erstwhile Minister Jane Kennedy for up-to-date figures as to the forecast deficit. The government has at the time of writing only indicated the forecast deficit as calculated for the period 6 accounts. This is clearly not up-to-date and the government has a duty to respond with more up to date figures.

I have made a further request that the NHS Executive issue an emailed copy of the forecast finances to those Honourable Members that request it at a given and reasonable frequency. This request has also been refused.

2. Payments for drugs by prescription pricing authority.

It is my estimate that the government has overspent by of the order of £500 Million on certain drugs. It is also my estimate shared by others that overspending is continuing. I have referred this issue to the National Audit Office. However, I have also requested detailed figures from the Department of Health and the department has failed to give them to me.

3. NICE Economic Model

I have requested a copy of the Economic Model used by NICE to calculate the cost effectiveness of any treatment. It is absolutely crucial that this is done correctly at a time when finance is particularly tight within the NHS. This, however, has been refused.

4. Treasury Economic Model Inputs

I have been provided with a copy of the computer program which is the Treasury’s Economic Model. However, the Treasury continues to refuse to provide the inputs used to calculate the budget forecasts. That is unreasonable.

5. Silent Calls Made by the Health Service

The Health Service are refusing to check which Health Bodies continue to make Silent Calls. The regulations have been tightened up on this recently which means that such bodies could be liable to massive fines if they continue doing this. I am aware that the National Blood Service continues to do this and hopefully is bringing the practise to an end. This is an issue of substantial national significance, but the refusal to even look at the issue as a result of “disproportionate cost” is not correct.

6. Payments to private sector by PCTs

It is unreasonable of the Department of Health to refuse to answer a question as to how much money is put into the private sector as a result of the information not being held centrally. It should be held centrally and that work should be done. Within the context of a very tight financial position in the health service work should be done to keep a reasonable amount of information centrally.

7. Millennium Projects

Ministers are refusing to collate information centrally on the financial position of Millennium projects. That is not in the public interest. Turning a blind eye to this situation is not acceptable.

8. Gas Imports

An incomplete and potentially misleading answer was given by the government as to the situation in respect of Gas Supply for the coming winter.

9. Release of prisoners without consideration of deportation

A rapid review of written parliamentary questions makes it clear that questions such as that of Mike Hancock were not answered relating to the immigration status of prisoners with the reason being given as “disproportionate cost”. It is clear that disproportionate cost is used too frequently and without good cause to answer questions.

10. Council Tax Increase

It is clear that the government has a policy as to what the council tax should be increased by. It is also clear that this has been the case for a number of years and remains so this year notwithstanding the change of the formulae. Your ministers, however, have denied this.

11. Aviation White Paper and Climate Change

It is clear that without the repeal of the second law of thermodynamics that the government cannot both satisfy its own targets in terms of carbon emissions and also require the same increases in aviation as specified in the Aviation White Paper. The Aviation White Paper is causing a lot of planning blight across the country and its assumptions should be urgently changed.

12. Peak Oil Production

The government produces figures for the calculations as to what oil is to be produced without proper reconciliation of different predictions although Sir David King is doing
some useful work.

The legal questions here are those of what rights to obtain information Members of Parliament have in addition to their rights as Citizens of the UK through the Freedom of Information Act. I have done a considerable amount of research relating to this and it is quite clear in the way in which your government is responding to questions from Members of Parliament it is acting unlawfully.

It seems clear to me that this failure to respond to scrutiny is actually resulting in worse government with decisions being based on flawed information and the concentration being upon avoiding embarrassment for the executive rather than ensuring that good decisions are taken.

Clearly any legal test would divide into a number of different issues in respect of answering questions. This would include, inter alia:
a) Failure to answer a question
b) The justification of “disproportionate cost” being used irrationally and unwillingness of department to look for information that is not immediately to hand.
c) The provision of false information as contradictory answers are given (see particularly Aviation)
d) Other provision of misleading and/or false information
e) The absence of an appeal procedure under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Clearly a useful step would be the creation of an independent body to consider situations where the rights of a Member of Parliament for information are considered. The Freedom of Information Act is clearly insufficient and also fails the test of ensuring that remedies are provided in a timely manner as I required under the ECHR.

Could I suggest that in responding to this letter you identify who in the Treasury Solicitors Department is to handle this matter. I have already written my skeleton argument in dealing with the issues concerned and I am sure that we both share a desire for the government to act lawfully.
 
Comments:
Hi John,

I discovered Parliamentary written questions not long after I began publicwhip, and wrote the first parser before discovering what a disappointment they were. My parser has since been adapted into the theyworkforyou parser.

This game goes back centuries, and my definitive account of what goes on is from Clive Ponting's book, "Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce". I fear that your Judicial Review, should you get one, will be treated to the same level of utter contempt as your written questions.

The problem is that there is such a flagrant conflict of interest in requiring minister to provide answers that shows up their mistakes that they feel morally obliged to act as they do. There are no higher principles than their job.

I don't think there's a point in asking for an account from a minister on anything; we can write what they're going to say ourselves, beginning with the premise that the minister is an infallible being. What they mean to write to those questions is: "That information cannot be revealed except at disproportionate cost to my reputation."

Another approach would be to take them at their word when they say they don't have the information. Having stated on record that they do not have the information that's required for a specific decision or statement to be competant, is something that we should use as standard. It should be part of the political dialog: "How can you assert that PFI is better value when you admit that you don't keep the figures centrally?"

Also, Parliamentary questions often work in sets, lines of questioning, interrogations. It's wrong that we present them individually. When they're put into context the mendacity becomes clear. And the people we need to prove it to are your blog commenter TonyF. He has to be able to see that they are wasting our time and money, not us wasting theirs.

I've got a number ideas for this. If you are interested, perhaps we could talk about them and see if we can come up with some tools that would work. I want to lift publicwhip beyond what people normally see: attendance rates and rebellion ratios.

julian@publicwhip.org.uk
 
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